Social entrepreneurship – The new community engagement

Social entrepreneurship should be the new engagement for individuals and the public and private sectors, with implications for university training – especially in Africa – according to Goos Minderman, public governance professor at Vrije Universiteit in The Netherlands.

Providing an international perspective at an innovation and research day held by the Graduate School of Business Leadership at the University of South Africa (UNISA) this month, Minderman said the importance of business involvement in social networks and semi-public activities could be viewed from two perspectives.

The first was the European view, where the government's role was rapidly changing, and more non-profit and profit-driven partners could become involved in maintaining good education, healthcare and welfare levels.

The second was the African view, where the focus revolved around the importance of business in combatting corruption.

“Corruption has been evolving in the last decades and therefore no social network or social programme can be guaranteed. The battle against corruption is everyone's responsibility in both the private and the public sectors,” Minderman said.

Corruption currently cost South Africa more than R150 billion (US$16 billion) annually and was bleeding around 30% from public sector budgets, substantially hindering delivery on social problems.

“These losses, coupled with inefficiencies, are strongly limiting South Africa's problem-solving potential. United Nations statistics show corruption adds 25% to the costs of public procurement,” he said.

More critically, only 30% of government corruption was detected, and 80% of fraud was committed by employees. More than 70% of South African companies were victims of corruption against the 37% global average, according to auditing firm PWC.

Minderman believes that in this context – and it has echoes across Africa – there is great relevance in universities teaching community engagement, as it potentially provides answers to social problems.

Social entrepreneurship, defined as the means to identify a social problem and use entrepreneurial principles to achieve a desired social change, should be the new engagement for individuals and public and private organisations.

“The public sector has been changing worldwide, being under pressure to become smaller and thus not being the only arena from which solutions will come. The private sector and individuals will be crucial in influencing policies and in creating public value for citizens," he said.

Internationally, no country had a healthcare system that was wholly market organised and working, nor a completely public one that was working. This example demonstrated the dilemma entrepreneurship played in creating public values.

"Business students can add to the new balance and understanding emerging in university training by opening their market thinking to others and finding ways to combine with themselves and other orientations," Minderman concluded.

Community engagement in South Africa

As a core responsibility of higher education alongside research and teaching, community engagement provides a key opportunity for universities to address socio-economic challenges, particularly within Africa, according to Sunette Pienaar, community engagement deputy director at UNISA.

There is policy support for engagement in South Africa. The Department of Education's 1997 White Paper on the Transformation of Higher Education set out broad goals and referred to community engagement as an integral part of the country's higher education process.

It specifically referred to the role community engagement could play in transforming higher education, calling on tertiary institutions to "demonstrate social responsibility" and make available expertise and infrastructure for community service programmes.

"The paper further states that one of the goals of higher education is promoting and developing student social responsibility and an awareness of the role higher education plays in social and economic development,” Pienaar said.

“Consequently, the question arises as to how business students can meld their knowledge to address these challenges in South Africa specifically and Africa generally.”

Less positively, a paper published by the Council on Higher Education in 2010, Community Engagement in South African Higher Education, found that despite clear national policies supporting a critical role for community engagement, it had been neglected.

Universities were involved in many activities structured around research, teaching and outreach entailing engagement with a wide range of communities. However, these uncoordinated activities were the result of individual initiatives rather than strategically planned, systematic endeavours.

One argument was that the lack of progress in implementing community engagement related to a lack of conceptual clarity and reflected a need for a better-theorised understanding of the issues at hand.

The case of UNISA

Internationally, community engagement was increasingly being viewed as scholarship, Pienaar said. Consequently, UNISA’s definition embraced research and teaching involving external communities.

These activities addressed socio-economic imperatives for South Africa and Africa while enriching the university's teaching, learning and research objectives.

Pienaar said the huge distance learning university – it has 350,000 students across Africa – recently became the first in South Africa to take community engagement to the next level by earmarking R37 million (US$4 million) to boost education and teaching in 130 projects across the country.

The move was aimed at "making a real impact" on the lives of different communities. One initiative is the 500 Schools Project, through which a 10-strong department multidisciplinary team is researching South Africa's underperforming schools and developing targeted interventions to boost the quality of basic education.

Pienaar told the seminar that studies conducted in France five years ago showed that the most prolific researchers were those who had the highest levels of public interaction and engagement.

This acutely highlighted the relevance of community engagement which, she stressed, involved scholarship and not public relations. It was an essential issue, not a luxury.

At the international level, Pienaar explained, UNESCO viewed sustainable development as the core of higher education. Consequently, UNISA was committed to placing sustainability and governance on its institutional agenda.

These incorporated the commitments to the Millennium Development Goals and the King III Report on corporate governance in South Africa. UNISA was engaging with Statistics South Africa to establish clear, measurable targets for its community engagements.

"Becoming the African university serving humanity can only be realised if we move past the isolation and insulation of life in academia to break down the walls that separate us from society," Pienaar said.

In a nutshell, community engagement should assist universities to perform their core functions in a more meaningful way.