Co-operative university discussion at #DPR14

I led a discussion at the Discourse, Power and Resistance conference last week, which rested on the question of whether a ‘co-operative university’ is an appropriate and adequate response to the crisis of higher education. The discussion was rich and engaging and consequently my notes are sparse and banal, but I will try to collect a few thoughts here now.

The conference was comprised of academics, educators and activists who share a mutual sense of despair, anger, irritation, and fear for the future of higher education in the UK and elsewhere (the conference was 50% non-UK delegates). The opening keynote for the conference from Prof. Richard Pring set the tone by detailing and lamenting the various neoliberal reforms that have occurred across the education sector in the last two decades. While taking questions, one delegate asked the obvious question: “So, what is to be done?” Pring had no real answer, except to propose that a professional ‘council’ be established to protect the interests of the profession. Understandably dissatisfied with that response, someone else said that it required educators to engage in acts of subversion and that many of us are already doing so. We should recognise that the classroom still remains a space of relative autonomy. I wasn’t convinced by that. It may be the case, but those days are numbered. Finally, someone else appealed to us all to organise and strike.

In that context, our discussion the next morning about co-operative higher education had something to kick against. Might the idea of a co-operative university, or more generally, co-operative higher education in a variety of forms, be another, more adequate response to the question: “So, what is to be done?”? As I’ve noted before, I think it could be and the general tone among the 15-20 participants during our hour-long discussion was one of curiosity and interest.

I first introduced the idea with a handful of slides:

As you can see, I proposed that there are three ways to think about and plan for a co-operative university:

  • Conversion: Constitute universities on co-operative values and principles. Read Dan Cook’s report: ‘Realising the co-operative university‘.
  • Dissolution: Radicalise the university from the inside, starting with the relationship between academics and students. Read about Student as Producer.
  • Creation: Build experiments in higher education outside the financialised sector. Read about the Social Science Centre.

Throughout the discussion, I kept the slide containing the co-operative movement’s values and principles on the screen so as to establish some of the constitutional features of a co-operative university.

Participants spoke about their own efforts at establishing those values and principles in their current work, ranging from individual efforts in the classroom, the design of degree programmes and the establishing of formal centres within their institutions. Broadly, these came under the ‘Dissolution’ route and in my case I spoke about Student as Producer as such an example.

Given the news headlines over the last few weeks about the financial problems of the Co-operative Group UK, it was inevitable that this was brought up and participants rightly questioned whether the co-operative movement remained an oppositional, if not radical, response to capitalism. My own view is that despite the current crisis in the UK’s co-operative group, the co-operative movement as a whole, including its rich history and internationalism, has much to offer and inspire radical educators. I am under no illusion that it is the ‘answer’ to the crisis of capital, but the values and principles; the movements’ relationship with socialism and its members’ deep sense of politics; its commitment to education; and its variety of constitutional forms, do seem to offer a useful framework for pursuing democratic control over the future of higher education and its institutions. Yes, co-operatives necessarily operate within the logic of capital, but they exist in contestation with it. Since the movement’s origins, their very existence is a critique of capitalism in practice.  One participant in the discussion remarked that it’s “impossible” to exist outside capitalism. Another responded: “The fact that it’s ‘impossible’ means that we should keep trying!”

Other points of discussion touched on the role of students, who are “increasingly self-commodifying” – how can we work with them to realise an alternative form of higher education? Where are the students at DPR? Does their opinion matter at this stage or is this more about academics determining their own future first and foremost? We should be “bold and resolute” with students. What is the university for? Knowledge? The re-production of labour power? What does work look like in the future? Some participants had “given up on the university” and saw the future as one, not in dialogue with the institution but with students. We were reminded that “there will be dangers” as we move forward.

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