The university as a worker co-operative: Labour, property and pedagogy

Abstract of a paper accepted for the ‘Governing Academic Life‘ conference.

UPDATE 16th June 2014: My paper for this conference is available here.

We are witnessing an “assault” on universities (Bailey and Freedman, 2011) and the future of higher education and its institutions is being “gambled.” (McGettigan, 2013) For many years now, we have been warned that our institutions are in “ruins” (Readings, 1997). We campaign for the “public university” (Holmwood, 2011) but in the knowledge that we work for private corporations, where academic labour is increasingly subject to the regulation of performative technologies (Ball, 2003) and where the means of knowledge production is being consolidated under the control of an executive. We want the cops off our campus but lack a form of institutional governance that gives teachers and students a right to the university. (Bhandar, 2013)

Outside the university, there is an institutional form that attempts to address issues of ownership and control over the means of production and constitute a radical form of democracy among those involved. Worker co-operatives are a form of ‘producer co-operative’ constituted on the values of autonomy, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity (Co-operatives UK, nd). In most cases the assets (the means of production) of the co-operative are held under ‘common ownership’, a social form of property that goes beyond the distinction between private and public (Footprint and Seeds for Change, 2012)

In this talk, I will begin by discussing recent work by academics and activists to identify the advantages and issues relating to co-operative forms of higher education. I will then focus in particular on the ‘worker co-operative’ organisational form and question its applicability and suitability to the governance of and practices within higher educational institutions. Finally, I will align the values and principles of worker co-ops with the critical pedagogic theory of Student as Producer (Neary, 2009, 2010a, 2010b)


Bailey, Michael and Freedman, Des (2011) The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance, Pluto Press.

Ball, Stephen J. (2003) The teacher’s soul and the terror of performativity, Journal of Education Policy, Vol. 18:2, pp.215-228.

Bhandar, Brenna (2013) A Right to the University, London Review of Books blog, Retrieved 17th February 2014.

Co-operatives UK (nd) The worker co-operative code, Retrieved 17th February 2014.

Footprint and Seeds of Change (2012) How to set up a Workers’ Co-op, Radical Routes. Retrieved 17th February 2014.

Holmwood, John (2011) A Manifesto for the Public University, Bloomsbury Academic.

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

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 . Continuum.

Neary, Mike (2010a) Student as producer: a pedagogy for the avant-garde?,  Learning Exchange, 1 (1).

Neary, Mike and Hagyard, Andy (2010b Pedagogy of excess: an alternative political economy of student life. In: The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Routledge, Abingdon.

3 thoughts on “The university as a worker co-operative: Labour, property and pedagogy”

  1. Not being a student of Marx, I didn’t follow some parts of your paper. The rest, though, I found very interesting. The question that arises for me is about culture, about values and attitudes, as well as about knowledge and skills. My post at gives some leads. You’ll might be glad to know that during the conference @dkernohan called me a communist… I see myself more of a pragmatist than an academic — how do we look seriously at co-operative enculturation?

  2. Hi Simon, thanks very much for your comment.

    I’m also interested in culture, values, attitudes, knowledge and skills, but think that each needs to be approached and understood through a conceptual framework that is grounded in real, historical, material conditions of social life. That’s why I use Marx’s work. If I knew of a more relevant and persuasive theoretical and methodological approach to understanding life in capitalist society, I would use that too (or instead). I think this is important to underline because otherwise, to refer to culture, values, etc. without such a grounding runs the danger of pissing in the wind and simply responding (‘pragmatically’??) to historical and social forces and tendencies that we have not yet grasped and have a tendency to think of as natural. However, what your comment suggests is that I do need to make this point more clearly in the paper.

    I read your blog post with interest, especially the point you make about ‘enculturation’ and the question that your final paragraph raises about what kind of future ‘social organisation’ for learning do we want or need.

    As you might expect, I’d need you to explain to me more clearly what the aims of the enculturation process should be. If it’s as simple as the Wikipedia article makes out, then it seems to be about trying to ensure that people accept the “values and behaviours appropriate or necessary in that culture”, rather than challenging them. In the UK, for example, that suggests that enculturation should be about taking on board the values of liberal capitalism. If so, I think this will continue to have devastating consequences for humanity.

    On future social organisations and the knowledge commons, I’m very much in agreement with you and broadly speaking, this describes my overall project. More specifically, I’ve been thinking about the convergence of P2P and co-ops and have made some initial notes on ‘open co-operatives’ here:

    The point, for me, is that we recognise and develop the abundance that has been produced through the historically unique configuration of science, technology and the social organisation of labour in capitalist society and work towards developing social organisations that maintain and protect the freedom that such abundance could afford us, while overcoming the exploitative, alienating and dominating ‘logic’ that is increasingly anachronistic to the actual conditions of social life. Such logic is apparent in the increasing commodification of all aspects of social life.

    Aspects of both P2P and co-ops are, I think, positive moves against that logic and towards creating social relations based on the logic of abundance rather than scarcity.

  3. Joss

    I very much look forward to closer dialogue.

    Meanwhile, to clarify the grounds of my difference from what appears to me as your position, let me focus on what you refer to as “conceptual framework that is grounded in real, historical, material conditions of social life”

    Yes, I do agree that we need such conceptual frameworks, and I enjoy co-creating them.

    However, I think we need to remember that sharing a conceptual framework is a precondition of effective communication. If you insist on a certain conceptual framework as the basis for your writings, they are likely to make sense just to those who share your conceptual framework. Without wanting to be too blunt about this, the “Marxist” conceptual framework is far from universal.

    Moreover, couldn’t we see Marxism as just one particular narrative? The challenge here, I sometimes see clearly, is to realise a consciousness that is more “post-modern” in a reconstructive way (though other terms have recently been used as well).

    In this spirit, the challenge that I enjoy, and find ever fruitful, is to engage with others through their (and my) conceptual frameworks, coming to the point where each (mutable) framework becomes able to be interpreted, understood, seen (or whatever) in terms of the other — or even (blessed result) a common framework emerges, that grows with each co-creator.

    I am so unconvinced that Marxist thinking had or has a monopoly on conceptual frameworks that underpin commons thinking. If you treat Marx as a dispensable “prop” (as I imagine you may do), then fair enough.

    I am still much less of an academic than you appear to be. This has strengths and weaknesses. What I find hugely rewarding is to bring together whatever fresh thinking I am able to bring, with the frameworks of the past. One of the pitfalls of independent creativity is not just reinventing the wheel, but reinventing wheels that have been found not to turn for very long.

    Which is all why my approach is fundamentally and inextricably mutualist. Many of us love to imagine we have “the answer” to some question or other, I probably no less than others. But what I need to see is a willingness to throw these supposed answers into the common pool; to be ready to let go of over-tight conceptual frameworks, in the search for genuine communication, as well for a true and growing commons. Does that make sense?


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