A co-operative university

The Social Science Centre

In 2011, I helped set up a co-operative for higher education. It began as an idea that my colleague, Mike Neary, and I had been discussing the previous summer, and was partly influenced by the network of social centres that exist across the UK and elsewhere. In May this year, the co-operative had its second AGM and we are currently running a Social Science Imagination course for the second year, two arts-based community projects, as well as regular public talks. You can read more about the Social Science Centre (SSC) in a recent article published in Radical Philosophy. The SSC remains an experiment – on our own terms a successful one – that has allowed its members to not only teach and learn at the level of higher education, but also, reflect on, discuss and critique alternative and utopian forms of higher education. In academia, we might formally describe the SSC as an ‘action research‘ project:

Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 162).

I shall return to this in a moment.

Free software, free society?

Since 2007, I have worked at my local university where I focus on the role of technology in higher education. My work is a mixture of technical, theoretical and historical research, as well as some teaching and supporting staff and students in their use of technology. For many years, I have been interested in and an advocate for free and open source software and consequently, in 2008, I established and continue to run a large WordPress network at the university, too. Despite my advocacy for free and open source software, I am also quite critical of the technological determinism, cyber-utopianism and rampant liberalism that often characterises the discourse in this area. Nevertheless, the practice of collectively producing, owning and controlling the means of production remains a very important objective for me and any criticism I have of the free and open source software movement(s) and free culture movement in general, are so as to develop the purpose and practice of common ownership and collective production, and help defend it from being subsumed by the dominant mode of production i.e. capitalism: a highly productive form of social coercion for the private accumulation of value.

The WordPress network that I maintain at my university appears to be an example of the means of production being collectively produced, owned and controlled. It is used freely by staff and students across the university for publishing and communicating their work and providing services to other people. WordPress is ‘free software’ developed and shared under the General Public License (GPL). It has a large number of people from around the world contributing to the development of the software who mutually recognise the ‘copyleft’ terms and conditions of the license. As such, we can say that it is collectively produced and having installed WordPress at the university without the need for recurrent license agreements, we can say that my university owns the software that we run. The software runs on university servers and a small number of people at the university, including me, control our WordPress installation on behalf of all other users. Using this example of WordPress, we might say that the university reproduces, owns and controls a means of production (i.e., web publishing).

This is the aspiration for many free and open source advocates: to campaign for and promote the use of free and open source software among their friends, family, in public services and in their workplace. Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, campaigns for schools and universities to use free software. I think this is both necessary and good.

However, my aspirations go beyond the installation of free software in my workplace. Through my work and my involvement with the Social Science Centre, I have come to see that freedom in the use, study of, re-use, and distribution of technologies can co-exist with institutional, political and social structures that do not guarantee control over the means of production. In other words, a university might run nothing but free and open source software, but ownership and control over the means of knowledge production can remain unaffected. Committee structures, hierarchies among staff and students, ownership of the university’s capital, sources of funding, and institutional governance, can all function the same regardless of whether free and open source software is in widespread use.  Free software does not necessarily lead to a free society or a free university. It is in this sense, that we can observe that technology does not determine society, but that society shapes technology. The ‘freedoms’ offered by free software are clearly limited (only the wildest techno-utopian would disagree) and as Lawrence Lessig notes in his introduction to Stallman’s book, Free Software, Free Society, free software is as much an attempt to preserve existing freedoms, as it is to extend them: ““Free software” would assure that the world governed by code is as “free” as our tradition that built the world before code.” According to this statement, the free software movement aims to preserve the liberal status quo established before the early 1980s when “free software” emerged.

By contrast, as I’ve noted before, Christopher Kelty’s idea of a ‘recursive public’, appeals to me because it acknowledges that by defending something that we might value, such as free and open source software, we often find ourselves ‘recursively’ campaigning for underlying freedoms, such as open standards, open hardware, etc. and campaigning against that which threatens these objectives such as SOPA and PRISM. In this way, free software may actually, recursively, lead to a free society in that it politicises people who otherwise might not have questioned broader social and political forces. The contingent nature of this is important. Perhaps this is free software’s revolutionary potential. My point is though, that without more fundamental freedoms in society, free software does not offer freedom. Social, political and institutional structures can remain the same.

A co-operatively owned and governed university

This brings me back to the Social Science Centre and the idea of a ‘co-operative university’.

Thought of as an ‘action research project’, some members, including myself, are looking to take the next step in Lewin’s research cycle.

Lewin's action research steps

While not wishing to disrupt the continuation of the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, some of us are embarking on a second phase of research and action focusing on the idea of a ‘co-operative university’. The SSC is not a university but rather a co-operative model of free, higher education. It is a free association of people who come together to collectively produce knowledge. It is also a political project. We always intended that the SSC remains small and sustainable in recognition of our existing commitments of work and family, etc. However, the ideas and ambitions that our work on the SSC has produced are now more ambitious and have led to discussions among some of us around the idea of a ‘co-operative university’. We spoke with people about this at the ‘Co-operative Education Against the Crisis‘ conference organised with the Co-operative College in May and, as time allows, we have been reading and writing about the idea (e.g. here and here).

We are not the only people considering this. In August, the Times Higher Education magazine published a feature article about co-operative universities, focusing on Mondragon in Spain (and acknowledging the SSC). They ran a leading article about the idea, too. They referenced a field trip by Wright, S. et al (2011), who also visited Mondragon to study the university.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to have been very much written about co-operative universities over the years. Yesterday, I spent some time doing cross-catalogue and Google Scholar searches but it didn’t turn up very much (<< I will publish references I find via that link). There is, of course, a great deal of research into various forms of co-operatives, co-operative governance, co-operative history, education within the co-operative movement, etc. There was a special issue of the Journal for Co-operative Studies (2011, 44:3) which focused on co-operative education, though mostly schooling. A number of articles have been written about co-operative education in the state school system. Most recently, this reflects the growth of co-operative schooling as a real alternative to academy schools in the UK. A number of articles have also been written about ‘co-operative learning’, but do not appear to touch upon co-operative ownership and governance of higher education institutions, which I consider key to the idea of a co-operative university. Pedagogy based on the idea of co-operation is not enough. In my view, a co-operative university must encompass (1) co-operative ownership of the institution’s capital in common; (2) co-operative, flat and fully democratic governance; as well as (3) co-operative practices in research, teaching and learning.

My past work on ‘openness’ in higher education relates directly to collaborative (though not specifically co-operative) practices in research, teaching and learning, but as I have explained above, my interest is now shifting (recursively??) to academic labour and its role in co-operative ownership and governance within higher education. I see this as a direct and natural outcome of my work on the role of technology in higher education as we cannot fully critique and develop the role of technology without understanding the dialectical role of labour. I am certain that this will become more apparent to advocates of open education and open science as we all reflect on the affordances of open technologies and open practices in contrast to the limitations and constraints of existing  institutional and organisational models, themselves expressions of embedded social relations and political economy.

This was my reason for critiquing the work of Egan and Jossa, and, despite my reservations of Jossa in particular, I still regard a focus on co-operative production (i.e. ‘worker co-operatives’), to be the best way to “attack the groundwork” of the present political and economic system that higher education is part of.

If you are also working in this area or are interested in working with us on this project, please do get in touch. Co-operation cannot occur in isolation!

4 thoughts on “A co-operative university”

Leave a Reply