Social Innovation Programme: A Community-Focused Approach for Student Employability

Posted on: 7 April 2022

As many students begin to think about their careers and graduating this summer, we wanted to share a case study of our flagship skilled placement programme, the Social Innovation Programme. 

This is a three part series, with this blog covering the programme itself, its benefit to universities and how it impacts students. The following two blogs in the series will cover how the programme benefits the community and our corporate partners, and the final blog is a piece written by one of our University of Cambridge students, reflecting on their experience of taking part in the programme itself. 

What is the Social Innovation Programme?

Student Hubs began delivering the Social Innovation Programme at our Cambridge Hub in 2013, working with University of Cambridge students and local charities and social enterprises to deliver a skilled placement opportunity where both students and communities benefited. In the years that followed, the programme expanded beyond Cambridge to reach our wider Hub network, and we have seen the programme delivered at the University of Bristol, Kingston University and the University of Winchester

The Social Innovation Programme (SIP) is a six to eight week programme which recruits interdisciplinary teams of students to engage in a free consultancy project for a local socially impactful organisation. We recruit students and community partners to participate and match student teams and organisations at a launch event, where students discover the challenge brief their organisation is presenting to them. Over the course of the project, students are trained weekly by us as they work with their team to explore their brief, research around their challenge, write a report with recommendations, and present their findings at a final showcase event. Some versions of the programme have also included mentors from corporate organisations, who support the student teams alongside Student Hubs. 

With a growing focus for universities on placements, employability, and civic engagement, we wanted to share more about the work we have been delivering through the Social Innovation Programme for many years, and reflect in this blog on why this approach engages students and universities so effectively. 

The Social Innovation Programme benefits universities

Student Hubs’ vision and mission is built upon the belief that students who engage in positive social action at university build the confidence, skills and experience to become active citizens throughout their life, something which we refer to as their ‘social action journey’. 

The Social Innovation Programme creates bespoke opportunities for students to add to their portfolio of placements and employability experiences which students can engage with, with our programme delivery typically funded through Careers and Employability teams. Where our work at Student Hubs sits between volunteering, student engagement and social action, this means our activities often attract students who may be from more marginalised backgrounds, or who need structured support in developing their skills and confidence which may act as a barrier to other university opportunities. The Social Innovation Programme can therefore act as a gateway, reaching students who might not otherwise engage and increasing their confidence, skills, and knowledge about the other opportunities their Employability team at the university has to offer. 

Through the programme, students are also able to tackle the community needs identified by us and the community partners we source. This means students are actively supporting the university’s civic agenda too, whilst also meeting the need for students to have employability experiences to develop their skills, apply their academic knowledge, and enhance their engagement with careers and employability at university. 

Former Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester, Joy Carter, said about Student Hubs’ approach: “All universities are seeking to enhance their employability of their students, both general employability and graduate employability and also further study as well, and I think having experiences like what the Hub offers, making you think out of the box, out of the narrow channel of your own subject, really enhances all of those outcomes in a very powerful way and that’s got to be good for the individuals and for the university itself.”

The Social Innovation Programme benefits students 

The Social Innovation Programme has continued to be popular throughout its history and location at our Hubs, and in recent years it has been adapted to also run as a virtual programme due to the challenges of the pandemic; it even became open to graduates to take part at our Winchester Hub in Summer 2020. 

Throughout our years of delivery, we have consistently seen the impact the programme has made on students. A key part of this is in building the employability skills which are so vital for students to graduate and thrive in the workplace. Many students through our end of programme feedback forms have reflected about how the programme gave them the chance to apply the skills they had developed through their academic course, refine them, or build new skills entirely. 

In our 2020-21 Impact Report, we reported that: 

  • 97% of students agreed they had developed professional skills from participating in the Social Innovation Programme 
  • 95% of students have gained useful insight into a socially impactful organisation and/or the social impact sector from participating in the Social Innovation Programme 
  • 97% of students better understand how to use their skills to support local organisations from participating in the Social Innovation Programme 
  • 90% of students agreed that their group worked well as a team to achieve their aims from participating in the Social Innovation Programme 

A big barrier that many students, particularly those from marginalised backgrounds, may find is that whilst they do have the skills they need to succeed, they often lack the confidence or the language to frame these skills in an employability-focused way. The programme gives them the experience, the training which enables them to reflect on these concepts and their skill development during the programme, and a tangible opportunity they can include on their CV. 

“Being part of Cambridge Hub’s initiatives has allowed me to build on my previous research skills and master additional areas beyond my subject, including project management, consultancy, and market research. Participating in SIP allowed me to gain a breadth of experience that I wouldn’t have come across in my criminology MPhil, and have helped strengthen my CV!” – Social Innovation Programme student in 2020-21

Although the Social Innovation Programme is a student consultancy programme, we often don’t use the word consultancy when recruiting students: ‘consultancy’ as a term can be off-putting and scary to students. However when we reframe the programme, and talk about how students can bring their passion and innovation to organisations, how they can work in a team and write a report (all of which students already have acquired through their academic experience), the programme becomes much more accessible and engaging for students who may otherwise not have applied. 

“I have learned a number of skills, which I did not have before, that are crucial for the workplace such as time and team management, communicating with a client, and creating and executing long term plans.” – Social Innovation Programme student in 2020-21

As a volunteering opportunity, the Social Innovation Programme also fills the gap between work experience and internships, which can be very competitive especially for students that have no prior experience, or who lack the networks or knowledge about how to best apply for employment opportunities. When the programme is delivered in-person, we cover the students’ travel expenses, meaning they are not out of pocket for their participation. Virtually, we have found that this format has removed even this barrier and enabled access for students who otherwise would have found participation challenging. 

“I wanted some practical experience in a consulting project, as I had previously found internships very difficult obtain with existing work experience. This was a brilliant opportunity to get hands-on, practical work experience and improve my soft skills!” – Social Innovation Programme student in 2020-21


Overall, the Social Innovation Programme enhances students’ experience by providing real-world engagement that increases their skillset, encourages them to consider how their experiences can be used in a work setting and gets them involved in their local community. Through our carefully planned training and bespoke partnerships, our students are empowered to go beyond their degree and support their community. 

To learn more about the Social Innovation Programme, watch out for our blogs series, with an outline of SIP’s benefits to communities and partners launching over the next fortnight. Our second blog is here, and our third blog is due to be released next week. 

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If you would like more information about bringing the Social Innovation Programme or Student Hubs’ experience to your university, you can get in touch with Partnerships and Development Director, Fiona Walsh, at

Fiona Walsh and Sorcha Young

Fiona is Student Hubs' Partnerships and Development Director. She leads on university sales, alumni and corporate fundraising, marketing strategy and external relations. Sorcha Young is our Bristol Hub Manager and delivers the Social Innovation Programme in Bristol.

Tags: Higher Education, Skilled Placements, Social Action, Third Sector

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