The Social Science Centre, Lincoln (SSC), is a co-operative organising free higher education in the city of Lincoln, England. It was formed in 2011 by a group of academics and students in response to the massive rise in student fees, from £3000 to £9000, along with other government policies that saw the increasing neo-liberalisation of English universities. In this essay we chart the history of the SSC and what it has been like to be a member of this co-operative; but we also want to express another aspect of the centre which we have not written about: the existence of the SSC as an intellectual idea and how the idea has spread and been developed through written publications by members of the centre and by research on the centre by other non-members: students, academics and journalists. At the end of the essay we will show the most up to date manifestation of the idea, the plans to create a co-operative university with degree awarding powers where those involved, students and academics, can make a living as part of an independent enterprise ran and owned by its members for their benefit and the benefit of their community and society.
In September 2016, in the midst of the Higher Education and Research Bill, Mike Neary and I, together with Cilla Ross and Simon Parkinson from the Co-operative College, wrote a blog post for the Co-operative Party’s website about co-operative higher education. We argued,
“There is nothing within the current legislation that would preclude a more radical form of university from being established: a co-operative university, based not on markets and privatisation but on collaboration and co-operation.”
In July this year, the Co-operative Party were seeking policy recommendations and so we submitted an adapted version of our blog post to the Party for consideration. Therefore, I was pleased to see that our submission (.doc) made its way into the Party’s Education Policy document, published in October 2017 (PDF). I’m told the idea got a round of applause at the Party’s annual conference, too.
Here is the feedback on our submission:
Political support for the idea of co-operative higher education is very welcome. The Co-operative Party was established 100 years ago and since 1927, has had an electoral pact with the Labour Party. It has 38 MPs in the House of Commons, all of whom are members of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Below is a blog post I wrote for the Times Higher Education. It was edited for publication and may require registration on THE to view it, so is presented here in its original form.
Last week, the Co-operative College, established in Manchester in 1919, hosted a conference on ‘Making the Co-operative University’ with the intention of exploring its role in supporting and co-ordinating a federated model of co-operative higher education.
Throughout the day, there was a sense of anticipation and historic responsibility among the 90 delegates who were told that in 1909, W. R. Rae, Chair of the Co-operative Union educational committee, had addressed the Union and stated that “What we want and seek to obtain is a co-operative journey that will end in a co-operative university”. Writing at a time when there were only 15 universities in the UK, Rae saw the development of a co-operative university as another example of members providing for themselves where the State did not: “So long as the State does not provide it, we must do, as we have in the past, the best we can to provide it ourselves.” Over the last century, the State has provided a higher education that may have satisfied Rae, but the tripling of tuition fees in 2012 and the incremental corporatisation and marketisation of higher education since the 1980s have angered students, academics and administrators. Once again the co-operative model of democratic member control is being identified as a necessary intervention where the State is failing to provide.
Indeed, the “historic” nature of the event was preceeded by a recent decision by the Co-operative College’s Board of Trustees who committed its members to explore a federated co-operative university and all of its possibilities. The federated model of co-operative solidarity is not unusual among co-operatives. In 1944, the College wrote about how it “could become the nucleus of a Co-operative University of Great Britain, with a number of affiliated sectional and regional Colleges or Co-operative institutes, as the demand arises.” In fact, as the Times Higher Education has previously reported, Mondragon University in Spain already exists as a federated co-operative university with a small number of staff serving four autonomous worker co-operative Faculties with hundreds of academics and thousands of students.
Jon Altuna, the Vice-Rector of Mondragon University gave a pre-recorded interview for the conference, helping establish how and why the university was set up and the way it is run. Alongside Mondragon were presentations from other groups and organisations that are seeking to provide or already providing co-operative forms of higher education: The Centre for Human Ecology, founded in 1972; The Social Science Centre, Lincoln , a co-operative for higher education set up in 2011; Free University Brighton, running since 2012; Students for Co-operation, a national federation of student co-operatives established in 2013 that supports 24 food co-ops and four housing co-ops; RED Learning Co-operative, a new co-op set up by ex-Ruskin College academics to provide training and education to the Labour Movement and other activists; and Leicester Vaughan College, established in 1862 to provide adult education but recently “disestablished’ by Leicester University and re-established as a co-operative by its staff and local supporters, including the city council.
The diversity of these initiatives was celebrated at the conference for meeting local and unmet needs in adult education, while at the same time recognising the limitations of working on the fringes: too much reliance on voluntary labour, insufficient funds and the difficulty of being accredited by an external awarding body. This is where the Co-operative College comes in.
The conference was a pivotal event that came about through the efforts of a Co-operative University Working Group (of which I was a member) that was set up to pull together the work that has been done around co-operative higher education over the last the last few years and advise the Board of Trustees on the feasibility of the College acting as co-ordinator and accreditor for autonomous co-operatives offering degrees or degree-level courses. Looking ahead, the conference also aimed to establish a Co-operative Higher Education Forum that could replace the Working Group and be open to anyone interested in co-operative higher education. Representatives from the Forum will advise the College’s newly established Academic Board on the direction to take.
After presentations from people in the morning, the afternoon of the conference focused on thematic discussions around Democracy, Members and Governance; Knowledge, Curriculum and Pedagogy; Livelihood and Finances; and Bureaucracy and Accreditation. While not determining the final outcome, there does seem to be a direction of travel for co-operative higher education in the UK: It is likely to be based on the principle of subsidiarity, with democratic control in the hands of the people most affected; membership will be open and voluntary and meaningfully linked to the system of governance providing all members, students, academics, administrators, with equal powers. Teaching and learning will draw from traditions of adult, community and participatory education, involving students and academics in a combined culture of research and teaching. Co-operatives are ‘enterprises’ run by and for their members and there is a recognition that members have to face the risks and challenges of creating sustainable business models that draw on the existing co-operative commonwealth and sources of public funding. Perhaps the greatest unknown at this time is what the relationship between the co-operative movement and the state regulator will look like.
The Co-operative College are meeting with HEFCE this month to understand the current regulatory landscape following the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and are poring over the recently published consultation documents to understand the implications of the new regulator, the Office for Students. If the key requirements of demonstrably good governance, a good quality education, and a sustainable financial model remain the basic threshold for gaining Degree Awarding Powers then there is no reason why Co-operatives, operating on 180 year-old, values-based principles of social organisation, can’t meet those requirements in ways that challenge the existing system of higher education in England with a real alternative.
— Nigel Todd (@nigelwingrove) October 12, 2017
“At at a historic meeting on Thursday 12th October the Co-operative College Board committed to exploring a federated co-operative university and all of its possibilities. This includes co-operative governance, pedagogy, curriculum and new approaches to fees and funding. We are planning to meet with HEFCE in November and Students for Co-operation colleagues will be with us at that meeting.
This builds on the great work that continues to be done elsewhere exploring new models of higher education. We are not suggesting we have any sort of blueprint and we will be reaching out to all those interested in working co-operatively with us to rethink and remake a new higher education model.”
Update 6th December 2017: The first meeting with HEFCE was held today and Simon Parkinson, the Principle of the Co-op College tweeted:
I was looking through some books recently and the flyer photographed below was used as a bookmark by my Dad, when he was a student at the University of Lincoln in the early 2000s.
I knew that Lincoln’s Student Union was once a co-operative, but had never seen any documentary evidence of that period in its history. When I’ve asked people about the early history of the Union, the response has been vague – I may be asking the wrong people.
I was told it was set up as a co-op to meet the obligations of funding between Lincolnshire Co-operative Society and the University during its formation. If you look at the third image below, you can see that a student joined the LSU co-op through the Lincoln(shire?) Co-operative Society – presumably the SU was part of the Lincolnshire Co-operative Society?? It was also suggested to me that it ceased to be a co-op because of changes in charity law in 2006 that caused a conflict between its charitable and co-operative status. Co-operatives are not deemed charities because they are for the benefit of their members, rather than having broader public benefit aims.
Looking at Companies House records, the SU was first incorporated as a Company Limited by Guarantee on 27th June 2007 and referred to as ‘the Charity’, so not long after the change in Charity law in 2006. A note in 2009 explains that it originally derived its charitable status from the University but again due to changes in law, would have to register in its own right as a charity. The articles of association were then changed in 2010, when all reference to ‘the Charity’ is replaced with ‘the Union’ and it became independently registered as a charity on 27th September 2010, apart from its registration as a company.
Anyway, my interest is in the early days of the SU when it ran as a co-operative. All organisations are subject to changes in law and regulation and I’m sure that the shift away from co-operative status in 2007 was deemed the right and possibly the only choice available to the SU. It raises the question about whether more recent changes in UK co-operative law (2014) and the emergence of Union Co-ops, offers a return to co-operative status. Aside from legal status, a co-operative is characterised by its adherence to the values and principles of the international Co-operative Identity Statement.
A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.
Changes in the articles of association could be made to reflect the spirit of co-operative values and principles, even if it were not a co-operative in law. As a democratic organisation, this would be something for its members to decide upon.
If you have any further information about the period when ULSU was a co-op, please do get in touch.
The ‘Co-operative Leadership for Higher Education‘ project, funded by the Leadership for Higher Education (LFHE), is now formally over. Mike Neary (PI) submitted the final report to the LFHE yesterday and we expect it to be published in the coming months. Throughout the research, we have been greatly assisted by Katia Venezuela Fuentes, who recently completed her PhD. Congratulations, Katia!
The final report for the project is based on our conference paper, ‘Co-operative leadership and higher education: four case studies‘, which we presented at the Co-operative Education and Research conference in April.
We have also created a short guide to ‘Do It Ourselves Higher Education‘. This draws together a collection of resources, both conceptual and practical, that offer a huge amount of advice and guidance for those interested in the development and implementation of co-operative higher education.
We are regularly contacted by academics who are looking for a real alternative to the existing model of higher education and welcome the opportunity to talk about what we have learned during this project and our earlier work. We are particularly interested in putting ideas into practice and working through the actual challenges of the conversion, dissolution or creation routes to co-operative higher education.