Is the worker co-operative form suitable for a university? (Part 3)

In some earlier notes, I asked whether the worker co-operative form is suitable for a university in light of how the international co-operative movement defines the ‘character’ of worker co-operatives and the re-conceptualisation of academic labour that this organisational form would imply. I asserted that the university is already a means of production which capital employs together with academic labour to re-produce labour in the form of students, and value in the commodity form of knowledge. A worker owned co-operative university would therefore control the means of knowledge production and potentially produce a new form of knowledge.

I also summarised the values and principles of the co-operative movement as a whole, noting that they are (for most individuals) aligned with academic values and principles. I highlighted the emphasis among worker co-operatives on ‘common ownership’ as a form of property relations which overcomes the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ to produce an ‘academic commons’. I pointed to the ways in which such a worker co-operative university might be governed, the integration of co-operative values and principles into the curriculum and other organisational practices (cf. Facer (2011)) and outlined three ‘routes to co-operation’: conversion, dissolution, creation. Finally, I suggested that the distinction between teacher and student would necessarily be dissolved and with it the division of labour, too. Assuming this was the case, a radically different method of curriculum development and pedagogy would be required. Drawing on Kasmir’s reflections on Mondragon, the Spanish worker co-op, that we should “be skeptical of models that make business forms rather than people the agents of social change”, it follows that the organisational form of a ‘co-operative university’ should itself be derived from the pedagogical relationship between teacher-student-scholar-members i.e. ‘scholars’. I suggested that the basis of this pedagogical relationship might be work I have been involved in referred to as ‘Student as Producer’.

 Student as Producer

“The idea of student as producer encourages the development of collaborative relations between student and academic for the production of knowledge. However, if this idea is to connect to the project of refashioning in fundamental ways the nature of the university, then further attention needs to be paid to the framework by which the student as producer contributes towards mass intellectuality. This requires academics and students to do more than simply redesign their curricula, but go further and redesign the organizing principle, (i.e. private property and wage labour), through which academic knowledge is currently being produced.” (Neary & Winn, 2009, 137)

In these notes I want to review the work of my colleague, Mike Neary, who conceived and developed ‘Student as Producer’ and has subsequently led a project to implement research-based teaching and learning across our entire institution. Here, I want to focus on the theoretical development of Student as Producer and consider its suitability and utility as the pedagogical basis on which a worker co-operative for higher education might be developed. In order to do this, I work my way chronologically through several substantive pieces of writing about Student as Producer.

In each reading, I try to glean specific features of Student as Producer as it has developed, which seem relevant to my overarching question: ‘Is the worker co-operative form suitable for a university?’ I do not attempt to fully answer the question in this series of posts, but rather identify points, issues, questions and considerations for further exploration.

Linked to this blog post are seven subsequent sets of notes, covering seven of Neary’s articles and one keynote transcript. Click on the article title to go to each set of notes. It amounts to around 15,000 words and so it may be preferable to read it in PDF format. If you wish to cite them, please treat them as “preliminary notes”. Thank you.

1a. Neary, Mike (2008) Student as producer – risk, responsibility and rich learning environments in higher education. Articles from the Learning and Teaching Conference 2008. Eds: Joyce Barlow, Gail Louw, Mark Price. University of Brighton Press. Centre for Learning and Teaching

1b. Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. In: The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Eds. Bell, Neary, Stevenson. Continuum, London, pp. 192-210.

2. Neary, Mike and Hagyard, Andy (2010) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy of Student Life. In: The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Eds. Molesworth, Scullion and Nixon. Routledge, Abingdon, pp. 209-224.

3. Neary, Mike (2010) Student as Producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde; or, how do revolutionary teachers teach? Learning Exchange, Vol. 1, No. 1. 

4. Neary, Michael (2012) Teaching politically: policy, pedagogy and the new European university. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10 (2). pp. 233-257.

5. Neary, Michael (2012) Student as producer: an institution of the common? [or how to recover communist/revolutionary science]. Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences.

6. Neary, Mike and Amsler, Sarah (2012) Occupy: a new pedagogy of space and time? Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 10 (2)

7. Neary, Mike (2013) Student as Producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde; or, how to revolutionary teachers teach? [v2] Paper presented at Walter Benjamin, Pedagogy and the Politics of Youth conference, London. [unpublished]


Student as Producer (5)

See an introduction to this series of notes here.

5. Neary, Michael (2012) Student as producer: an institution of the common? [or how to recover communist/revolutionary science]. Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences.

This is a key paper in Neary’s theoretical development of Student as Producer. In it, he again engages with the work of the Edu-Factory collective, or rather a recent book by one of its main spokespersons, Giggi Roggero, called ‘The production of living knowledge: the crisis of the university and the transformation of labour in Europe and North America‘.  Neary also draws on Paul du Gay’s work ‘In praise of bureaucracy‘, which I have found helpful in my exploration of whether the worker co-operative form is suited to higher education. Finally, the paper also explores the history of “revolutionary science”, connecting the 19th c. work of Marx to the work of 13th c. Bishop of Lincoln and first vice-chancellor of Oxford, Robert Grosseteste.

Whereas in an earlier paper, Neary distanced himself from the liberalism of Humboldt, he begins this paper by stating that

“Student as Producer is reclaiming the progressive vision of German Idealists in the 19th century for a liberal humanist university as a site for speculative philosophy, ie a social encyclopaedia of knowledge at the level of society (Lyotard 1984). Student as Producer is grounding this ‘ideal of the university’ in the radicalised student–worker uprisings of 1968 and the ways in which this student protest has re-emerged at the beginning of the 21st century against the privatisation of university life, now packaged as the ‘student experience’ where the most predominant imperative is employability.” (Neary 2012: 2)

He argues that the recent privatisation of higher education in the UK is “nothing less than a reactionary political act of intellectual vandalism and a declaration of war against critique.” (ibid)

“The purpose of Student as Producer is not to maintain higher education as a social science fiction about the struggle over the false dichotomy between its public and private function: after all both are complementary forms of capitalist regulation (Neary 2012a). The aim of Student as Producer is to “dissolve” (Holloway 2010) or better still “detonate” (Lefebvre 1991) the social relation of capital out of which the current version of the university is derived (Neary 2012a), so as to recreate the university as a new form of social institution, what Giggi Roggero calls an “institution of the common” (Roggero 2011).” (Neary 2012: 3)

His engagement with Roggero’s work is very complementary. In particular, he regards Roggero’s chosen method of ‘militant enquiry’ or ‘co-research’ as “fundamentally constitutive, where ‘the production of knowledge is immediately the production of political subjectivity and the construction of organisation.’ (Roggero 2011: 138)”. However, he finds Roggero’s distinction between”‘the commons’ as a resource emerging out of the natural world and the idea of ‘the common’ as something that is socially constructed” problematic in the way that it separates the natural and social world. The issue is grounded in Roggero’s conception of labour as the radical subject in capitalist society.  Conceived as such, labour is reified and its activity constitutes the social process that produces ‘the common’, that is “the organization of something that did not exist beforehand, or the new composition of existing elements in a subversive social relationship” (Roggero 2011: 8).”

Neary takes issue with this conception of labour and Roggero’s separation of the natural world (‘the commons’) from the social world (‘the common’). He argues that revolutionary science is, quoting Marx, “one science”.

“This one science, or communism, does not rely on speculative or philosophical solutions, but is a scientific method of enquiry and reason based on an awareness of the historical development of humanity as the alienation from nature (Foster 2000: 114). This alienation can only be overcome through “the significance of revolutionary practical critical activity” (Marx’s theses on Feuerbach, quoted in Foster 2000: 112).” (Neary 2012: 9)

Neary ends his critique of Roggero by relating the “schism” between the natural and social world to the “schism in bourgeois science”, reflected in the schism of subject disciplines within the modern university. On this, says Neary, the “key issue issue for Student as Producer is how the natural and social sciences might be reconnected as a curriculum for practical revolutionary action.” (ibid)

In contrast, Neary draws inspiration from Paul du Gay’s work on bureaucracy in his attempt to counter the understanding of Student as Producer as a “change management project”, where students are conceived as “change agents”. (Neary 2012: 4)

“change management sets itself firmly against bureaucracy, which is characterised in the change management literature as red tape, procrastination, indecision, big government, the nanny state and a tendency towards indolence (Du Gay 2000).”

The world of change management is epitomised by Drucker’s (1993) new role model of labour as the ‘knowledge worker’ whose necessary but antagonistic form is the ‘service worker’, both educated persons divided into intellectuals and managers, respectively. Neary argues that the underlying ethic of the ‘knowledge economy’ and the university as a “knowledge factory”is that of the market and the idea that organisations have to become increasingly entrepreneurial and innovative in order to survive.

In opposition to the imperatives of “change management”, Neary explores Paul du Gay’s work on bureaucracy as “a set of protocols and processes grounded in a set of morals and ethics that are highly valued in our society” (ibid). Following the work of Max Weber, bureaucracy for du Gay is

“a site of substantive ethical domain” (Du Gay 2000: 2) and “a particular ethos … not only an ensemble of purposes and ideals within a given code of conduct but also ways and means of conducting oneself … the bureau must be assessed in its own right as a particular moral institution and the ethical attributes of the bureaucrat be viewed as the contingent and often fragile achievements of that socially organised sphere of moral existence” (Du Gay 2000: 4). In this way, the bureaucratic environment contains its very own rationality and sense of purpose (Du Gay 2000: 75).” (Neary 2012: 4-5)

With this, Neary argues that the “repurposing” of bureaucracy could lead to

“a rational, moral and ethical principle a clear intent to collectively and democratically deconstruct the role of vice-chancellors as the charismatic leaders on whose vision the future prosperity and reputation of the entrepreneurial university appears to depend (Goodall 2009).”

At Lincoln, Student as Producer,

“creates a radical framework for debates and discussion about policy and strategy for teaching and learning across the university, based on a radicalised political vernacular. Given the extent to which the language of managerialism has overwhelmed the discourse of higher education, this is no mean achievement.” (Neary 2012: 6)

As such, it is a “subversive” project based on values and ethics that “have not had to be reinvented but are conjured out of the activities of academic workers at Lincoln and elsewhere.” It is subversive because it

“starts with a negative critique of higher education based on the dysfunctionality of its core activities, teaching and research, where the priority and status given to research divides institutions, and sets staff and student against each other (Boyer 1990; Brew 2006) This negative critique forms the basis of Student as Producer’s attachment to the notion of research-engaged teaching (Jenkins and Healey 2009): re- engineering the relationship between teaching and research so that undergraduates become part of the academic project of the university. This is how subversion works, by using the language and protocols of the enterprise university against itself…

This subversive ethic and academic-valued approach is written into the bureaucratic framework for teaching and learning at the University of Lincoln, through its teaching and learning strategy, and in the documentation for staff and students that shapes the protocols and procedures for quality validation, monitoring and reporting procedures, including the Student as Producer user guide.

The problem is how to maintain subversion in a context in which student as consumer is the operational imperative among providers of higher education. Part of the answer to that question lies in constantly radicalising the practice and principles of Student as Producer to avoid recuperation” (Neary 2012: 7)

The final section of the paper represents one attempt to radicalise Student as Producer through the idea and practice of “one science”. Neary presents this by connecting the scientific method of Marx and Grosseteste through the work of Aristotle. Neary describes Grosseteste as “a key figure in the development of the method of experimental science through practical applications and as being central to the creation of the modern university (Southern 1992; McEvoy 2000).” (Neary 2012: 11) The point Neary wants to make here is that the origins of the scientific method were disruptive, subversive, and indeed revolutionary and that they were so because figures like Grosseteste and Marx did not distinguish between the natural and liberal social sciences (e.g. economics, philosophy, sociology) and each made connections between the inductive and deductive methods of Aristotle. They were fixed on the idea of “one science” which, through the power of abstract thought grounded in the real world, they aimed to discover the “substantive matter” of their respective social worlds i.e. one governed by the Divine and the other by Capital. For Grossteeste, this substantive matter was God as the “divine light” and for Marx, Neary argues, it was found in the concept of ‘capital’, which he presented as a “unifying logic for the expansion of value”. In place of Grosseteste’s metaphysics, Marx’s historical materialist method discovered capital as “the automatic subject” of human society. Through his exposition of capital, “Marx’s most important discovery is that the crisis of capital is the power of humanity reasserting itself and recovering the natural world.” (Neary 2012: 12) This is an important point that Neary picks up in a later paper where he discusses the work of John Holloway in the context of Student as Producer.

Neary ends the paper with a “research question”:

“A key point for the students and academics to consider is the extent to which revolutionary science is undermined by a scientific enterprise based not on the development of knowledge but rather the development of academic capitalism (non-revolutionary science). In order to recover the substance of communist revolutionary science, it is necessary to reinvent the ideal of the university on the principles of revolutionary science. How can we redesign the idea of the university to enhance and support this vision of revolutionary science? This is the main point and purpose of Student as Producer.” (Neary 2013: 12)

From this paper, we can draw out the following points so as to help determine the institutional form for a university, “reinvented” on the “principles of revolutionary science.”

  • It is fundamentally a political project. Political subjectivity is “the essential objective reality out of which practical, critical knowledge is derived.” The institutional form itself support (i.e. be partisan to) this political project.
  • Bureaucracy is valued as a moral and ethical process which does not exist independently of the political project but guards its constitution.
  • It exists for knowledge and against the “knowledge worker”.
  • It uses the language and protocols of the university subversively (i.e. as a way to ‘interoperate’ with the neoliberal university, the State, markets, etc.) without taking on its form.
  • It recognises that “the production of knowledge is immediately the production of subjectivity and the construction of organisation.” (Roggero 2011: 138) The institutional form is therefore constructed from the subjectivity of its members, which is formed through the co-operative, social production of knowledge.
  • It attempts to overcome labour in its capitalist form, which is a “fabrication” of the social relations of capitalist production. “Labour, as such, does not exist but is constituted only as a real abstraction.” (Neary 2012: 9) The issue for the worker co-operative is to discover a way to practice non-alientated, non-abstract labour. This is at the heart of its research project: the discovery of a new form of social being.