The Higher Education and Research Act (2017) and Co-operative HE

If you read this blog for information about co-operative higher education, you may know that the Higher Education and Research Act (HERA) has recently been enacted but there is still much to speculate on in relation to holding Degree Awarding Powers and University title. Two different slants on it all are quoted below:

The Convention for Higher Education have represented academic activists throughout the development and debate around the earlier Bill:

University title. The HE Bill said very little about what a university was for, what a new provider would need to do to qualify, etc. As a result of the ‘wash-up’ there will now be a full consultation on the definition of a university, following which the Secretary of State will issue guidance to Office for Students (OfS) on criteria for the award of university titles. The consultation must include consideration of university functions set out in legislation in other territories, as well as factors including teaching, research, strength of academic community, learning infrastructure, infrastructure, pastoral care and knowledge exchange.

There is a real opportunity to campaign to insist on a robust definition of University autonomy and a mission to defend Academic Freedom being written into University titles. This campaign should include citation of the Scottish HE Governance Act, which among other things stipulates that the chair of the Governing body must be elected.

Degree Awarding Powers. Degree Awarding Powers can only be granted, revoked or varied following advice by a designated independent quality body that the institution meets an appropriate standard. If no designated quality body exists, the OfS must set up an independent specific committee with a majority of members with no previous involvement with the OfS. There will be an automatic review of Degree Awarding Powers if there is a change of ownership or a merger at a University.

Again, there is an opportunity to campaign here to ensure that Degree Awarding Powers are only given to independent universities with provision for independent oversight, including but not limited to an independent academic culture and external examination.

For a fuller account, read the whole post.

Dan Cook, author of Realising the Co-operative University (2013) has just posted his assessment of the Act in terms of what it means for the development of co-operative higher education and more specifically, a co-operative university:

What is not said is as important as what is said. There is no mention of precise conditions under which an institution may or may not be granted the power to award degrees or use the title “University” so the OfS will presumably have considerable latitude to establish conditions appropriate to the authorisation of “a registered higher education provider to grant taught awards or research awards or both.” This power will be exercised under a Statutory Instrument. This is an area to watch closely for signs of the emerging practice for authorising degree awarding powers to new entrants. The power for one provider to authorise another to be able to utilise its degree awarding powers is also controlled by the Act, and time-limits may also be set for awarding powers.

The scene is set for a diverse range of HE providers to be recognised, and regulated in a risk-based way, that explicitly recognises differences in size and mission. Barriers to entry are thus lowered for new entrants to enter the HE market, and the consumer interests of students are protected separately to the success or failure of the institution at which they study.

It would even be possible, in time, for cooperative higher education to develop a distinctive set of principles that could be recognised by the regulator as having validity within a “certain” “description” of providers: Cooperative Higher Education Providers.

Again, for a fuller account, read the whole post.

As our research showed, there are different aspirations for and routes to co-operative higher education and working within the new regulatory framework is important for many people so as to have access to funding, degree awarding powers, university title and the ‘legitimacy’ that comes with all of this.

We know that co-operative schools struggle to maintain their co-operative values and principles within the regulatory environment imposed on them and it is likely to be the same for co-operative HEIs, too. The extent that it is possible to subvert and manipulate an administrative environment set within a regulatory framework that is itself a legal expression of the commodity-form (cf. Pashukanis; Mieville) is not simply answered in the positive or the negative, but worked out in the dialectical process of struggling with and through these issues. Despite two different takes on the HERA from Dan Cook and the Convention for HE, both show that it is less a question of being for or against the Act but rather how we respond and use it to overcome the logic upon which it is based. Historically, co-operatives have emerged at such points and demonstrate that the divide between public and private, between the power of the state and the power of money, are not the only choices we have.

The University of Mondragon was set up under similar conditions, when changes in Spanish law during the 1990s made it possible for the creation of a secondary co-operative university that awards degrees on behalf of autonomous, discipline-based Faculty co-operatives, each of which adhere to a set of co-operative principles where capital is subordinate to the sovereignty of labour. The conditions in England and Wales are not the same as the Basque region of Northern Spain, but this example does offer an alternative way to approach the situation we find ourselves in.

HE White Paper, the HERB, and Co-operative Higher Education

Yesterday, my colleague Mike Neary and I met with Dan Cook (who wrote a very good consultancy report for the Co-operative College on Co-operative Universities in 2013), Ian Snaith, a Lawyer and legal scholar specialising in co-operatives, and Smita Jamdar, a Lawyer who specialises in education. Our intention was to look at the new Higher Education and Research Bill (HERB) in some detail, thinking about three scenarios:

  1. The conversion of an existing university to a co-operative
  2. The creation of a new co-operative university (a so-called ‘challenger institution’ to use the aggressive new parlance) 1)What to call new forms of higher education? ‘Alternative providers’? ‘Challenger institutions’? I attended a conference last week where people were avoiding the use of ‘alternative’ because they didn’t want their vision of new forms of HE to be confused with the practices of some ‘alternative providers’ and had opted for ‘heterodox universities’ as an overarching term. Personally, I think ‘co-operative higher education’ avoids all of this and benefits from being an already existing organisational form that has a long, progressive social history – longer than most universities.
  3. The possibility of a foreign co-operative university (e.g. Mondragon) accrediting degrees that are offered by a co-operative in the UK.

In summary, we agreed there will be no real barriers to any of these scenarios should the HERB go through Parliament as it is.

Following our meeting, Dan has published a detailed blog post which annotates the HERB and is well worth a read. There is more work to be done on examining the new legislation and in particular making sure it will fairly accommodate all types of new HEIs, and not just private, profit-making businesses. There are likely to be small changes to the proposed legislation  that could actually support the creation of co-operative universities and this is one of the things we’ll be focusing on in the future.

References   [ + ]

1. What to call new forms of higher education? ‘Alternative providers’? ‘Challenger institutions’? I attended a conference last week where people were avoiding the use of ‘alternative’ because they didn’t want their vision of new forms of HE to be confused with the practices of some ‘alternative providers’ and had opted for ‘heterodox universities’ as an overarching term. Personally, I think ‘co-operative higher education’ avoids all of this and benefits from being an already existing organisational form that has a long, progressive social history – longer than most universities.

Financialising the university: What is to be done?

Andrew McGettigan concludes his article on financialisation and higher education with:

“I am frequently asked, ‘what then should be done?’ My answer is that unless academics rouse themselves and contest the general democratic deficit from within their own institutions and unless we have more journalists taking up these themes locally and nationally, then very little can be done. We are on the cusp of something more profound than is indicated by debates around the headline fee level; institutions and sector could make moves that will be difficult, if not impossible, to undo, whether it is negotiated independence for the elite or shedding charitable status the better to access private finance.”

This is a similar conclusion to that of Brenna Bhandar writing on the LRB blog:

“If there is anything alluring about property as a form, it lies in its mutability, its capacity to be something other than private and exclusive. It is in all our interests to support students, academic and support staff, outsourced cleaners and others in their struggles to reconfigure the ownership of the university, and seize democratic forms of governance the better to create and distribute the social goods that we produce collectively, in spite of current government policies and management strategies.”

There are three responses to this that I can suggest:

  • 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.