Realising the Co-operative University

Dan Cook has written a report for the Co-operative College that will be of great interest to anyone thinking about and working towards co-operation in higher education. You can download the report on his university web page. I met Dan when we attended the ‘Co-operative Education Against the Crisis‘ conference organised with the Co-operative College in May 2013. Dan said that he was working on the report for his MBA and he has just made it publicly available. I have added his report and some other references to the bibliography I began recently.

Dan’s report is an excellent summary of the initial issues to consider when thinking about co-operation in higher education: the practical considerations about converting existing universities to co-operatives as well as starting wholly new co-operative institutions for higher education. After my initial reading, here are a few points/quotes I would highlight:

  •  “The Co-operative University is an institution in potentia, which already possesses the legal basis to acquire form. The central concepts of ‘Co- operative’ and ‘University’ are defined in legislation in most states, and this report will explore the case in England. A Co-operative University would necessarily meet the legal definitions of a co-operative and a university, simultaneously. What are these definitions?” [Paragraph 3.1]
  • “Co-operative principles are academic principles. There is arguably a close alignment between co-operative principles and mainstream academic values.” [Paragraph 3.2]
  • In a future co-operative university, who would the members be? A multi-stakeholder co-operative is the most natural form for the university as currently conceived. [Paragraph 4.1.4] A student-run co-operative university is not inconceivable. [Paragraph 4.1.3]
  • “The requirements of workplace democracy may be considered as either an onerous burden, or as a source of strength; depending on arguments around efficiency and transaction costs. A traditional view is that the costs of operating an internal democracy are a burden upon co-operatives, making them less efficient than organisations which do not undertake this sort of activity. However, in ‘professionally argumentative’ organisations like universities this argument is untenable: purposeful internal debate is more efficient than attempting to manage dissent.” [Paragraph 4.1.13]
  • “The very high approval ratings for workplace democracy among all categories of respondent indicate that universities should consider workplace democracy a potent offer for recruiting and retaining tomorrow’s academic staff.” [Paragraph 4.1.14]
  • What size should the co-operative be? Should the university be a co-operative group of co-operative faculties/departments, like Mondragon? [Paragraph 4.2]
  • A ‘network co-operative structure’ “possesses greater co-operative advantages.” The classic example of a network university is the Open University. [Paragraph 4.6]
  • “Unionised academic staff are likely to find the idea of a co-operative university appealing and given the broad literature about and largely against managerialism, there is prima facie evidence of the potential for a dialogue with staff about establishing a co-operative university.” [Paragraph 5.1]
  • “Respondents to our survey demonstrated that co-operative values are attractive to current and recent research students.” [Paragraph 5.4]
  • “All co-operative values received an overall approval rating above 50% when considered as ways that universities could become more attractive places to work, and women found the values marginally more attractive than men. We found no correlation with respondent perceptions of the competitiveness of their own discipline of study. Solidarity was the most attractive value with over 90% approval, and was the only value to attract more than 50% strong approval.” [Paragraph 5.5]
  • “Further research is required into this prima facie evidence that the culture of universities already seeks closer alignment with co-operative values.” [Paragraph 5.6]
  • “I found that the characteristics of co-operatives are largely independent of corporate form, and can realistically be incorporated into existing or replacement governing documents.” [Paragraph 8]
  • “The Industrial and Provident Society (I&PS) corporate form is a rational choice for a genuinely co-operative university startup.” [Paragraph 8.1.2]
  • “The benefits are multiple, and I offer arguments and examples that demonstrate the co-operative advantage that universities might enjoy: more committed staff, better connections with community and business, and an organisational character that puts education at its core.” [Paragraph 9]
  • “My investigation shows that in many ways the Higher Education sector already is co-operative. Many of the preferences, assumptions and behaviours preferred in universities are co-operative ones. Despite this the possibility of a co-operative university has not been considered by the sector. I suggest that this can change, and must change: the challenges universities face are too great, and the opportunities co-operative working offers are too pregnant with potential, to do otherwise. [Paragraph 9.5]
  • “The Co-operative University offers a distinctive and radical model of mainstream higher education with the potential to provide a peerless higher education, secure public benefits and increased access, with affordable fees, and provides an institutional form to address the concerns and ambitions of the ‘the great age of participation coming’.” [Paragraph 9.6]

Finally, Dan offers a useful table of enabling factors and barriers to the co-operative university. His report also includes a list of immediate recommendations in pursuit of this project as well as a series of appendices with useful discussions around the policy and funding environment for UK HE, how a co-operative university might be capitalised, and reflections on his survey, his methodology and the (lack of) literature in this area.

This is an excellent basis on which to seriously develop a real co-operative university and I hope that with Dan and the Co-operative College, we can build on his work. I know that my colleagues at Lincoln are keen to do so.

Dan will be discussing his report at a seminar in London on December 12th.