Co-operative principles in higher education?

December 13, 2013 2 Comments

Yesterday, around 30 people attended the Co-operative University seminar at the Institute of Education, University of London. As I was there, I thought about how just a day before, University of London students were protesting about the  lack of democratic control over the university. Increasingly, questions are being asked along the lines of how to “reconfigure the ownership of the university, and seize democratic forms of governance.”  Outside the university sector, the answer to that question has traditionally been co-operatives of one sort or another, and although the co-operative group in the UK has rightfully had some bad press recently, the co-operative movement, its principles and its widespread presence remain a source of inspiration and a concrete example of a historical tradition of co-operation.

Stephen Yeo, the first speaker at yesterday’s seminar, said that his talk, in effect began with the International Co-operative Alliance’s Statement of Identity, Values and Principles and ended there, too. Take a look at the ICA statement now. Read it carefully and you’ll see what he means. What does higher education look like through the lens of those seven brief principles? Does the university you work or study at  embody those principles?

Off the top of my head…

Open membership? Taking into account both entry requirements and a 30 year repayment of over £150,000, a three-year degree can hardly be called open. What is open is the opportunity to obtain credit in order to attend university. This is not the same as raising capital in order to join a worker co-operative, or membership of a consumer co-operative.

Democratic member control? Universities are typically comprised of committees with partially elected members, which pass recommendations to higher committees, ultimately leading to an academic board. Membership of that board will comprise of senior management and some democratically elected academic representatives. Decisions which require financial resourcing will be passed to the senior management team to deliberate. It is not democratic nor fully representative and far from one-member, one-vote.

Member economic participation? There is no equitable, democratic control of the capital of any university in the UK that I am aware of. Actual ownership of the capital of universities is ambiguous, although control of that capital usually comes down to its Governors. It’s worth pointing out that the co-operative form allows for both capitalist and anti-capitalist organisations. We were reminded later in the seminar that Mondragon co-operative university in Spain is proudly capitalist. As I have discussed before, the configuration of a co-operative with regards to the role of wage-labour is, at best, a transitional form of post-capitalist organisation.

Autonomy and independence? Universities are not autonomous, nor are changes to marketise the higher education sector increasing the autonomy of universities. They are still subject to state regulation and undemocratic government policy-making. This has been made clear in the recent tripling of tuition-fees and new system of loans (See McGettingan (2012) for more on this). Members of staff – academics, student support staff, IT staff, catering staff, had no say in the acceptance of these changes, nor did students. There was no opportunity for debate. No vote called for. We should be clear that a co-operative is a private concern. A co-operative university is not a defence of the public university. The usual distinctions of ‘private’ and ‘public’ are reframed in terms of ‘open’, ‘democratic’, ‘autonomous’.

Education, training and Information? Yes, universities concern themselves with this. It is in their interest to do so. Personal development opportunities through education will vary across the sector, but I suspect they are generally quite good.  It is not uncommon for a university department to pay the tuition fees for one of its members of staff to undertake a part-time degree. However, casual staff are not given this opportunity and increasingly teaching in tertiary education is being casualised, second only to the catering industry in the UK << do you know the reference for this statement? I heard it at a conference and read it in an article, but I can’t find it right now.

Co-operation among co-operatives? Although not co-operatives, there is a form of ‘co-operation’ among universities (usually, when I use that term here, I specifically mean co-operation in terms defined by the co-operative movement, rather than ‘collaboration’). There are various ‘mission groups’ and Universities UK. Whether these configurations will survive the recent marketisation of the higher education sector in the UK is not yet clear. There have been some reshuffles recently. Let’s be clear though: these groups are not co-operatives, but better described as mission/interest/lobby groups.

Concern for community? Yes, though the relationship with the local community differs from one institution to the next and the outlook of higher education is primarily national and increasingly global. I think that most universities acknowledge this responsibility and they are certainly major employers in the local community, bringing economic and cultural benefits.

The second speaker of the evening was Mervyn Wilson, Director of the Co-operative College. In recent years, much of his attention has been given to the conversion of state schools to co-operatives. We were told that by January 2014, there will be 700 state schools which have chosen to become co-operatives rather than academies. In contrast, the ‘free school movement‘ in the UK, championed by Michael Gove, has so-far reached around 70 schools in roughly the same time.

Mervyn talked mostly about drawing lessons learned from the recent co-operative movement in state schooling and applying them to the higher education sector. He also talked about the need to look for international examples, such as Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain, and Florida university in Valencia, and the need for much more research into the diversity of co-operative models that might be applied to higher education.  As we know from Mondragon, a ‘co-operative university’ need not be a single co-operative institution, but a federation of co-operative faculties or departments. Professional services could be run co-operatively, too.

The main presentation of the evening was from Dan Cook, who had recently finished a report for the Co-operative College, which was part of his MBA degree. His report is called ‘Realising the Co-operative University‘ and his slides can be found on his website. As I’ve noted before, Dan’s report is important work in understanding the range of practical considerations and further research questions when pursuing the idea of a co-operative university. Dan spent quite a lot of time talking about the constraints/obligations/requirements of being a ‘co-operative’ and of the title of ‘university’ in England. These are clearly very important considerations, although personally, having worked on the Social Science Centre for almost three years, I am less concerned with the need for ‘university’ title and more concerned with meeting the definition of a ‘co-operative’ for higher education. A ‘university’ may point to ‘higher education’, but ‘higher education’ does not necessarily point to a ‘university’.

Similarly, in the UK, degree-awarding powers require that the institution meet certain legislative requirements, but we must reflect on what a ‘higher education’ is defined by and in essence, it is a consensus over the production of knowledge among scholars – among peers. A group of scholars can form a collective and offer higher education, establishing their own standards, which will be judged on their own merit.

Dan’s presentation and report also highlights an important point: co-operative values are more often akin to academic values. There is a great deal of ‘co-operation’ (or rather ‘collegiality’ and ‘collaboration’) happening within the higher education sector. In terms of values and practices, the transition to co-operation within academia may not be much of a leap. To begin with, the real work, said Dan, is defining what a co-operative university is and in the process, recognising that the co-operative university might grow out of other related ventures, such as open access publishing organisations. Although the end goal may be a co-operative university, the route to that objective and the form it might take is varied and not strictly defined.

The Q&A which followed the presentations was lively and extended 45 minutes beyond the arrange time of the seminar. There was a range of expertise in the room and a handful of people have clearly been working on the idea of a co-operative university for two or three years now. It feels like momentum is building and there was a recognition that concrete activities now need to be co-ordinated and worked on. At the moment, unlike the uptake of co-operative schools, co-operation in higher education is unlikely to happen quickly. It needs to be preceded by a range of research into the issues I have raised above as well as reaching back into the radical and potentially pre-figurative history of both comprehensive education and co-operation.

In the few meetings around co-operatives that I have attended, there has been a strong sentiment that is critical of capitalism and at times is clearly Socialist. This was the case in last night’s seminar, too, yet with a long tradition to draw upon, there is a great deal of experience and wisdom in the co-operative movement that is grounded in the reality of capitalist social relations and more often there seems to be cynicism rather than utopianism.  This is understandable. Most important to me is there is an acute understanding that there actually is an alternative.

Finally, I want to end on a couple of points that were raised when discussing what steps might be taken next:

1) A co-operative teaching and learning strategy. This was brought up as something that could and should be undertaken in working towards a co-operative university. I agree, although I would argue that a focus on co-operative ownership and governance of higher education is more fundamental. Co-operative teaching and learning can take place within non-co-operative institutions. On this matter, I would recommend looking at Lincoln’s Student as Producer project. This is the teaching and learning strategy for Lincoln, led by my colleague, Prof. Mike Neary, Dean of Teaching and Learning. I think that it could easily be re-articulated in terms of co-operation without deviating from its organising principles. I recommend you read the ‘User Guide‘ and an early book chapter that sets the context. There are at least three more related articles by Mike, here, here and here.

2) Future workshops and seminars: I was told that there will be a future event organised at the Institute of Education. At Lincoln, we also intend to convene a workshop and seminar sometime in February/March 2014, so as to help take this work forward. Watch this space.

My raw, unedited notes from the seminar can be found here.

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