For a co-operative university?

In April, I am running a workshop with Richard Hall at the Discourse, Power and Resistance 14 conference. Details below.

This discussion takes as its premises the following:

  1. The University is being restructured through a neoliberal politics as part of a global pedagogical project.
  2. This project is aimed at the dispossession of free space/time so that all of life becomes productive and available for the extraction of surplus value.
  3. This pedagogic project is recalibrating and enclosing the roles of teachers and students as entrepreneurial subjects. In part it is also creating a surplus academic population, consisting of the academic unemployed, the precariat, the outsourced, and so on.
  4. If this project is to be resisted then the premises that underpin the economic utility of higher education as a positional good need to be revealed.
  5. If this project is to be resisted then the idea of academic labour that underpins employment in the increasingly digitised and stratified universities of the global North needs to be critiqued.
  6. If this project is to be resisted then the marketised organising principles that underpin the idea of the University need to be challenged.
  7. If this project is to be resisted then educators need to define structures and practices that reinforce the sociability of everyday life, in order to realise new opportunities for pedagogic co-operation.
  8. If this project is to be resisted then histories and cultures of co-operative education need to be revealed and critiqued.

The session will briefly position these headline statements about the idea of the University, and of academic labour, in the UK. The session will then ask participants to uncover stories of how and where pedagogy/educational institutions might be used for co-operation rather than competition. The session will ask participants to discuss what a co-operative University might look like.

Social Science Imagination: Co-operation and education / week one reflections

I am a member of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, and in this term’s Social Science Imagination course, we are focusing on ‘co-operation and education‘. Gary Saunders and I wrote up an account of last week’s class, which we facilitated. Each week, SSC scholars are asked to produce a reflective piece of work (just 300w or so, or a poem, drawing, whatever) so as to think about what they got out of the previous week and then bring it to class to discuss.

Below is my 300w or so reflecting on last week’s reading and discussion. The class was based around our reading of the SSC’s ‘about‘ page and the ICA’s ‘Co-operative identity, values and principles‘ statement.

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It’s been a while since I have read through the general statement about the SSC (FAQ), a document I helped author over three years ago. It was written both as a response to changes in HE at the time (and that continue), as well as setting out in an aspirational way, something we wanted to create. We wrote it in a style that suggested it was already happening, that it was real, when it was in fact only real in our imaginations. In that sense, it was utopian and from the responses we’ve had from people over the years, I think it helped them imagine something different, too.  With that in mind, I was pleased to read the current version of the statement 1 and to see how close we have come to realising that utopia. We are not entirely there yet, and over the years, through praxis, we have redefined our objectives, or rather, the emphasis of those objectives has shifted at times, while remaining clear about our motivation and purpose. I still aspire to what we set out in that statement and may always be striving to realise it fully, but the process is as important as the goal and I realise now, after three years, that the SSC is part of me. I cannot imagine not working towards this utopia.

Last week’s class and in fact the whole SSI course this term is intended to regenerate and revitalise this critical, utopian process and project, creating critical space to reflect on, discuss and question our utopian, revolutionary idea of what higher education might be. Could be.

The ICA statement was chosen to help initiate this critical, dialogical process. It is a carefully worded statement that unites millions of people around the world in the co-operative movement. We have to read it as such and draw out the key terms and ideas that are embedded in this historical text. It is a set of guidelines, rather than a legal definition. It is a compass, rather than a prison we are bound to. What can we learn from it? How can the themes of autonomy, democracy, solidarity, equality, common ownership, and sustainability, etc. become critical tools that help us reflect on ourselves and our own utopian ideas for co-operative higher education?

Co-operatives, socialism and communism: Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

Below are some notes on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), focusing on what it says about co-operatives as a transitional form of production to post-capitalism: communism. I’m trying to get to grips with the text so as to better situate the potential of (worker) co-operatives as a transitional form of organising production and services which provide the experimental basis of a post-capitalist mode of production and the subsequent subjectivities, epistemologies, etc. that the emergence of post-capitalism (‘communism’) will give rise to.

In reading commentary elsewhere, there’s a tendency for some people to dismiss the revolutionary potential of worker co-operatives, arguing that they inevitably become disciplined, subsumed and converted by capital. There is certainly empirical evidence for this, but I think such a view is missing an important point which Marx’s Critique makes clear: Capitalism is a necessary historical condition for the mode of production that succeeds it (communism). Though worker coops might fail to maintain their radical objectives of democratic control over the means of production, they can be understood as prefigurative projects that have developed out of the historical and material conditions of capitalism. Worker coops are a dialectical response to capitalism and everything we understand about that historical mode of production. As Marx said, they “attack the groundwork” of capitalism, but they are not its negation. No single organisational form is. Furthermore, the transition to post-capitalism is inevitably gradual since the mode of production, according to Marx’s tradition of historical materialism, also ‘produces’ who we are and how we think. In that sense, we are capitalism. Several hundred years of being conditioned by capitalism cannot be rejected or put aside during a brief revolutionary uprising or indeed the constitution of a co-operative.

In some respects, attributes of communism are already here: the production of ‘free software‘ is a good example, I think. There are many examples of collective efforts to practice new forms of social relations that are not mediated directly by the capitalist production of value. The Social Science Centre, in which I am involved, is one of them. Of course, these are made possible, in part, because its members subsist through capitalist work elsewhere, but such efforts are experiments for exploring the possibilities of new forms of social relations. They are often transient, but collectively and gradually, have a pedagogical purpose in exploring the possibilities of alternative historical, material conditions and therefore new forms of subjectivity, knowledge and culture. Individually, I don’t think we should expect too much of them but rather engage them in critique as Marx was doing with the Gotha Programme . Collectively and over time, they are exploring and developing the conditions for a post-capitalist mode of production and social relations. To use Marx’s metaphor, they are a form of midwifery for a new mode of production to emerge from the “womb” of capitalism.

Another observation I had when reading the text is that Marx is relentless and steadfast in adhering to his scientific critique of capitalism. There are to be no compromises and much of his Critique of the Gotha Programme is an attack on the development of state socialism because he knew it could only be another form of liberal capitalism. For anyone to maintain Marx’s critical integrity is very difficult, not only to comprehend in the first place, but to commit to against popular (liberal) criticism , the seduction of capitalism, and what may appear to be the good intentions of the Left which are, in fact, only operating at the level of appearances, rather than social, scientific substance.

Section One

The Critique is a late text by Marx, which he described as “marginal notes” on the draft programme of the United Workers’ Party of Germany.  It is a scathing, short text, showing little regard for the version of socialism that the Gotha Programme outlines. It is regarded as one of the key documents where he described characteristics of a future post-capitalist mode of production: communism. On a number of occasions, he also discusses the role of co-operatives in the gradual transition from capitalism to communism.

In the text, it is clear that the capitalist mode of production is a necessary pre-condition for the communist mode of production. Marx states that “in present capitalist society the material, etc., conditions have at last been created which enable and compel the workers to lift this social curse.” In this respect, capitalism is both a curse and a force that develops the potential, unique in history, for self-determination.

What distinguishes the two modes of capitalist and communist production?

From Marx’s body of work, we can say that the capitalist mode of production has the primary purpose of creating value (‘wealth’) and it is a result of this imperative that ‘culture’ and other aspects of social life appear. It is a social, ‘co-operative‘ mode of production where labour power is employed to produce products/services (‘commodities’) for the purpose of exchange rather than direct use by the workers. The products are bought to be used by other workers (in their role as ‘consumers’), who likewise produce products/services for the purpose of exchange, and so on.

In this mode of production, the labour of an individual is not direct labour (Marx refers to it as ‘indirect’) that results in the exchange of another product of labour of equal value. In the capitalist mode of production, where workers do not own and control the means of production in common, they must negotiate the value of their labour power with the owners of the means of production (‘capitalists’), whose role and imperative it is to create additional, surplus value out of the labour power of the worker. Since the worker does not receive a wage that is equal in value to the value of their labour power, the money  they exchange (as an concrete representation of the abstraction of ‘value’) for the product of others is not a direct (i.e. equivalent) abstraction of the true value of their labour power in exchange for the true value of another worker’s labour power. Both workers have been paid less than the true value of their labour power and therefore the exchange value of the transaction does not equate to the use value of the worker’s labour power as a commodity itself.

To try to offer a simplified example:

Bob, who produces chairs is paid £10 for one hour’s work which his employer anticipates is worth £20 to them upon exchange of the chair that Bob produces. In this case, Bob’s labour power is actually worth £20 (the price of the product will be higher still) but is forcibly undersold to the employer who is under constant pressure to realise a surplus for a number of reasons, one of which is to re-invest surplus capital in new methods of production so as to remain competitive in the marketplace. Likewise, Bob sells his labour in a competitive labour market and is under constant pressure to identify the full value of his labour power so as to sell it at the highest price.

Likewise, Alice, who produces coats, is paid £5 an hour and her employer calculates that her labour power is actually worth £15 to them. Like Bob’s chairs, the final price of the coat is much higher and takes into account all other costs involved in production as well as the need to realise an overall surplus. A reliable income of surplus value can be achieved by her employer if Alice and her co-workers are consistently paid less than the true value of their labour power.

When Bob buys one of Alice’s coats, he uses some of the money from his wage. The money (cash or electronic) is the concrete result of the abstract exchange of value which takes place between Bob and his employer. Bob transfers that value to Alice’s employer, who has also undertaken an exchange of money for her labour power.  In Bob’s purchase of Alice’s product, the relationship between all four parties can be described like this:

Bob’s employer pays Bob for his labour power, who pays Alice’s employer for the coat, who pays Alice for her labour power.

However, the relationship between Bob and Alice, who may live on opposite sides of the world, is not direct, not because they don’t physically hand over the coat for money or barter chairs for coats, but because Bob and Alice’s employers have intervened in the exchange by under-valuing the true value of their labour power.

As such, labour power is no longer being exchanged as an equivalent, but rather the product of labour power, the commodity is exchanged as an equivalent. There is, what we might call a ‘corruption’ in what could be, under a different (proto-communist) mode of production, an exchange of equal values measured by the equal standard of labour rather than the equal value of the commodity. As such Alice’s labour power would be a direct equivalent of Bob’s labour power.

“…the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.”

In this transitional phase from capitalism to communism, the remnant of equivalence still remains from the capitalist mode of production, but it is an equivalence not mediated by capital but by labour which owns the means of production. An individual firm operating in this way is simply a situation where “workers are their own capitalists” and remain subject to the forces of the competitive markets. However this changes when the majority of enterprises in society are run as producer co-operatives.

“Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor.”

In his Critique, Marx recognises that a new mode of production cannot develop apart from the existing mode of production, nor will it occur suddenly. Communism emerges slowly from the “womb” of capitalism.

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

Recognising this transition, Marx offers some examples of what intermediary changes might take place prior to the establishing of full communism.

“Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made — exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption.

But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form”

The “deductions” Marx refers to can be generally understood as contributions (taxes) to administration, public services and welfare. In the transition from capitalism to communism, he sees some of those contributions diminishing and some increasing:

“First, the general costs of administration not belonging to production. This part will, from the outset, be very considerably restricted in comparison with present-day society, and it diminishes in proportion as the new society develops. Second, that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc. From the outset, this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops. Third, funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, for what is included under so-called official poor relief today.”

As I understand it, in such a society, there would be no need for the products of this mode of production to be held privately, because no-one is attempting to undercut the value of labour power in order to create a private surplus of value. All such goods and services would effectively be owned in common by individual workers and what we think of as ‘exchange’ would be recognised not as an act of transferring value, but merely as an exercise in administration and planning so as to avoid scarcity. In effect, exchange as understood under the capitalist mode of production would be abolished and labour would exist “directly as a component part of total labour.” Marx calls this ‘direct’ mode of production, communism. Arguably, this is already in practice among ‘free software‘ developers.

It is fundamental to Marx’s historical materialist method of analysis and critical theory that we understand that the specific historical mode of production gives rise to culture and therefore is the basis of human ideas. In a transition from one mode of production to another, people will assume existing principles hold true despite growing evidence of their contradictory nature. Discussing the equivalence of labour power, Marx identifies the principle of “equal right” as such a principle that will initially remain:

“Hence, equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.”

Marx sees the principle of “equal right” as a “bourgeois limitation” that will gradually be stigmatized. He sees this as an inevitable defect in the “first phase of communist society”

“Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

In this transitional phase, “the right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.” Here, Marx explains why the idea of equality is a bourgeois concept: Individuals are different but under the capitalist mode of production we are regarded fundamentally as equivalent workers. A communist society would recognise and compensate inherent ‘inequalities’.

“But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal… In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

In the same way, Marx attacks the Gotha Programme’s assertion of the “fair distribution of the proceeds of labour”. He argues that what we might consider “fair” today, is a result of the capitalist mode of production. As above, he is arguing that legal principles such as “fair” are created within the economic context of the existing mode of production and that what might appear “fair” today, should not be assumed so for post-capitalist society. He regarded such terms as “dogmas, ideas which in a certain period had some meaning but have now become obsolete verbal rubbish”

Here, Marx also makes an interesting distinction about the relationship between production and distribution.

Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labor power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution.

Nothing has changed….!

Further on in the text, Marx discusses the the identity of the working class and its relation to the nation state. He emphasises the need for national solidarity while recognising that capital is transnational: “Every businessman knows that German trade is at the same time foreign trade.” If we relate this to the the formation of producer co-operatives it underlines the need for co-operation and solidarity at both national and international levels. Just as capital is continually trying to operate globally without restriction through international treaty and law, a co-operative working class movement must pursue the same at both the diplomatic, legislative and economic levels.

Section Two

In section two of the Critique, Marx discusses wages in an attempt to remind the United Worker’s Party that their proposed programme is yet again confused and taking retrograde steps by asserting an “iron law of wages”. Marx refers to his earlier work in scientifically analysing waged labour:

“there has asserted itself in our party the scientific understanding that wages are not what they appear to be — namely, the value, or price, of labor—but only a masked form for the value, or price, of labor power. Thereby, the whole bourgeois conception of wages hitherto, as well as all the criticism hitherto directed against this conception, was thrown overboard once and for all. It was made clear that the wage worker has permission to work for his own subsistence—that is, to live, only insofar as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist (and hence also for the latter’s co-consumers of surplus value); that the whole capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this gratis labor by extending the working day, or by developing the productivity—that is, increasing the intensity or labor power, etc.; that, consequently, the system of wage labor is a system of slavery, and indeed of a slavery which becomes more severe in proportion as the social productive forces of labor develop, whether the worker receives better or worse payment.”

Clearly Marx is exasperated here with the lack of understanding and development of his critique of political economy, published just eight years earlier. He criticises the Party, which “following in the wake of the bourgeois economists, took the appearance for the essence of the matter.” Today, he would say that nothing has changed!

Section Three

Section three focuses on the role of the state and the role of class struggle. The Gotha Programme places an emphasis on state assistance in setting up worker co-operatives. Agency is therefore assumed to be in the hands of the state rather than the workers’ struggle. Marx responds:

“Instead of arising from the revolutionary process of transformation of society, the “socialist organization of the total labor” “arises” from the “state aid” that the state gives to the producers’ co-operative societies and which the state, not the workers, “calls into being”.”

Marx is clear that the need for workers themselves to “revolutionize the present conditions of production and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid.” The meaning and purpose of co-operatives is, we might say, expedient or pedagogical. They are a step towards communism and away from the capitalist state, but should not be confused with a form of communism itself. They provide the conditions for communism to historically, materially and epistemologically emerge.

“But as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only insofar as they are the independent creations of the workers and not proteges either of the governments or of the bourgeois.”

Section Four

The final section of the Critique focuses on freedom and democracy. The Gotha Programme advocates “the free basis of the state”, which Marx questions rhetorically: “Free state – what is this?”

He accuses the German Workers’ party of treating the state as independent of the mode of production, asserting that the state is “a fiction”.

“…instead of treating existing society (and this holds good for any future one) as the basis of the existing state (or of the future state in the case of future society), it treats the state rather as an independent entity that possesses its own intellectual, ethical, and libertarian bases.

And what of the riotous misuse which the program makes of the words “present-day state”, “present-day society”, and of the still more riotous misconception it creates in regard to the state to which it addresses its demands?

“Present-day society” is capitalist society, which exists in all civilized countries, more or less free from medieval admixture, more or less modified by the particular historical development of each country, more or less developed. On the other hand, the “present-day state” changes with a country’s frontier. It is different in the Prusso-German Empire from what it is in Switzerland, and different in England from what it is in the United States. The “present-day state” is therefore a fiction.

Nevertheless, the different states of the different civilized countries, in spite or their motley diversity of form, all have this in common: that they are based on modern bourgeois society, only one more or less capitalistically developed. They have, therefore, also certain essential characteristics in common. In this sense, it is possible to speak of the “present-day state” in contrast with the future, in which its present root, bourgeois society, will have died off.”

In this sense, the state as a social form, independent from capitalist society is “a fiction”, but the capitalist state as an abstraction that has essential characteristics shared across national borders, is real: a real abstraction which appears in the form of national governments.

In this section of the Critique, Marx also attempts to discuss how a future communist society would perform the social functions currently handled by the state (“the government machine”).

“What transformation will the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions? This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand-fold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state’.

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

It’s worth nothing, too, that Marx views social change without regard for national borders. He complains that the Gotha Programme is simply appealing for what has already been realised elsewhere. For the German liberal socialist, the future already exists, only it is elsewhere (Switzerland!).

“Now the program does not deal with this nor with the future state of communist society.

Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been realized. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of “state of the future” is a present-day state, although existing outside the “framework” of the German Empire.”

Although written nearly 150 years ago, the same could be said of much political activism today.

Marx is scathing at this point in the Critique, and accuses the German Workers’ Party of demanding a democratic republic from what he regards as a military dictatorship, “a state which is nothing but a police-guarded military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms”. Only in their imagination could their demands be met through the instruments of the bourgeois state.

The last few paragraphs of the Critique focus on the demand for free, public elementary education. Marx argues that “free” education is not free but paid for through taxation of the rich and he equates the demand for free education to the existing administration of free criminal justice, which “is to be had free everywhere.” Marx objects to “elementary education by the state”, preferring the American system whereby education is regulated by the state, rather than “appointing the state as the educator of the people!” Rather, “the state has need, on the contrary, of a very stern education by the people.”

“But the whole program, for all its democratic clang, is tainted through and through by the Lassallean sect’s servile belief in the state, or, what is no better, by a democratic belief in miracles; or rather it is a compromise between these two kinds of belief in miracles, both equally remote from socialism.”

Marx on co-operation

When numerous labourers work together side by side, whether in one and the same process, or in different but connected processes, they are said to co-operate, or to work in co-operation… Co-operation ever constitutes the fundamental form of the capitalist mode of production. (Marx, Capital Vol.1, Ch. 13)

I think that what is key to any advocacy of co-operatives as anti- or post-capitalist organisations, is not co-operation in terms of the division and participation of labour, but rather co-ops as a response to capital’s antagonistic relationship between labour and property: democratic control of capital by workers i.e. a ‘commons’.

I have no interest in advocating co-operatives that do not pursue ‘common ownership‘. 1

Co-operative universities mailing list

If you are interested in discussing, researching, keeping up-to-date and even creating a co-operative university, there is a mailing list you can join.

https://lists.mayfirst.org/mailman/listinfo/co-op-universities

The list was first set up by a group of us who attended the Co-operative Education Against the Crises conference earlier in the year. Since Dan Cook published his report and the Institute of Education hosted a seminar, people have been in touch via this blog, Twitter and email, asking me how to stay involved.

Please join the mailing list and introduce yourself. As I write this post (17th Dec 2013), it has a membership of 14 people.

The mailing list is hosted by Mayfirst/People Link, a politically progressive member-run collective of technologists.

Co-operative principles in higher education?

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 (2013) 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 [download his slides]. 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 around 150 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.

Co-operative university seminar

Reposted from the Co-operative College website:

A free seminar on the potential for co-operative approaches in higher education will take place on Thursday 12 December in Room 804 of the Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, from 5.30pm-7.30pm.

Recent years have seen the dramatic growth of ‘co-operative schools’, which have adopted and adapted co-operative values and principles in working with key stakeholder groups such as learners, staff, parents and community. Co-operative and mutual models have also been developed across other areas of civil society including health, leisure and care. Given the dramatic transformation of higher education in recent years, the potential for universities to be remodelled along co-operative lines is being assessed. This approach offers a new take on debates over privatisation, marketisation and the defence of the ‘public university’. Our three speakers will examine these contested claims and outline ideas for a co-operative university, drawing upon historical and international perspectives.

Speakers at the seminar will include:

  • Professor Stephen Yeo (formerly of Ruskin College): The Co-operative University: Problems and Opportunities, some experience and ideas
  • Mervyn Wilson (Principal and Chief Executive, Co-operative College): From Schools to Universities – Co-operative Solutions?
  • Dan Cook (University of Bristol): Realising the Co-operative University?

Higher Education (HE) has become a massive global industry. On one hand HE now attracts significant public and private investment and the interest of policymakers in expanding the benefits it offers. On the other hand, casualisation of the workforce, spiralling fees and managerialism threaten to undermine traditional vocational and educational values. The co-operative movement’s commitment to education is a deep and long-standing one, yet co-operatives have only a minimal formal presence in the higher education sector. What are the factors acting as barriers and enablers to increasing co-operative presence in the Higher Education Sector? Focusing on the UK, Dan will examine the legal, financial and cultural factors that bear on co-operative presence in the Higher Education Sector. Dan will also explore some of the implications of his investigations for an increased co-operative presence in UK Higher Education, and indicate the future direction for inquiry.

For more information please see flier below. To reserve a place contact Tom Woodin at t.woodin@ioe.ac.uk.

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.

Co-operative universities: A bibliography

Framework for Co-operative Higher Education
Framework for Co-operative Higher Education

Here, I maintain a bibliography of articles, reports, presentations and book chapters that discuss the idea of a ‘co-operative university’, with a specific focus on co-operative ownership and co-operative governance of higher education institutions. If you know of any other research, please leave a comment or email me. Thank you.

Last updated 30th November 2017

Boden, R. et al (2012) Trust Universities? Governance for Post-Capitalist Futures. Journal of Co-operative Studies, Volume 45, Number 2, Autumn 2012 , pp. 16-24(9) (Related slides)

Boden, R. et al (2011) Shopping around for a better way to operate? Try John Lewis. Times Higher Education, 13th January 2011.

Bothwell, Ellie (2016) Plan to ‘recreate public higher education’ in cooperative university, Times Higher Education, 17 August 2016.

Cook, Dan (2013) Realising the Co-operative University. A consultancy report for The Co-operative College.

Cunningham. (1874). Higher Education on Co-operative Principles. In Co-operative Congress Proceedings (pp. 54–55 & 89–90). Presented at the Co-operative Congress, Halifax: The Co-operative College.

Dilger, A 2007, ‘German Universities as State-sponsored Co-operatives‘, Management Revue, 18, 2, pp. 102-116.

Findlay, L. (2010). Academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and the co-operative university. In J. Newson & C. Polster (Eds.), Academic callings: The university we have had, now have, and could have (pp. 212-218). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Glaser, E. (2017) A cooperative university must ensure high standards. Times Higher Education. 30/11/17

Hall, Richard & Winn, Joss (eds.) (2017) Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. London: Bloomsbury.

Hall, Richard & Winn (2017) Social co-operatives and the democratisation of higher education. The Co-operative Education and Research Conference, 5-6 April 2017, Manchester.

Haubert, Maxime (1986). Adult education and grass-roots organisations in Latin America: The contribution of the International Co-operative University.  International Labour Review. 1986, Vol. 125 Issue 2, p177. 16p.

James, E. & Neuberger, E. (1981) The University Department as a Non-Profit Labor Cooperative. In: Public Choice, 36: 585-612.

Juby, P. (2011, September 3). A Co-operative University? Conference presentation at the Society for Co-operative Studies Conference, Cardiff.

Matthews, David (2014) All together now: higher education and the cooperative model. Times Higher Education. 14th August 2014.

Matthews, David (2013) Inside a co-operative university. Times Higher Education, 29th August 2013.

McQuillan, M. (2017) Co-operative challenger rises in Manchester, *Research.

Neary, Mike, Katia Valenzuela Fuentes and Joss Winn (2017) Co-operative Leadership and Higher Education: four case studies. The Co-operative Education and Research Conference, 5-6 April 2017, Manchester.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2017) The Social Science Centre, Lincoln: the theory and practice of a radical idea, Roars Transactions, 5(1) 1-12.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2017) Beyond Public and Private: A Framework for Co-operative Higher Education. Open Library of Humanities, 3(2): 2, 1–36.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2017) There is an alternative: A report on an action research project to develop a framework for co-operative higher education, Learning and Teaching. The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences, 10 (1) 87-105.

Neary, Mike, Simon Parkinson, Cilla Ross and Joss Winn (2016) Co-operative Universities: A chance to re-imagine higher education? Co-operative Party blog, 01/09/2016. See related Co-op Party policy on education (October 2017, p.25)

Neary, Mike (2016) Teaching Excellence Framework: a critical response and an alternative future. Journal of Contemporary European Research, 12 (3) 690-695.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2016) The University of Utopia, Post-16 Educator, (84) 13-15.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2016) Beyond public and private: a framework for co-operative higher education. Conference paper.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2015) Beyond public and private: a model for co-operative higher educationKrisis: Journal for contemporary philosophy.

Perez Ruiz, P. (2015) What is university for?, The Columnist.

Puukka, J. et al (2013) Higher Education 
in Regional and City Development: Basque Country, Spain. OECD.

Reed, D. (2014). Occupy the University! Leveraging Value Coherence to Engage Higher Education as a Strategic Partner in Cooperative Development. In L. Hammond Ketilson & M. -P. Robichaud Villettaz (under the direction of), Cooperatives’ Power to Innovate: Texts Selected from the International Call for Papers (p.193 – 206). Lévis: International Summit of Cooperatives.

Ridley, David (2017) Institutionalising critical pedagogy: Lessons from against and beyond the neo-liberal university, Power and Education, 9 (1) 65-81.

Ridley-Duff, R. (2011) Co-operative University and Business School: Developing an institutional and educational offer. UK Society for Co-operative Studies.

Ridley-Duff, R. (2012, November 1). Developing Co-operative Universities. Presented at the ICA Expo, Manchester, UK

Saunders, Gary (2017) Somewhere Between Reform and Revolution: Alternative Higher Education and ‘The Unfinished’. In: Hall, Richard & Winn, Joss (eds.) (2017) Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. London: Bloomsbury.

Social Science Centre, Lincoln (2017) Making a co-operative university, WonkHE 8th August 2017.

Social Science Centre, Lincoln (2013) An experiment in free, co-operative higher education. Radical Philosophy, No.182.

Somerville, P & Saunders, G. (2013) Beyond Public and Private: the transformation of higher education. Conference paper.

Somerville, P. (2014) Towards co-operative higher education. Presentation at the Department of Politics and Public Policy, De Montfort University, May 7th.

Somerville, P. (2014) Prospects for co-operative higher education. Conference paper for Society of Co-operative Studies, Colchester 6-7th September 2014.

Sperlinger, Tom (2014) Is a co-operative university model a sustainable alternative? Guardian, 26th March, 2014.

Swain, Harriet (2017) Coming soon, a university where students could set their own tuition fees, Guardian, 12th September 2017.

Williamson, Bill (2017) The Co-operative University: Notes towards an achievable ideal.

Wilma van der Veen, E. (2010) The New University Cooperative: Reclaiming Higher Education: Prioritizing Social Justice and Ecological Sustainability, Affinities journal, Vol. 4 No. 1.

Winn, Joss (2014) The co-operative university: labour, property and pedagogy. Governing Academic Life, 25-26 June 2014, London School of Economics.

Winn, Joss (2014) Reimagining the University. Keynote talk for Reimagining the University conference, University of Gloucester. 17-18 October 2014.

Winn, Joss (2014) Social solidarity co-operatives for higher educationLearning Together: Perspectives in Co-operative Education. 9th December 2014, People’s History Museum.

Winn, Joss (2015) The co-operative university: Labour, property and pedagogy. Power and Education, 7 (1).

Winn, Joss (2015) Democratically controlled, co-operative higher educationopenDemocracy.

Woodhouse, Howard (2011) Learning for Life: The People’s Free University and the Civil Commons. Studies in Social Justice. Vol. 5, Issue 1, 77-90

Woodin, Tom (2017) Co-operation, leadership and learning: Fred Hall and the Co-operative College before 1939. In: Hall, Richard & Winn, Joss (eds.) (2017) Mass Intellectuality and Democratic Leadership in Higher Education. London: Bloomsbury.

Wright, S. et al (2011) Report on a field visit to 
Mondragón University:
 a cooperative experience/experiment. Learning and Teaching. Vol. 4, Issue 3.

Yeo, Stephen (2014) The co-operative university? Transforming higher education. In: Woodin, Tom (Ed.) Co-operation, Learning and Co-operative Values, London: Routledge.

Reports from Making the Co-operative University conference, 9th November 2017, Manchester. 

Hall, R. (2017) In, Against and Beyond the Co-operative University

Macintyre, R. (2017) The Co-op Uni: From Pedagogy to Governance and Back

Nerantzi, C. (2017) What are our big ideas about a #coopuni?

Winn, J. (2017) Making the Co-operative University

Voinea, A. (2017) Setting a vision for a co-operative university.

Elsewhere…

You may also be interested in articles written about the Social Science Centre, a co-operative for higher education in Lincoln.

You may also be interested in a recent project to develop a framework for co-operative higher education, funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation.

Research funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education: Co-operative Leadership in Higher Education

There is also a mailing list for discussion about co-operative higher education (note that from January 2018, a new Co-operative Higher Education Network has been established by the Co-operative College).

Dan Cook also maintains a website about Co-operative Universities.

Examples of co-operative higher education

Mondragon University

Social Science Centre

Unicoop

Florida Universitaria

UnivSSE

Co-operative Institute for Transnational Studies

Leicester Vaughan College

Related research into co-operative schools

Davidge, Gail (2014) For “getting it”: an ethnographic study of co-operative schools. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University. (see also Davidge’s subsequent book).

Special issue of Forum journal (2013) edited by Tom Woodin: Co-operative education for a new age?

Special issue of the Journal of Co-operative Studies (2011) edited by Maureen Breeze: Co-operation in Education.

Woodin, Tom (Ed.) Co-operation, Learning and Co-operative Values, London: Routledge.

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!