What is social infrastructure?

“Social infrastructure” is the set of organizational arrangements and investments in society’s systems, relationships, and structures that enable society to create a resilient, just, equitable, and sustainable world. It includes social, economic, environmental and cultural assets. Examples in postsecondary institutions include offering bursaries to students with specific barriers to accessing education, convening researchers and securing funds to address complex social problems, and using procurement policies to support local businesses. Educational institutions can use the idea of social infrastructure as a way to organize and communicate their efforts to create positive social change and sustainable economic prosperity.

The quality of students’ experience of their education has an important bearing on what types of change are possible

There is a tension at the heart of postsecondary institutions of reconciling ‘old knowledge’ with ‘new knowledge.’ Students may feel this acutely when the institution’s approaches to describing or creating social change are at odds with students’ own lived experience and understanding of social issues. Students are under pressure to conform—to do what’s been done before, to get grades in a consistent way—that can feed a culture of “just get your degree and get out.” That pressure pushes down on all students, but has especially negative impacts on those who possess a desire to make change in their institution or the surrounding community.

When financial insecurity is added to the mix, it can feel even more daunting for students to assert themselves in transforming ‘old knowledge,’ or in enacting positive social change in the institution and beyond.

When an institution’s leaders commit publicly to improving social infrastructure, this can signal that the school understands and embraces its role (and those of its students) in driving positive social change. Making such a commitment can demonstrate to students that the institution recognizes the pressures students face to conform, and it invites students to take up opportunities to make a real impact. It communicates that the institution can support, and not implicitly oppose, change-making projects. When institutions frame social infrastructure building as a priority, this creates an environment in which students can better see their potential to improve Canadian communities by way of their student experience.