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Social entrepreneurship: An Australian university transforms a regional community through diversity and innovation

Jeanne McConachie and Jenny Simpson
Central Queensland is a region that traditionally lacks tertiary-educated citizens, and where the higher education graduation rate is consistently lower than the national average. Therefore, a pre-university preparatory program is essential - not only for the lives of many Central Queensland students but also for the community as a whole. Through social entrepreneurship, Central Queensland University has developed an innovative and holistic preparatory curriculum that responds to issues of distance and diversity within the community while transforming educationally disadvantaged adult students into successful learners for the 21 st century. These lifelong learners are impacting not only on their families and communities but also on the university itself. When social entrepreneurship as the university's driver reflects both the philosophy and purpose of the program, innovative curricula and delivery can contribute to a positive transformation of regional communities.

"We need...a way of knowing and educating in ways that heal rather than wound us and our world." (Palmer, 1983, p. 2)

Yeah. My parents have been excited about the STEPS program themselves and the results I was able to achieve.... They have decided they would like to look at doing the STEPS program in the future now that they have seen that I have been able to do something with my life. It is interesting how it affects the older generation but they can learn and have said to themselves, "If my son can do it then so can we". (Sam) (Pseudonyms have been used in this paper.)

The challenge for the higher education sector is not to find another master economic or management theory, but rather to use entrepreneurial skills to provide higher education programs that will encourage all people to develop so they can contribute to their regional and global communities' values and economic outputs. The question in the 21 st century for regional and rural universities is how to perform the role of enabling equitable access to knowledge and information. Communities that recognise the benefits to be gained from having access to this knowledge and information will influence governments to continue to see the relevance of universities outside metropolitan areas. Therefore regional universities have a continuing role to offer programs that will assist their communities to make sense of their own context and values.

To address the recent Australian Federal Government expectations that universities will increase their commercial income and, therefore, become less reliant on government funding (Commonwealth of Australia, 2003), Central Queensland University (CQU) has undertaken many entrepreneurial activities. On the one hand, some of these innovations involve increasing profits by expanding the number of campuses outside the Central Queensland region. On the other hand, some of the entrepreneurial activities address social expectations and values such as the massification of higher education (Bertram, 2001). Today, CQU is tropical Australia's largest university with more than 21,000 students on Australian campuses in Brisbane, Bundaberg, Emerald, Gladstone, Mackay, Melbourne, Rockhampton, the Gold Coast and Sydney. These are augmented by international campuses at Cheng Du in China, Fiji, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.

In a report commissioned by the Queensland Department of Innovation and the Information Economy, Hindle and Rushworth (2002) acknowledge that traditional entrepreneurship is essential in today's tertiary environment. However, social entrepreneurship is also seen as an important building block for the development of regional communities (Oyanagi, 2003; see also Leffler & Svedberg's (2003) useful distinction between external and internal enterprise respectively). Discussion around social entrepreneurship emerged formally in Australia in February 2001, with the launch of the Social Entrepreneurs Network (SEN). Social entrepreneurship is seen as distinct from philanthropy and welfare, in that it is empowered rather than passive. The SEN definition is used within this paper: "Social entrepreneurs are people who use the techniques of business to achieve positive social change" (Social Entrepreneurs Network, n.d., n.p.; retrieved May, 24, 2004, from http://www.sen.org.au/).

CQU has used this focus on social benefits to create learning environments that will produce citizens who will enhance their communities. One highly successful program is the Skills for Tertiary Education Preparatory Studies (STEPS) program that aims to prepare for tertiary studies adult learners who are returning to institutionalised learning, often after many years' absence. Their transformations from sometimes disadvantaged learners to successful university students are achieved through an innovative and holistic program that has the individual at its core. Thus, social entrepreneurship is contributing to the transformation of Central Queensland as these lifelong learners impact not only on their families but on their regional communities as well.


Massification and the need for commercial income have impacted on all Australian universities. In the last few decades in Australia, university-level education has moved from being perceived as being "only for the elite" to what many describe as "massification of higher education" (see for example Bertram, 2001; Commonwealth of Australia, 2003). In addition, many Australian universities are turning to fee-paying foreign students to increase their non-government funds. These recent changes in society's and the government's values and expectations of the higher education sector have increased the likelihood of "entrepreneurship" entering the discourse not only of CQU but also of all Australian university managements. As Timmons (1999, p. 5) states, "entrepreneurship impacts on organizational culture as it is the single most powerful force to create economic and social mobility".

However, not all Australian academics agree with the massification of higher education. The doubters believe that maintaining success rates results in the dumbing down of students and easy marking. University lecturers and managers who perceive that concepts such as entrepreneurial activities that support the massification of education are in conflict with societal values may, of course, be mistaken, yet even erroneous perceptions have real consequences (Jorgensen, 1989). However, Timmons (1999) believes there are enormous benefits, not only to the individual but also to society, because entrepreneurship is opportunity-centred, rewards only talent and performance and is not based on regionality, gender, race or religion.

Nevertheless, the complexity of the subject is demonstrated by the number of competing theories that have arisen in an attempt to explain the entrepreneurial act. Traditionally, writers such as Schumpeter as far back as 1934 identified the entrepreneur as an innovator able to find "entirely new combinations of resources" (p. 83). On the one hand, traditional approaches see entrepreneurship as a rational response to competitive pressures designed to generate above-normal profits for individuals. Schumpeter (1942) certainly perceived that the entrepreneur was motivated by selfish rather than philanthropic needs. Schumpeter was writing over sixty years ago, but his characterisation of the popular stereotype for the private sector entrepreneur of the self-serving figure such as Alan Bond or Christopher Skase is relevant to many Australians' perception of an entrepreneur today (Bond recently served time in an Australian prison for white collar crime, and Skase's estate is being pursued for payment to investors). (Presumably such figures are not necessarily the logical extension of the application of external enterprise as outlined by Leffler and Svedberg (2003).)

On the other hand, some writers have broadened the traditional dimensions to include a trend of using entrepreneurship to inform a particular style of management (Galbraith, 1992) and acts that are not primarily motivated by individual profit. This contrasts with the popular stereotype of entrepreneurship and shows a relationship with civic and community needs. This has recently been called "social entrepreneurship" (Waddock & Post, 1991). For example, Cornwall (1998) argues that entrepreneurship is an important building block for the development of communities. He emphasises the positive role that entrepreneurship can play in civic regeneration. Thus, managers who use entrepreneurship in a way that is philosophically based on developing the community achieve outcomes for the good of the whole. From this perspective, the teaching staff in the STEPS program can be likened to these socially entrepreneurial managers.

Therefore, to assist the university to increase its achievement of social capital by the use of entrepreneurship, consideration must be given to the impact of organisational factors such as the rigid constraints of bureaucracy. This is because, as Stevenson (2000) states, entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity beyond the resources one currently controls; in order to be able to increase output through entrepreneurship, managers need to work within flexible structures and processes.

Whether discussing private or social entrepreneurship, traditional authors see entrepreneurship as a result of individual endeavour (Schumpeter, 1934). Others such as Moore (1998) downplay the focus on the individual and stress the importance of organisational factors in the entrepreneurial process. Moore (1998) asserts that institutional structures and processes shape what managers think and influence what they can do. The importance of context is also particularly evident in the work of Denzin (1989). In our daily lives, he reminds us, we make sense of the world around us; we give it meaning and then interact on the basis of these meanings. As organisational structures may stifle the dynamism of an entrepreneur, creating the "right" environment or culture to encourage entrepreneurial behaviours is imperative not only to the development of preparatory programs but also to their maintenance in times of budget constraints. It is vital that the university management continues to communicate to the multiple relevant stakeholders the identified strategy of offering programs that prepare the sometimes educationally disadvantaged students of the Central Queensland region.

The flexible management structures at CQU aid social entrepreneurship. Elaborating this argument about the civic value of entrepreneurship, Waddock and Post (1991) and Campbell (1998) state that, when social entrepreneurial acts are motivated principally to create social benefit, they demonstrate when and how the higher education sector is being more responsive and responsible to its communities (Giddens, 1997). Within CQU, the flexible management structure has encouraged entrepreneurial and innovative programs to address the changing student base, possibly because the university is a relatively young organisation and is not weighed down by tradition. This lack of tradition within the organisational culture has enabled funding to be made available to assist students to acquire the skills to succeed at tertiary study (Central Queensland University, 2004).

Therefore, using Osborne and Flynn's (1997) and Moore's (1998) findings, a program such as STEPS may represent entrepreneurship within one university while simultaneously representing "developmental" innovation in another. This underlines the point that social entrepreneurship can be considered context specific, reiterating the need to ground theory within the context of specific organisations' structures and cultures.


Central Queensland is a region that traditionally lacks tertiary-educated citizens. Historically, from when it was established in 1967 as the Capricornia Institute of Technology, CQU has maintained strong links with the Central Queensland region; however, a low level of adults with tertiary qualifications has an impact on the younger generation's knowledge and perceptions about their study and future employment options. 1996 figures show that the regional higher education graduate rate stood at 4.8 per cent for the Fitzroy Statistical Division, which covers much of Central Queensland. This was considerably lower than the national average of 8.2% (Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training, 2001).

The establishment of a university within the Central Queensland community increased the awareness that there was a great need for a program that concentrated not only on academic skills but also on the necessary attributes to deal with personal and social change. Therefore, the STEPS program was developed as an entrepreneurial activity to address the social expectations that students who had been previously educationally disadvantaged would have an increased chance of success by being prepared before undertaking tertiary study at CQU.

The philosophy of transformative education espoused by Mezirow (2000) was chosen to underpin the STEPS program (see also Penman & Ellis, 2003). One course in particular, Language and Learning, has been designed to encourage adult learners to reflect critically on their own and others' worldviews to gain an understanding of their experiences and where their beliefs have come from. This understanding will then, hopefully, lead students to act on their transformed judgments. This acting on informed judgments is social entrepreneurship in action.

Its regional responsibilities are taken very seriously by CQU. The university's Statement of strategic intent 2001-2005 (Central Queensland University, 2001) includes the major objective under "Access and Equity":

Build upon the University's strong achievement in access and equity to increase further the opportunities for persons from a diversity of backgrounds to participate successfully in higher education, and implement more effective strategies for recruiting students drawn from diverse backgrounds (e.g. NESB [Non-English Speaking Background], [l]ow SES [socio-economic status], women in non traditional fields). (n.p.; retrieved April 19, 2003, from http://www.cqu.edu.au/strategic2001.htm)
Furthermore, in response to the recent national report on the review of Australian higher education, Higher education at the crossroads (Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training, 2002), CQU described itself as a "work in progress". In her response to the Federal Minister for Education, the Vice-Chancellor and President stated that:
[D]uring CQU's ten years of operation as a university, it has developed a unique profile and a unique position in higher education. The University demonstrates adaptability, innovation and flexibility in its learning and teaching programs, community engagement and research. For CQU to continue its progress and for its future development to be strengthened, several issues have been identified as being critical. Three of these issues are
  1. Protection of access to higher education by people such as those from low socio-economic backgrounds, indigenous people and people with disabilities.
  2. Development of a whole-of-education approach which acknowledges the need for life-long learning as fundamental to securing a position for Australia in a knowledge-based global economy and a competitive global marketplace.
  3. Funding for universities outside of capital cities that acknowledges the greater costs for such universities in providing their communities with a professionally skilled workforce; relevant research; and opportunities for their talented people to develop their talents further within their own communities.
These values have aided the continued development of an innovative and holistic preparatory curriculum that not only responds to issues of distance and diversity within the community but also aims to transform academically able, but educationally disadvantaged, adult students into successful learners for the 21 st century.

Central Queensland University's Management plan for teaching and learning 2004-2008 (Central Queensland University, 2004) states that the university recognises its responsibility to deliver programs that will assist adults who may have been disadvantaged to achieve success through tertiary education. As a result of the STEPS program's success, the program has grown considerably over the years. Initially developed in 1986 as a full-time program with an intake of 15 students in Rockhampton, STEPS is now offered face-to-face, without fees, at CQU's campuses in Bundaberg, Gladstone, Mackay and Emerald as well as in Rockhampton to approximately 400 students a year. As these cities and towns service the Central Queensland region, students from rural and remote areas, who make up one of the initiative's major target groups, are able to take part in this transformational program. Since 1997 STEPS has also been offered part-time and in the evenings. Students who are 19 years of age and who do not possess a satisfactory tertiary entrance qualification can take part in the 13 week full-time or 26 week part-time program. They are chosen on the basis of results in entrance tests, consideration of educational disadvantages, motivation and a face-to-face interview. Personal success and academic success are equally important outcomes of the STEPS program.


Social entrepreneurship, with its focus on social benefits and civic regeneration, allows the creation of learning programs and environments that will produce citizens who will enhance their communities. Timmons's belief that social entrepreneurship provides opportunities for growth for the individual (1999, p. 5) is reflected in a program that has the individual at its core. Such a program takes into account the diversity of adult learners who are returning to institutionalised learning, often after many years' absence.

The majority of these adult learners is being forced into lifelong learning by a rapidly changing world. Some take this in their stride, but for many the prospect is frightening. Dramatic life changes such as divorce, retrenchment, diminishing opportunities in rural communities, long-term unemployment and accidents causing disabilities and ill health all contribute to forcing people to consider revisiting the sort of education that many thought was over. Often, STEPS applicants have unhappy memories of school failure and, as adults, that sense of inadequacy with institutionalised learning still lies close to the surface, despite the fact that many have known success in the workplace. Unmet learning styles for some have left them with the belief that they were failed academic learners; therefore, at first, they find the university environment threatening. However, Knowles and his colleagues remind us that adults learn best when the learning reflects their immediate life needs and are most motivated when their inner needs are met (Knowles, Holton, & Swanson, 1998, p. 172). Thus, many STEPS students are ripe for transforming learning experiences.

Reflecting on their learning journeys, both during and after the program, is for students an invaluable part of STEPS. These adult learners are encouraged to become active learner- researchers into their own learning (Simpson & Coombes, 2001), and at the end of each program and later during their university studies, students are invited to take part in focus group interviews. These interviews follow Kreuger's (1988) model of discussions in a friendly, non-threatening environment that allows participants to share their perceptions of aspects of the STEPS program. The students' voices are valued and their stories celebrated and from 1997 onwards these discussions have provided the STEPS team with invaluable data on the degree of transformation that takes place in many of our learners. Voices from recent focus group interviews are heard throughout this article.

The following student, Sam, although academically able, had worked for years in a Rockhampton abattoir that had recently closed.

... STEPS for me has filled a void in my life ... a void where I felt I was ripped off by the education system ... outdated methods of a dinosaur type.... I thought I had no brains and was never going to make a contribution to society because of my learning experience at school. Got to STEPS and realise, hey, learning's fun! It doesn't only have to be about facts and figures. It's about the whole world around you and how you relate to it and that's exciting and that's what I want to pass on. I want to be an educator and help fix the system that failed me so badly and get into a job where I'm going to be a role model to students. (Sam)
A skilled horseman, Joe is now visually impaired, but before his condition became progressively worse he had worked for many years on cattle properties in Queensland and the Northern Territory.
I can strongly relate to that. I come from a very large family and the teachers more or less blamed me for what my parents were lacking. Like "Why haven't you got a uniform? Why haven't you got money?" You tell them we're poor and they go, "That's no excuse". It was like they regarded the poorer section of the school as failures straight away because the work wasn't given.... You're going to fail whether you're good or not.... It does leave scars. (Joe)
An important aspect of social entrepreneurship is understanding both the social positioning of people and the ways in which they can be assisted to move beyond those positions. Many of our students have similar experiences to relate, but, fortunately, emerging worldviews about education are leading to the more holistic understanding of learning that the STEPS program embraces. American educationalist Palmer believes that Western thinking's adherence to the Newtonian clockwork model of reality of separateness has created a fragmented education system that has celebrated objectivity, competition, separation and independence (Palmer, 1983). Because objectivity requires distancing from what is being examined, Palmer (2001) considers that, when we teach people to know their world only at a distance, they will live in it the same way, their inner lives empty. Australian scientist Reanney echoes this understanding in his book Music of the Mind (1994). He believes that the disconnectedness of the Western psyche has created "our cultural pathology; thus, long ago, we became the divided beings we still are" (p. vi).

Nevertheless, the world of science's new understanding of an interdependent world is fuelling a philosophy of connectedness in Western society today and has shown us that nothing exists independently of its relationships with something else. This belief is developed by Swimme from the Center for Integral Studies in San Francisco. With Berry, Swimme writes: "Science deals with objects. Story deals with subjects. Since every form of being has both objective and subjective modes, neither is complete without the other" (Swimme & Berry, 1994, p. 241). Palmer agrees. We must educate in ways that might "heal rather than wound us and our world", he writes (Palmer, 1983, p. 2), and asserts that learning is enriched by teachers who, and strategies that, respect students' inner lives (Palmer, 2001). It would seem that some contemporary thinkers are suggesting that holistic learning, which brings the objective and subjective worlds of the learner into balance, could be the means by which past learning hurts may be healed.

Therefore, it is imperative that at the very beginning STEPS students' learning encounters relate to their lived experiences, are positive and bring success. Because the university's values of social entrepreneurship contribute to the STEPS philosophy that all worthwhile learning creates a "capacity for connectedness in learners" (Palmer, 1983, p. xviii), developing the ability to think "whole" is an important goal of the program. As a result, the STEPS team has created a student-centred, holistic curriculum that emphasises co-operation in an empowering learning environment. Their studies cover mathematics, computing, tertiary preparation, information literacy, and oral and written communication skills, with much integration of relevant courses. The balance between students' subjective and objective realities is achieved in the Language and Learning curriculum through the use of the Hero's Journey (Campbell, 1993; Vogler, 1996) as the organising principle. As we elaborate below, this curriculum takes adults on a journey of self-discovery while also preparing them with the thinking and communication skills they will need to succeed in a contemporary university environment. Their academic research focuses on the Hero's Journey of Australia as it faces great social change in the early 21 st century, and STEPS students acquire insight into the interconnectedness of change through gaining an awareness of systems thinking.


Transformative learning lies at the heart of the STEPS program (Willans, Harreveld & Danaher, 2003). Learning that is transformative empowers learners to challenge and change their worldviews and prepares them to face new opportunities as they overcome their difficulties and disadvantages (Lepani, 1995). We have seen that honouring their life stories and understanding growth are important parts of the STEPS philosophy. Therefore, because of its universality and timeless wisdom, mythic structure has been found to be a powerful and empowering tool for developing in STEPS adult learners an awareness of transformative learning.

Early in the program, students are introduced to Joseph Campbell's (1993) stages of the Hero's Journey, and are made aware that these represent events in our lives that bring change and growth. Campbell's research into the universality of the themes of world hero myths led him to suggest that their source was the collective unconscious of the human species. Vogler (1996) has adapted Campbell's stages into the 12 steps we use in the curriculum. Over the period of 13 or 26 weeks of STEPS, students use these stages for critical self-reflection, and soon discover that they mirror, not only their life experiences, but also those within the program. Furthermore, most students are quick to note that the Hero's Journey model helps them see that change and difficulty can be a positive force in their lives (Simpson & Coombes, 2001).

The twelve stages of the Hero's Journey that we use are:

As STEPS students record their own heroes' journeys throughout the program, they often express great surprise at the similarity of the patterns that emerge in their lives. This flowering of the individual enhances their understanding of both themselves and their worlds and helps them to gain the realisation that real transformation cannot take place without this appreciation. Thus, social entrepreneurship, through providing a fertile and reflexive learning environment for students, enables transformative learning to move beyond the individual dimension and reach into the wider community (see also Penman & Ellis, 2003).

Through their focus group interviews, these adult learners indicate strong awareness of the impact that their learning has also had on people other than themselves. Concern for others is one of the building blocks of social entrepreneurship.

The STEPS program has helped me academically and with my self-esteem.... I was just only average academically and my self-esteem came from sport.... One of my sons is very down on himself and he's a drifter.... He thinks he's a failure, a loser.... There's a lot of kids out there just like my son and my idea of wanting to go into education is to try to get through to these kids - not only to my son - that there are places for them in life.... There is a light at the end of the tunnel if they want to pursue it. I for example was never an achiever and now I am and now it is time for me and I want to pursue that goal. (Greg) Well, for me it would be the effect it's had on my children. They see me studying, going to school, and since I started STEPS their work has picked up and they've gone from passing to good students. (Jim)
The following student, Tom, had been a grazier for much of his 56 years.
I came from a background of - I guess you would call it narrow-mindedness.... Coming to STEPS with a totally different group of people you appreciate so much because they were so open and worldly and it gives me a new perspective on the community, on life and when I do the degree I've an ambition to help other producers to see other angles of the world. There's more things out there than growing grain.... I know there's a need for people to communicate ... to help families on farms. (Tom)


Thus, preserving and extending higher education in regional areas through social entrepreneurship is vital for both developing and preserving new life in these communities. When the university's drivers and social entrepreneurship reflect the philosophy and purpose of the program, innovative curricula and delivery can contribute to a positive transformation of regional communities.

Validation of CQU's social entrepreneurship role was given publicly at a previous STEPS graduation ceremony. As part of the mutual obligation philosophy of the Australian Federal Government, the then Jobs, Education and Training program of Centrelink, a former government welfare agency, had the task of assisting long-term unemployed people eventually to enter or re-enter the workforce. The regional manager of the program at that time spoke the following words as part of his keynote address to the community:

I am constantly amazed by the positive changes that STEPS is making to people's lives and that is why I am one of its biggest fans. I see first hand not only the improved education it provides but also the increased confidence and self-esteem of my customers. It has a rippling effect and the benefits extend far and wide. People again believing in themselves and having a vision for their future as well as for their families is a pleasure to watch.... I believe that STEPS is arguably the best tertiary preparation program in the land. (Case, 1999, n.p.)
The STEPS program with its innovative and interconnected curriculum gives students an awareness of transformational power, and their learning experiences have hopefully taught them that they are far from powerless. Much more than that, however, they can gain the insight that, as they transform, they are impacting on all the systems of which they are a part, from their families, workplaces and communities to their country and the very planet itself (Pearson, 1998). This, in turn, demonstrates the potential benefits of social entrepreneurship in transforming an Australian regional university and its community.
If I look at my life seven years ago I never dreamed I'd be able to go to university. From my background, it seemed only rich people went to university - the people that had a decent sort of education - whereas my family had no striving whatsoever to better themselves in that vein at all. So generations to come are going to be changed because of my involvement with the STEPS program. (William)


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Willans, J. A., Harreveld, R. E., & Danaher, P. A. (2003). Enhancing higher education transitions through negotiated engagements of learning experiences: Lessons from a pre-undergraduate preparatory program language education course. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(1), 42-50. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/willans.html

Author details: Jeanne McConachie is Director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Services at the Rockhampton Campus of Central Queensland University. Her research interests include enterprise systems, organisational change, and university management and policy construction.

Jenny Simpson is Co-ordinator of the Language and Learning course in the Skills for Tertiary Education Preparatory Studies program at the Rockhampton Campus of Central Queensland University. She has wide experience as a teacher in primary and secondary schools and for ten years has been a teacher of adult learners in the university sector.

Please cite as: McConachie, J. and Simpson, J. (2003). Social entrepreneurship: An Australian university transforms a regional community through diversity and innovation. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 100-118. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer19/mcconachie.html

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