Beyond public and private: A framework for co-operative higher education

The following paper has been accepted for the Co-operative Education conference 2016, Manchester (21-22nd April)

The paper has also been accepted for the 2016 International Co-operative Alliance research conference in Almeria, Spain (May 24-27th).

The paper will also be presented at the Universities in the Knowledge Economy (UNIKE) conference, Copenhagen, Denmark (14-17th June). 

Framework for Co-operative Higher Education (click to enlarge)
Framework for Co-operative Higher Education (click to enlarge). Design by Sam Randall, student at University of Lincoln.

Prof. Mike Neary and Dr Joss Winn, University of Lincoln

Download the paper (PDF). Comment on the paper (Google Docs)

Universities in the UK are increasingly adopting corporate governance structures, a consumerist model of teaching and learning, and have the most expensive tuition fees in the world (McGettigan, 2013; OECD, 2015). This paper will report on a 12-month project funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) to develop an alternative model of knowledge production grounded in co-operative values and principles. The project has been run with the Social Science Centre (SSC), a small, experimental co-operative for higher education established in Lincoln in 2011 (Social Science Centre, 2013).

We will discuss the design of the research project, the widespread interest in the idea of co-operative higher education and our approach based on the collaborative production of knowledge by academics and students (Neary and Winn, 2009; Winn 2015). The main findings of the research so far will be outlined relating to the key themes of our research: pedagogy, governance, legal frameworks, business models, and transnational solidarity. We will consider how these five themes relate to three identified routes to co-operative higher education (conversion, dissolution, or creation) and argue that such work must be grounded in an adequate critique of labour and property i.e. the capital relation. We will identify both the possible opportunities that the latest higher education reform in the UK affords the co-operative movement as well as the issues that arise from a more marketised and financialised approach to the production of knowledge (HEFCE, 2015). Finally, we will suggest ways that the co-operative movement might respond with democratic alternatives that go beyond the distinction of public and private education.

References

HEFCE (2015) Operating Framework for Higher Education.

McGettigan, Andrew (2013) The Great University Gamble: Money, Markets and the Future of Higher Education. London: Pluto Press.

OECD (2015) Education at a Glance 2015.

Social Science Centre (2013) An experiment in free, co-operative higher education. Radical Philosophy, 182.

Winn, Joss (2015) The Co-operative University: Labour, Property and Pedagogy, Power and Education, 7 (1) 39-55.

Mike and I will also be running a workshop on the second day of the Co-operative College conference:

The Co-operative Movement and Higher Education

This workshop will focus on the theory and practice of higher learning in the context of the co-operative movement. We will ask participants to consider ‘co-operative learning’, not as the practice of ‘positive interdependence’ but as a form of negative social critique that moves us towards the production of practical-critical knowledge for a post-capitalist society.

Is the worker co-operative form suitable for a university? (Part 1)

Were a university run as a worker co-operative, it would likely be characterised by the following definition, approved by the International Co-operative Alliance in 2005 1)Full statement can be downloaded here.

Worker cooperatives contain the following basic characters:

  1. They have the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, to improve the quality of life of its worker-members, dignify human work, allow workers’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development.
  2. The free and voluntary membership of their members, in order to contribute with their personal work and economic resources, is conditioned by the existence of workplaces.
  3. As a general rule, work shall be carried out by the members. This implies that the majority of the workers in a given worker cooperative enterprise are members and vice versa.
  4. The worker-members’ relation with their cooperative shall be considered as different to that of conventional wage-based labour and to that of autonomous individual work.
  5. Their internal regulation is formally defined by regimes that are democratically agreed upon and accepted by the worker-members.
  6. They shall be autonomous and independent, before the State and third parties, in their labour relations and management, and in the usage and management of the means of production.

Using this declaration, we might re-phrase it in language more suited to higher education. In my conception of a co-operative university, there is no formal distinction between a member who undertakes research, teaching, cleaning, administration, etc. As such, there is no formal distinction between teacher or student either. In such an organisation, scholars would research, teach, study, learn, undertake administration and clean. The division of labour would be democratically governed so that it is radically less divided. I therefore refer to all members as ‘scholars’ through their diverse contribution to the production of knowledge. This was something we discussed at length during the formation of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln.  The intention here is the dissolution of production and consumption and therefore the dissolution of exchange value and simultaneously the dissolution of value mediated by exchange. As ‘scholars’, those individuals in a truly democratic organisation relate to one-another directly.  Abolishing the formal distinction between teacher and student raises a number of questions that I will address elsewhere (e.g. without such an exchange relation, how does the co-operative generate wealth? What is its relationship with other organisations and with the State?)

So, to re-phrase the above definition:

A co-operative university contains the following basic characters:

  1. This university has the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, to improve the quality of life of its scholars, dignify human work, allow scholars’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development.
  2. The free and voluntary membership of its members, in order to contribute with their personal work and economic resources, is conditioned by the existence of workplaces.
  3. As a general rule, work shall be carried out by the members. This implies that the majority of the scholars in the university are members and vice versa.
  4. The scholar-members’ relation with their university shall be considered as different to that of conventional wage-based labour and to that of autonomous individual work.
  5. Their internal regulation is formally defined by regimes that are democratically agreed upon and accepted by the scholar-members.
  6. They shall be autonomous and independent, before the State and third parties, in their labour relations and management, and in the usage and management of the means of production.

A few notes:

When I use the term, ‘university’, I mean any site, physical or virtual, where scholars (i.e. teachers and students) convene for the purposes of research-based teaching and learning. I anticipate that a co-operative university would, in some ways, redefine what a university might be, and by extension, what we mean by ‘higher education’, too. In defining a ‘co-operative university’, we also have to re-define, or drop altogether, related key terms (e.g. higher education, university, student, teacher, research, knowledge, etc.)

Worker co-operatives are defined in productivist language. This may seem at odds with some people’s understanding of a university, thinking that it primarily exists to ‘educate’ and not to ‘produce’. My own view is that a capitalist university (that is, a university funded by a capitalist state or a university operating in a capitalist market), exists for the production of value in the commodity form of knowledge, and for the self-reproduction of workers and therefore of capital. The university is, therefore, a ‘means of production’. If we are against this tendency, there is a danger that by adopting the worker co-operative form we reinforce the productivist character of the university. However, I think there is much to be gained from drawing on the history and experience of the (worker) co-operative movement, and that it might be seen as a transitional form to a post-capitalist form of social relations.

For a general introduction to worker co-operatives see:

Wikipedia: Worker cooperative

How to set up a Worker’s Co-op (PDF)

The worker co-operative code (PDF)

Worker co-operative case studies

On Marx, socialism and worker co-operatives (and my initial critique), see:

The association of free and equal producers

Notes towards a critique of ‘Labour Managed Firms’

 

References   [ + ]

1. Full statement can be downloaded here