The University of Utopia

Letters from Utopia, first published in Post-16 Educator (84). Download PDF

“The state of abundance is not a Utopian vision but the real possibility of conditions already in existence.” (Kay and Mott, Political Order and the Law of Labour, 1982, 1)

What follows is a series of short letters written by a student from the University of Utopia. Although a fictional account, the letters are written with the conviction that we are actually living in a state of abundance, rather than the scarcity imposed by the market economy and that global social needs can be met by our existing capacity to co-operate with one-another rather than compete. The five letters are based on our joint research and practice of co-operative higher education which we have been undertaking since 2010. They do not reflect the breadth of the research but instead offer one imaginary account that we are hopeful for and working on. A recently completed project 1 brought together many people to produce a practical and theoretical framework for co-operative higher education, features of which we have tried to embed in the epistolary form that follows. We invite you to also read a recent paper 2 that we have written which discusses our ongoing research in more detail.

Mike Neary and Joss Winn, June 2016.

~~~

Dear Mum,

I am writing to you from Utopia. At least that’s what the first couple of weeks has felt like. Since you and Dad left me at the student housing co-op, I’ve learned a lot about what makes this university different and I’m pretty sure I made the right choice to come here. I know we read the brochures about what makes a co-operative different to other types of organisation but it’s only in the last few days that I’ve really started to get it. The university is made up of four Schools: Life, Machines, Letters and Property.  I suppose the main thing I’ve noticed is the emphasis that members of the university place on the importance of democracy and what that means in terms of my role here. Although I’m just a first-year student, it seems that first and foremost I’m a member of the university, just like my teachers. In fact, it’s not just the students and teachers, but everyone is a member with an equal say in how the place runs. At first, I wondered how the place manages to run at all, but during orientation week I got a better sense of the long history of co-ops and how they tend to be good places to live and work and learn. It can’t always be easy, but people seem proud of their co-op and the role it has in society. Although it’s quite a new university, it’s part of an international movement of people who think that ‘common ownership’ (I still don’t really know what this means but it sounds good) and democratic control of their organisations is a good thing. It’s not just the university and my house that are co-ops either: the university canteen, the local health service and even a secondary school next to the university are co-ops, too, and they all try to work together. Oh, yes, I almost forgot… My bedroom furniture was designed and made by students from the university, too! I was told that by some second-year students in my house. They seem like good people. A few of us went out the other night and got to know each other. I met a nice girl called Ellie. She went to a co-op school so she knows much more about how everything works than I do. I’m really excited about being here. Can you tell!?!?!

Lots of love to you and Dad. X

~~~

Dear Mum,

I hope you are well?  After four months, this place is starting to become less strange. More familiar.

I am made to feel like a researcher with something to offer, rather than an undergraduate student with everything to learn.  There is learning, of course, lots of it and in different situations, not only in lectures, in fact there are no lectures. Last week I was having lunch and my teacher asked me to collaborate on a project about the chemistry of cooking and the politics of food, including the cause of hunger and malnutrition.  Afterwards, when we were cleaning up the kitchen, I thought about designing a kitchen that would avoid wasting food. This ties in with another project I am working on, building a house for visitors to Utopia. I want to design a contemporary croft out of concrete. My School: Life, is holding a competition. The best house design is going to be built by the students and teachers.  This project connects my interest with concrete as a concept and as a building material. I was interviewing a visitor to Utopia to get ideas for my building. She asked me, ‘what subjects are you studying’. I said, ‘I am not studying subjects. I am studying Life.  And next year I am studying Machines’. She was incredulous, not least when I told her we didn’t have exams but produced work to be read and seen in public as acts of collaboration and generosity. I have to be honest but I find my allocated work project less interesting. It’s with the School of Property. I have no interest in law or bureaucracy. I just want to build things. My tutor asked me what laws are needed to build a new society not based on private property but a unity of purpose and social defence. I told him I would think about it. If I get time. I don’t have any time. Or space. I am knackered. The pace of work is too slow.  I don’t get to the computers until next year when I start on Machines. Writing letters is part of the pedagogy, or the science of teaching, as they call it here. One of the Schools is called Letters, which extends to the humanities and the arts.  My tutor says writing letters allows for more critical reflection which is essential for learning. I am not so sure. My handwriting is rubbish and my favourite pen burst in my pocket so my shirt has an ink stain. I told Ellie it was tie dye. She said, ‘Do you think I am stupid?’ I said, ‘No, I think you are the smartest person I have ever met’.

Lots of love to you and to Dad. x

~~~

Dear Mum,

Thanks for the money you sent me. It is very kind but I don’t really need it here. Other than to buy more soap and some chocolate and fruit and beer.

As you know I was never interested in money, but the idea of the commonwealth is different. It is based on creating a new form of social value based on human purpose in the natural world. Like people and the planet. For now, we can’t avoid life with coinage, so we all make a financial contribution to Utopia’s commonwealth.  I raised my contribution from saving some of my wages when I worked before coming to Utopia and some crowdfunding and the money you gave me.  As you know this pays for accommodation and meals as well as the teacher’s salaries.  The annual accounts are a teaching object in the classes on Property. Money is the universal form of property. The university has reserves from donations and a levy from the international co-operative movement, for whom education is a core principle. My contribution is like an investment in the life of the university and if any profits are made at the end of the year I can draw down a dividend, or leave it in the fund to accumulate. The teachers pay a contribution to the commonwealth from their wages, which mounts up like a pension fund. I can earn money by working in the university to help the teachers teach and on necessary tasks to maintain the buildings. At Utopia doing is promoted above having. I might even leave the university with money in my pocket rather than a mountain of debt.  So the Commonwealth is not just an idea but a living source of value. Part of this is experimenting with new forms of social value, like labour time banks and other sharing schemes. I told Ellie that I loved her and I wouldn’t share her with anyone. I believe in free education but not in free love. Does that make me a conservative? I want to be radical, but it is hard.

Lots of love to you and Dad x

~~~

Dear Mum,

I’m pleased that the warmer weather has arrived. I bet you and Dad are enjoying being out in the garden more. It certainly makes my job here more enjoyable as I’ve started to work in the university gardens, too. It’s a funny thing, you know. All members of the university work for it in some way, including students, but it doesn’t feel like ordinary work when it’s an organisation that you collectively own and control. Through this work, I’m getting a different view of the way things run around here, too. There are quite a lot of meetings to discuss all aspects of the University, but we usually come to decisions quite quickly (although some topics can drag on!). Rules really matter though and I’m realising that democracy needs people to be actively involved and have the right information at hand so we can make good decisions. It’s not just our internal rules that I’m learning about but also the way we have to operate within the law and how the law is reflected in forms of regulation and in our university’s administration. It’s all connected, which is why it seems important to understand law and politics and the economy as what my teacher referred to as ‘social forms’, rather than things in themselves (i.e. natural). Does that make sense?

People here are elected for a period to take the lead on things such as running the courses, overseeing money, and representing different types of members at committee meetings. It’s a big responsibility and I heard that last year, members voted to remove someone from their role because they didn’t listen to anyone! He’s gone back to teaching in the School of Property. I was in a seminar the other day where we were discussing ‘bureaucracy’ and it occurred to me that there’s plenty of it here but actually in a good way. It seems to help protect what people care about in their organisation and if someone really wants to change the way things are done, then we can discuss it and vote at the next general meeting (I think that’s how it works, or maybe there are other meetings where it gets discussed first).  Well, as you can probably tell, I’ve been here nine months and I’m still figuring it all out. Some days I learn more in a committee meeting than I do in a seminar. Sometimes the committee meetings remind me of the type of discussions that were held in the Occupy movement that we studied last term. That’s a good thing, I guess.

As I mentioned on the phone, I don’t think I’ll be home for summer. It’s been agreed that I’ll be working with one of my teachers on a photography project about concrete buildings (can’t wait!) and Ellie has got a part-time job at her old school, helping run outdoor activities for kids.

Lots of love to you and Dad x

~~~

Dear Mum,

You asked me what have I learned over the last year. I learned universities are not about teaching and learning, but producing knowledge. My teachers talk about knowledge as an object of social value: something much more than value for money. I learned to develop a critical frame of mind. Not just through my own work but in reviewing the work of others. There are no grades or marks here, but a judgement by students and teachers on whether the work is ready for the world. If it is ready, then it gets published or put on show in an exhibition or as a public installation. If not then we redraft and resubmit, pull it apart and put it back together. We are taught to see the review as part of the process of the production of knowledge rather than as an assessment. As an act of collaboration with our teachers and with each other.

All of our work involves collaboration, a sort of intellectual solidarity.  This way of working does not forget that we are at the same time individuals in a collective context. We are not all the same, and our idiosyncrasies are allowed to flourish. For example, my interest in concrete as a philosophical concept and as a construction material. Maybe I will become an architect. My favourite building style is Brutalism.

Collaboration extends to other school work like maintaining the buildings. Not out of any sense of idealism about the dignity of labour, but the more of us working together the faster it can get done, especially the more menial and mundane tasks.  This sense of solidarity extends beyond the university. Next year I am going to the University of Mondragon as part of an exchange visit, working in their Electronics factory. This will form part of my studentship in the School of Machines.

In the curricula, Machines comes after Life. Life grounds knowledge in a relationship between humanity-in-nature, beyond the human intellectual and the cognitive to include the knowingness of the non-human world. Maybe this is the most important thing that I have learned.  Letters deals with art and humanities and the importance of aesthetics. Property deals with different forms of social wealth and how they are expressed in the law and the physical environment.

I also learned about democracy and the importance of everyone having an equal say in how the university operates. Coming to a decision can take a very long time, but when we get there it feels like the right decision. The discussions are a learning process. Sometimes I feel like we have reached the right decision even if I do not agree with it, if that doesn’t sound too weird.

We are encouraged to retain our commitment to the University of Utopia when we leave. They have established a society of friends to support this long term relationship. So, in a sense, students will never leave this place, at least not in our minds and in our hearts.

And I learned about personal commitment and the way in which we can show solidarity towards each other, to the extent that we can become mirrors for each other’s individual needs. For a while Ellie had taken on that role for me, but it is too much for one person. We cried when we realised we were over, but laughed when we saw the world we had opened for each other.

Did you and Dad ever feel like this?

In Solidarity. X

~~~

 

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.

Beyond Public and Private: A Model for Co-operative Higher Education

With Mike Neary. Part of a special issue on the future of the university.

The framework for a co-operative model of higher education proposed here offers a challenging perspective to the wide-ranging debates about the future of democratic public higher education that ‘kicked off’ in England in 2010 and around the world (Mason 2011). These debates have re-emerged with renewed intensity during the recent spate of University occupations in the Netherlands and at a number of London University Colleges. We recognise the importance of fighting to maintain free public higher education as well as defending democratic academic values within the current university system, and we want to celebrate the achievements of Rethink UoA and the ‘New University Movement’ as well as the Free Education campaign in England. At the same time we are aware of the continuing dangers of co-option, recuperation and exhaustion as negotiations for institutional reform progress through the complex labyrinth of university committee structures; as well as the ever-present threat of police violence that hangs over any academic and student protest. In this context it is important to continue with experiments in democratic decision-making in ways that constitute a genuine transfer of power from the current university leadership and management to students, academics and other forms of university labour, including cleaners, porters and catering staff.

Download the full article from Krisis: Journal for contemporary philosophy. [PDF]

Student demands for democratic control over universities

ours_to_master

These notes are the start of an ongoing attempt to document each instance where occupying students or/and academics include greater democratic governance among their demands from university management (and where they don’t, why?). My gut feeling is that forms of self-management and worker control (among whom I include students) is increasingly becoming a key demand when students go into occupation. There is a long tradition of workers’ control in other organisations (including an entire academic field of study) and I’d like to think about how self-management of higher education can be achieved (in theory and in practice). The list is currently overwhelming centred on the UK, but I’m interested in examples from anywhere and from any time. Regardless of your specific interest in worker control of higher education, you may find the list a convenient way into student occupation websites and their demands whilst in occupation. If you can add to any of these examples below, please leave a comment or email me. Thanks. 

Manchester, May 2015: “we demand a student-staff body, directly elected by students and academic and non-academic staff, responsible for making all managerial decisions of the institution. The university is nothing but the sum of its parts. Students and workers are at the essence of this institution and thus should have direct and democratic control.”

Kings College London, March 2015: “As a high profile London University we need to demonstrate that is no longer acceptable to run our universities on the basis of profit; instead it needs to be done democratically by the students and staff members. We want everyone’s voices to be heard, not just those at the very top who operate with under a thin veil of transparency.” [Demands]

University of the Arts, London, March 2015: “We are protesting against cuts to education in general, the lack of democracy, diverse representation and student input within this institution, and the continued undermining of our rights to free education.” [Demands]

London School of Economics, March 2015: “1) An open discussion with the directors and pro-directors of LSE, within the first week of summer term, on university democracy to clarify to students and staff how the current system works. This will be the starting point for a wider and more inclusive public discussion on the issue of accountability and failing democratic institutions, leading to concrete proposals for improvement to the current system. 2) We demand the formation of an Independent Review Committee comprising of academic staff (1/3), non-academic staff (1/3) and students (1/3). The role of this committee will be to investigate the current system and propose reforms. 3)  All Committee meetings should be minuted and these minutes should be published in less than 7 working days so as to be publicly available to LSE students and staff.”

New University, Amsterdam, February 2015: “1. Democratisation and decentralisation of university governance.”

Sussex, 2012: “A commission of students, staff and lecturers to be formed. With full remit to re-evaluate procedures and channels for holding management accountable as well as reviewing and extending student and workers’ say in these decisions.”

Edinburgh University, 2011: “Universities should be democratically organised: directly controlled by staff and students.”

Glasgow University, 2011: “The Hetherington Research Club to be returned to democratic control by students and staff, with the return of the block grant.”

University College London, November 2010: “We demand an increase in the number of students on the council. These students should be directly elected through UCLU. We assert that all staff of UCL have an equal right to take part in the decision making process of the university. We therefore demand that UCL includes non-academic staff on the council. We require concrete evidence of a plan of action that includes specific time-measured goals for implementing these changes, to be discussed at the next Council meeting. Regarding the academic board, we wish to re-implement genuine democracy through an increase in student representation and the re-introduction of elected Deans.”

Occupations that don’t explicitly demand democratisation of the university

Edinburgh, May 2015

Salford, May 2015

Goldsmiths, London, March 2015: [Demands]

Goldsmiths, London, March 2011

Warwick, 2011

Sheffield, 2011

Liverpool, 2011

Royal Holloway, 2011

University of Brighton, 2011

Birmingham, 2011

Birmingham, 2010

Warwick, 2010

Cambridge, 2010

SOAS, 2010

Lincoln, 2010

University of Leeds, 2010

London South Bank, 2010

University of East London, 2010

Newcastle University, 2010

Cardiff, 2010

University of the West of England, 2010

Plymouth, 2010

Manchester University, 2010

Manchester universities, 2010

Manchester Metropolitan University, 2010

Bristol, 2010

Roehampton University, 2010

Exeter, 2010

Outside UK:

University of California, 2009:

UC Santa Cruz [consolidated]

UC Davis;

San Francisco State University: “That the university system be run by the students, faculty, and staff. Not administrators.” << Not clear if this is the removal of administrator roles altogether or anti-democratic exclusion of administrators from decision-making.

Historical:

Columbia University, 1968

Sorbonne, 1968

Nanterre, 1968

Misc:

http://anticuts.com/2010/11/27/list-of-university-occupations/

Occupation Count!

Democratically controlled, co-operative higher education

I have a short piece on co-operative higher education published on the openDemocracy website. If you’re aware of my work you’ll find little that is new. However, it was written partly in response to the recent student occupations which consistently demand greater democracy in the running of their universities but do not seem to have a concrete and credible alternative to propose. Academics, too, are becoming increasingly vocal about the need for more democratic structures of governance and that the marketisation, corporatisation and managerialism in higher education can only be effectively challenged if we rethink, from the bottom up, how our universities are governed, the labour they (re)produce and who they actually ‘belong’ to. These are questions that are fundamental to a research project we’re about to start and you are welcome to participate in.

The co-operative university: Labour, property and pedagogy

I begin this article by discussing the recent work of academics and activists to identify the advan- tages and issues relating to co-operative forms of higher education, and then focus on the ‘worker co-operative’ organisational form and its applicability and suitability to the governance of and practices within higher educational institutions. Finally, I align the values and principles of worker co-ops with the critical pedagogic framework of ‘Student as Producer’. Throughout I employ the work of Karl Marx to theorise the role of labour and property in a ‘co-operative university’, drawing particularly on later Marxist writers who argue that Marx’s labour theory of value should be understood as a critique of labour under capitalism, rather than one developed from the standpoint of labour.

You can download this article from the journal, Power and Education.

A pre-print version of this article is available from the University of Lincoln research repository.

An earlier and expanded version of this paper given at the ‘Governing Academic Life’ conference is also available from the University of Lincoln research repository.

A Short History of Hacking: Values and principles for co-operative higher education

My keynote talk for Newcastle College’s Student as Producer conference, March 27th 2015. 

Thank you for inviting me here today to contribute to your student conference. It’s a real privilege and luxury to be able to spend the day with you and to learn about all the great work you’re doing. Last year, my friend Prof. Mike Neary spoke at your ‘Student as Producer’ conference. Mike and I have worked together and with many other colleagues on Student as Producer for a number of years now and within our own institution and elsewhere, such as Newcastle College, the core ideas of Student as Producer are interpreted in new ways and take on new forms.

Student-as-Producer

At Lincoln, since our original HEA-funded project ended, Student as Producer has developed into a substantial programme of ‘student engagement‘ led by Dan Derricott, an ex-Vice President of our Student Union. At the University of Warwick, the Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning funds Student as Producer projects relating to research, collaboration or performance. At Vanderbilt University in the USA, 2014 was themed the year of Student as Producer. At the University of British Columbia in Canada, funding has been made available for the redesign of 100 courses, affecting around 34,000 student enrolments.  These are just some of the examples of Student as Producer being put into practice, expressed in words like ‘engagement’, ‘collaboration’ and ‘partnership’. I know that Newcastle College has a new ‘HE Partnership Strategy’ based on the ideas of Student as Producer. I want to introduce, or rather recover, another word that is essential to my own understanding of Student as Producer and that is: ‘co-operation’. I’ll explain what I specifically mean by this in a minute.

First though, the title of my talk today probably requires some explanation: ‘A short history of hacking: Values and principles for co-operative higher education.’ The first part of the title refers to work I did on Student as Producer during 2009-2014. The second part refers to my current work, which I see as a development of Student as Producer, while remaining true to its original principles.

What has ‘hacking’ got to do with Student as Producer? When you hear the word ‘hacking’ or ‘hack’, many of you may think of something malicious and illegal, such as ‘someone’s hacked into my Facebook account’, or ‘the News of the World has been accused of phone-hacking’.

The Tech Model Railroad Club

However, an earlier meaning of ‘hacking’ was first used in the late 1950s by teachers and students belonging to the Tech Model Railroad Club at the world renown Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Even today MIT maintains a ‘Hack Gallery‘ which records various audacious and creative pranks undertaken around campus over the decades. In 1959, ‘hack’ at MIT referred to “something done without constructive end” and, according to records kept at that time, a year later a ‘hack’ specifically referred to “an article or project without constructive end.” It was, “a term for an unconventional or unorthodox application of technology, typically deprecated for engineering reasons.” A ‘hacker’ of course, is someone who hacks, but more specifically, “a hacker avoids the standard solution.” Since the early 1960s, the terms hack, hacker and hacking have taken on a variety of related and nuanced meanings and among computer scientists, electronics enthusiasts and software developers it’s still regarded as an honorary term for someone who is clever, creative, has unusual expertise and enthusiasm for their work and are defacto members of a global community of hackers who collaborate through the Internet.

In my own work on Student as Producer at Lincoln, I originally focused on the research and development of institutional  technology with students and our recent graduates. We mainly worked on projects relating to the infrastructure of the university: things like a research data management system, web publishing systems, identification and authentication protocols and curriculum data anlaysis. Throughout these projects, I referred to our work as ‘hacking the university‘ (actually, I was never creative nor clever enough to be a hacker, but some of the students I worked with truly were). During this time, we were trying to re-think and ultimately re-engineer the fabric of the university around the idea of ‘openness’: Open technologies, open data, open ways of doing research and teaching and learning.

DevXS

In 2011, we held a national student ‘hackathon‘ where nearly 200 students worked around the clock on developing prototypes for new university services. Student as Producer formed the basis and justification for all this work and in particular, a quote from the writer Walter Benjamin, who inspired Mike Neary’s early formulation of Student as Producer:

“[For]… the author who has reflected deeply on the conditions of present day production … His work will never be merely work on products but always, at the same time, work on the means of production. In other words his products must have, over and above their character as works, an organising function.” (Benjamin 1934: 777)

Our work on the technological infrastructure of the university was an attempt to “reflect deeply on the conditions of present day production” in higher education, and “at the same time, work on the means of [knowledge] production.”

The point being, that Student as Producer is not simply about partnership, engagement, and collaboration – although it is all those things. It’s about confronting the idea of higher education and the institutional form that it takes so that as we produce new knowledge, which is what distinguishes a higher education, we reflect deeply on the means of knowledge production itself.

What I’m leading to is that, as you know, Student as Producer is much more than research-engaged teaching and learning. It is a pedagogical framework but one that is intended for rebuilding or re-engineering knowledge production itself. It’s anticipated that the institutional form reflects the pedagogic principles rather than the other way around. At Lincoln, it’s “the central pedagogical principle that informs other aspects of the University’s strategic planning” articulated currently in a major initiative to involve students in the running of the university.

This brings me to the second half of my talk where I want to look forward rather than backwards and think about how Student as Producer can be developed further.

Tools

One of the exciting and sometimes frustrating things about working with hackers is that they are always retooling. By this, I mean that they are always looking for ways to improve the tools they are working with and in doing so, the process of production itself. It reflects the fact that software developers often have the ability to author or improve the software tools that will help them develop new software products, a bit like a carpenter who can fashion a better carpentry tool so as to improve their cabinetmaking. This reflects the deep level of knowledge about the process of software production that hackers have. When they run into problems in the development process, hackers often have the knowledge required to address the problem, whether it’s an irritating bug or an inefficiency in the system. Furthermore, they often have the autonomy to make that intervention, because the tools they use are open source and can be freely modified. And because they’re open source there is a community of other hackers they can co-operate with on the problem at hand, if they themselves aren’t quite sure how to fix it.

Code Swarm
A VISUALISATION OF OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT

Knowledge, autonomy, openness, community, co-operation are all required if we are to “work on the means of [knowledge] production”.  And when we are able to genuinely work on the means of knowledge production, through the principles of openness, autonomy and co-operation, it can have a ‘recursive‘ effect on our understanding of the world around us and embolden us to desire and demand these principles in other aspects of our social lives.

The point I want to underline here is not the simple assertion that students should be recognised and included as part of the research activities of higher education – of course they should – but that if we remain true to that objective, the fabric of the institution, or the ‘means of production’, has to change too, including the way the institution is governed. Which is where I come back to the idea and practice of ‘co-operation’.

Student as Producer has always had a radically democratic agenda, valuing critique, speculative thinking, openness and a form of learning that aims to transform the social context so that students become the subjects rather than objects of history – individuals who make history and personify knowledge. Student as Producer is not simply a project to transform and improve the ‘student experience’ but aspires to a paradigm shift in how knowledge is produced.

Co-ops Work

For me, Student as Producer has always been more about how students, academics,  professional staff, cleaners, caterers – the whole college community –  can democratically and co-operatively govern their institutions. At first, I approached this through the idea and practice of ‘openness’, enabled by research and development into new institutional technologies, but at the heart of this was an attempt to intervene in the way we worked with each other. I draw inspiration for this not only from Student as Producer, which from its original articulation referred to ‘co-operation’, but also from the international co-operative movement which has its own set of values and principles. The values are those of

“self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”

The co-operative principles are: Voluntary and Open Membership; Democratic Member Control; Member Economic Participation; Autonomy and Independence; Education, Training and Information; Co-operation among Co-operatives; and Concern for Community.

As you can see, education is one of the key principles for the international co-operative movement, but I want to draw your attention to the other principles of open membership, democratic control, autonomy, co-operation among co-operatives, and concern for community.

Co-operation or Barbarism

The choice of these values and principles has been discussed, debated and refined over the 170 year history of the international co-operative movement and last agreed in 1995. This combination of values and principles does not take a single institutional form (as you know, co-ops are multivarious in the forms they take) but like Student as Producer, I think they offer a framework for re-engineering the governance of higher education and the production of knowledge in our so-called ‘knowledge economy’, enabling teachers, students, administrators, cleaners, caterers… to democratically control our institutions.

Newcastle College should be commended for recognising the need to involve students in the governance of your institution. In your own HE Partnership Strategy you state that “meaningful partnership working is reliant upon the equal distribution of democratic power.” You argue rightly that this isn’t just achieved by listening to the so-called ‘student voice’ but by “empowering students to drive and implement change.” And “this will involve redistributing power across our HE communities up to and including HE Academic Board through engaging students in all stages of the decision making process.” My question to you is how do you intend to constitute this form of democracy. You say that you will embed it “throughout all aspects of the HE learning experience” but what constitutional form will that take and how will you hold each other to account? These are not questions unique to your own stated objectives, but are being asked all the time by people who desire democracy in their work as they do in their politics.

The question I am interested in then, is what steps might we take to reconstitute and transform our institutions into member-run, democratically controlled co-operatives? Institutions that enable us to reflect deeply on the conditions of present day knowledge production and truly put Student as Producer into practice?

Co-operation, Learning and Co-operative Values

Since 2011, academics and individuals within the co-operative movement have been discussing this question, partly inspired by the way 800 schools in the UK have recently become co-operatives. We are writing about co-operative higher education for journals and books, talking about it at conferences like this one, and thinking of ways that colleges and universities can become actual co-operatives or at least more like co-operatives. The suggestions range from converting the whole institution into a co-operative, constitutionally and legally, to running parts of the institution co-operatively, such as courses, research groups, committees and the various services that operate with and within colleges and universities. Staff and students could also be encouraged and supported to create their own co-operatives both inside and outside the university, setting up housing co-ops, food co-ops, technology co-ops, and even community-run education co-ops, joining a growing federation of student co-ops in the UK.

students coop

In the course of this process of transformation, as we learn how to practice democracy, autonomy, openness and solidarity, I expect that the ‘recursive’ effect will begin to take effect and we’ll want to assert these principles in other areas of our lives, too, demanding a similar transformation in the social world we are part of. That’s what Student as Producer is all about.

Angelus Novus
THIS STORM IS WHAT WE CALL PROGRESS

Labour, property and pedagogy: Theory and practice for co-operative higher education

Earlier this week, I gave a paper at the EU-funded UNIKE conference: Universities in the knowledge economy: Perspectives from the Asia-Pacific and Europe. The theme of the conference is outlined as follows:

“What is the place of universities in the emerging ‘ecology’ of higher education systems that straddle industry, government and the public sphere? How are universities negotiating the demands placed upon them to compete in the global knowledge economy? What new subjects and spaces are emerging under the new conditions of existence for universities? How do academics, students, managers and policy makers make sense of these changes? Are there alternative ways of organising the university and its relations with society and if so, where are these being developed?”

I was on a panel focused on ‘Alternative Ways of Thinking the University’. The title of my paper was, ‘Labour, property and pedagogy: Theory and practice for co-operative higher education.’ The panel (split over two sessions), also included Sarah Amsler (Lincoln), Catherine Butcher (Roehampton), Fern Thompsett (Queensland), Aniko Horvath (Kings College), and discussants, Rebecca Boden (Roehampton), Sue Wright (Aarhus), and Chris Newfield (UC Santa Barbara). It was a real privilege to be able to participate on the panel with them and I have found my discussions with them about alternative, free, co-operative, and other models of higher education really insightful and useful.

My paper distilled and summarised three papers I’ve previously written. In the script below, I draw from two previous conference papers (here and here) as well as a journal article which will be published next month. My thinking on co-operative higher education feels pretty solid right now, what with over four years of helping run the Social Science Centre and a number of talks and papers written over the last year or so. The next stage in my/our praxis is to develop a detailed model for co-operative higher education, based on what we have learned and theorised so far, and drawing widely from expertise within the co-operative movement and from colleagues in higher education studies. Mike Neary and I have submitted a small grant proposal that, if successful, will enable us to pursue this next stage of work.

When I was first invited to the UNIKE conference, I proposed a paper which was more theoretical and reflective on the political economy of alternative higher education. However, the panel organiser asked whether I might offer something more reflective on the Social Science Centre and co-operative higher education in general, hence why I have drawn on earlier work. It was a reminder that, as is very often the case, people are really eager to learn more about the SSC as a concrete example of alternative and co-operative higher education that continues to exist, despite all the difficulties and energy it takes from lots of people involved. It is wonderful to be here in New Zealand and be told by people from Australia, Denmark, the US, and the UK, that the SSC provides inspiration to their own projects to develop alternative forms of higher education.

Abstract

In this paper, I will reflect on four years of being a founding member of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln (SSC), a small co-operative for free, higher education in England. In doing so, I will argue that, through praxis, we are creating an alternative model to the discipline of wage labour and the pedagogy of debt; one that is grounded in a coherent theory of labour, property and pedagogy. I will conclude by outlining how that model might be expanded into a transnational ‘co-operative university’.

Script

This paper discusses work I’ve been doing with others since 2010 to practice and theorise co-operative models of higher education. I’ll be drawing from a recent journal article in which I try to develop a coherent theory of academic labour, property and pedagogy for a co-operative university.

The conference theme this week questions the changes taking place within higher education around the world and seeks to understand its various and changing social roles and forms.

I want to begin by looking back to an earlier conference to ‘Reimagine the University‘, organised this time by students at the University of Leeds in November 2010.

The conference organisers stated that

“It is clear that the university system is bankrupt and in need of profound change, but no-one can see an alternative, a solution, a way out. We need to resist the threatened cuts and the ongoing onslaught on education – but we also need a transformation.”

That conference was both an act of resistance to the recent Browne report that indicated the rise in tuition fees, and also an act of solidary, as students and their teachers walked out of their classes and occupied a central lecture theatre.

Across the country, students were occupying their universities, and by doing so were making a direct claim on the property of the institution, rather than walking away from it. They stated:

“We don’t want to defend the university, we want to transform it!”

I was there to talk about a new model of free, co-operative higher education called the Social Science Centre.

Now, over four years later, I’d like to use my time in front of you to talk about the Social Science Centre, and more generally about the idea of co-operative higher education. In doing so, I hope to offer some ideas that speak to the theme of this panel, which is: ‘Alternative Ways of Thinking the University’.

In November 2010, the Social Science Centre (SSC) was little more than an idea that we had written up and were beginning to share with friends and colleagues. It was appropriate that the SSC had its first public outing at the Leeds conference because of the work that Paul Chatterton and Stuart Hodkinson at Leeds had done on autonomous social centres.

Their ESRC-funded research project had revealed to us a network of inspiring autonomous social centres across the UK and Europe, which acted as hubs of resistance to the privatisation of public spaces, such as universities. We saw how these co-operatively run Centres collectively broaden and strengthen the efforts of existing social movements by providing space and resource for the practice of different forms of social relations, not based on wage work and private property but instead on mutual aid and the construction of a social commons. Modeled on the social centres, we wanted the Social Science Centre to provide a space for higher education and for developing our work in ways that were impossible within a mainstream university.

And what exactly, I am often asked, is the Social Science Centre?

In a recent collectively authored article, we stated that:

“The Social Science Centre (SSC) organises free higher education in Lincoln and is run by its members. The SSC is a co-operative and was formally constituted in May 2011 with help from the local Co-operative Development Agency. There is no fee for learning or teaching, but most members voluntarily contribute to the Centre either financially or with their time. No one at the Centre receives a salary and all contributions are used to run the SSC. When students leave the SSC they will receive an award at higher education level. This award will be recognized and validated by the scholars who make up the SSC, as well as by our associate external members – academics around the world who act as our expert reviewers. The SSC has no formal connection with any higher education institution, but attempts to work closely with like-minded organizations in the city.”

The Social Science Centre is a laboratory for experiments in higher education. It is a model that we think could be replicated by other people. It is not and never has been an alternative to everything that the modern entrepreneurial university seems compelled to do. How could it possibly be compared to the University of Auckland, Roehampton or Lincoln? Yet what we can say is that it does provide an alternative to individuals who desire a higher education at the equivalent level to that found inside a university if they wish, with a progressive model of teaching and learning which is reflected in our constitution that insists all members, or ‘scholars’ as we call ourselves, have an equal say in the running of the co-operative. Rather than make the distinction between academics and students, we recognise that we all have much to learn from each other.

When thinking more broadly about co-operative higher education, it might help to recall an article on financialisation and higher education written by Andrew McGettigan in which he concludes:

“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 the 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.”

The ‘democratic deficit’ that McGettigan highlights is undoubtedly a key issue that any alternative form of university must address. However, democracy itself is malleable both as a concept and in practice. What does it even mean to practice democracy here in New Zealand or in the UK, when supranational networks of capital are being formed to effectively control national and international economic processes?

In thinking of alternatives to the university, I’d like to suggest that in addition to democracy, a number of other values can be combined to create a sustained alternative to how we think about the organising principles of higher education.

“Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”

Co-operatives are based on the seven principles of:

  • Voluntary and Open Membership
  • Democratic Member Control
  • Member Economic Participation
  • Autonomy and Independence
  • Education, Training and Information
  • Co-operation among Co-operatives
  • Concern for Community

As with the Social Science Centre,

“a co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

This combination of values and principles does not take a single institutional form but offers a framework for reconceiving our social relations, the meaning of work and the purpose of teaching and learning.

Taken as a whole, efforts around co-operative higher education over the last three years can be understood in terms of three routes: Conversion, dissolution, and creation.

By this I mean the wholesale conversion of existing universities to co-operatives; or the gradual and possibly subversive dissolution of university processes into co-operatively governed equivalents; or the creation of new institutional forms of co-operative higher education.

The success of each should not be measured against the apparent success of existing mainstream universities, but rather on the participants’ own terms and the type of higher education they need and desire.

The creation route intends to rethink not only the organisational and constitutional form of higher education but also its institutional, physical and spatial and pedagogic forms, too. It seeks to develop a co-operative higher education which recognises and builds on a long tradition of working class, self-managed, alternative, open and radical education. As a co-operative, it is neither public nor private higher education as we usually understand these terms, but instead open, autonomous, democratic, and held in common for the benefits of its members and society.

I want to make clear that if our aim is a broadly conceived co-operative higher education, I think we should be trying to pursue all three routes of conversion, dissolution and creation without prejudice of one over another. However, I also recognise that each of us will, for good reasons, prefer to focus our individual efforts on a particular route. For me, for the past four years, it’s been the creation route.

The categories I have started to use when trying to think of and indeed practice co-operative forms of higher education are that of ‘labour, property and pedagogy’.  I think each of these are foundational categories with which we develop a new model for education.

I’ll briefly say that by ‘property’, I’m referring to the idea of an ‘academic commons’, combining the principles, practices and legal framework of the open education movement with the co-operative movement’s principles, practices and legal framework of ‘common ownership‘. It is not public nor private ownership, but rather a legally constituted form of social property.

By labour I don’t simply mean work, although that’s how we experience labour much of the time. No, by labour I refer to the capacity or potential of individuals to do something that is considered socially useful. Labour has a very concrete form that we can all recognise as well as an abstract, social, homogenous form that we are mostly unaware of but is uniquely characteristic of labour in a capitalist society, where the division of labour and the production of goods and services is undertaken through co-operation. From this perspective, teaching is a form of labour and so is learning. The academic undertakes labour and the student does, too. Each has the capacity to perform the labour of teaching and learning and at the level of higher education this division of labour can be a productive relationship where knowledge is not simply distributed, consumed or ‘banked‘ as Paulo Freire wrote critically about, but actively produced through a pedagogic relationship in which teacher and student learn from each other in their social context.

I appreciate that it goes against the grain to refer to students as workers and learning as a form of labour, especially now when students are driven by government policy and a pedagogy of debt to assume the role of consumers.

Nevertheless, I’m by no means the first person to frame the role of students as workers and argue that their labour is both reproductive and productive. If you accept that both teachers and students co-operate through a division of labour to produce knowledge (and remember it’s the production of new knowledge that distinguishes a higher education), then we have a situation where labour is understood as the basis for a social, pedagogic relationship.

My point then is that in rethinking pedagogy, where the student is also understood as a producer of knowledge, we have to rethink the division of labour, too, and the roles we slip comfortably into as ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, producer and consumer. I think that a new form of co-operative higher education should challenge these roles and recognise that we have much to learn from each other.

As it exists today, the university is a means of production employed by capital to reproduce labour in the form of students, and value in the commodity form of knowledge. A worker-owned and managed co-operative university would therefore control the means of knowledge production and potentially produce a new form of social knowledge. In pursuing alternatives, we need to consider existing models of co-operation and how they might be applied to a co-operative form of higher education; one which is not primarily aimed at teaching students skills for the social factory, but instead aimed at students discovering for themselves the processes of knowledge production, within which we find our own place and meaning.

I want to end my talk by outlining a way forwards for one model of co-operative higher education. This is not intended to be the only model. As I’ve indicated, I hope that co-operative higher education will grow in diversity and federate in co-operative solidarity rather than consolidate into a single monolithic form as we see in the existing universities.

First, we should start with a clear understanding of our intended pedagogic model and always be mindful that the institutional form and our chosen co-operative model are first and foremost derived from the pedagogical relationship that we’re aiming to create in our co-operative for higher education.

Second, having established our pedagogical framework, we then need to look at existing models of co-operation. We need to break down the features of worker, social and open co-operatives, identifying their categories of membership, their overall purpose and the ways in which they distinguish between the production of goods and the provision of services, between physical and intellectual property, and the forms of reciprocity between producers and consumers. Are the existing model rules adequate for higher education or do we need a new set of rules?

Third, we need to understand how national legislation affects our aspirations for co-operative higher education. To what extent do we wish to align co-operative higher education with the existing funding and regulatory system of universities? It’s a question about what is required by law and also about our relationship to the state and the important idea of ‘public education’.

Fourth, we need to work on business models and understand the legal and financial frameworks that might inhibit and support the financing of co-operative higher education. I think we should start small, not attempting to imitate existing universities and everything they try to do. We should consider what services, other than teaching and learning, members can provide in exchange for income but also in exchange for other services provided by co-operatives. We need to plan for forms of mutualism, seek support from the national and global co-operative movements and from trade unions; we need to talk to real co-operative banks, credit unions and philanthropic trusts; consider various membership funding schemes, and think of ways that both academics and students can be paid for their work, as is the case at some liberal arts colleges in the USA.

Fifth, social/solidarity or multi-stakeholder co-operatives rely on non-monetary forms of reciprocity, often in the form of volunteers. We need to think carefully about the role of volunteers and our dependence on the volunteering of time and energy by all members to ensure that various forms of reciprocity are recognised and valued and that members are not exploited.

Finally and importantly we need to concurrently plan for national and transnational federations of co-operatives for higher education. We need to work with a global body such as CICOPA, who already represent the interests of worker and social co-operatives worldwide, and develop mechanisms of global solidarity and support for co-operative higher education. This might be in the form of sharing resources and knowledge, the development of recognised and accredited programmes of study, perhaps in partnership with existing awarding bodies, that carry all the experience, recognition and endorsement of the co-operative movement. We need to work with housing co-ops and other co-operative enterprises that can meet the needs of academics and students, and with trade unions who have always recognised the value of education, but also understand that co-operative work can still benefit from the protections of being unionised work. We need to recognise that most social and worker co-operatives are intentionally small by comparison to existing universities so as to retain their democratic principles and that based on this fact, we are planning relatively small but networked and federated co-operatives that exist for the social, for the common. We need a model that can scale horizontally rather than vertically and in doing so, we need to employ the tools and techniques of open co-operatives to the governance of our co-operatives for higher education at the local and transnational levels.

As some of us conceive it, a ‘co-operative university’ is not simply a form of resistance against what the university has become; but, rather, it is a dialectical response which recognises that the conditions for a new social form of higher education already exist and the time has come to organize the co-operative alternative.

Social solidarity co-operatives for higher education

My talk for the ‘Co-operative higher education/What next for the co-operative university?’ panel at the ‘Learning together: Perspectives in co-operative education‘ conference, December 9th 2014.

Conversion, dissolution, creation

Co-ops Work

Some of you may be aware of a bibliography I’ve been maintaining over the last year that is an attempt to collect anything written relating to co-operative higher education. At this early stage in our collective thinking it’s quite an easy task to keep on top of, but I hope one day to abandon this bibliographic project because the volume of literature has become to large. Until then, I hope you find it useful.

While writing a journal article earlier this year about co-operative higher education, I looked through the bibliography as it was then and found that each work would tend to focus on one of three different routes to co-operative higher education: Conversion, dissolution, and creation.

Conversion refers to the conversion of existing universities into constituted co-operatives.

Dissolution refers to the gradual dissolution of existing universities into defacto co-operatives from the inside out, perhaps subversively at times, through the formation of co-operative programmes of study, co-operative teaching and learning strategies, co-operative research groups, centres and institutes within the university.

Creation, as you can imagine, refers to the development of new forms of co-operative higher education which might take the form of universities as we recognise them today and might not.

As Stephen Yeo has recently written in a book chapter on co-operative higher education, mostly likely, we would see a range of different forms of co-operative higher education, “some might be as small as seminar rooms; others as large as science parks”; that is, the creation route intends to rethink not only the organisational and constitutional form of higher education but also its institutional, physical and spatial and pedagogic forms, too. It seeks to develop a co-operative higher education which recognises and builds on a long tradition of working class, self-managed, alternative, open and radical education. As a co-operative, it is neither public nor private higher education as we usually understand these terms, but instead open, autonomous, democratic, and held in common for the benefits of its members and society.

I want to make clear that if our aim is a broadly conceived co-operative higher education, I think we should be trying to pursue all three routes of conversion, dissolution and creation without prejudice of one over another. However, I also recognise that each of us will, for good reasons, prefer to focus our individual efforts on a particular route. For me, for the past four years, it’s been the creation route.

Labour, property and pedagogy

The categories I have started to use when trying to think of and indeed practice co-operative forms of higher education is that of ‘labour, property and pedagogy’.  I think each of these are foundational categories with which we develop a new model for education.

To save time, I’m going to skip over a discussion about ‘property’, except to say that by this I’m referring to the idea of an ‘academic commons’, combining the principles, practices and legal framework of the open education movement with the co-operative movement’s principles, practices and legal framework of ‘common ownership‘.

By labour I don’t simply mean work, although that’s how we experience labour much of the time. No, by labour I refer to the capacity or potential of individuals to do something that is considered socially useful. Labour has a very concrete form that we can all recognise as well as an abstract, social, homogenous form that we are mostly unaware of but is uniquely characteristic of labour in a capitalist society, where the division of labour and the production of goods and services is undertaken through co-operation. From this perspective, teaching is a form of labour and so is learning. The academic undertakes labour and the student does, too. Each has the capacity to perform the labour of teaching and learning and at the level of higher education this division of labour can be a productive relationship where knowledge is not simply distributed, consumed or ‘banked‘ as Paulo Freire wrote critically about, but actively produced through a pedagogic relationship in which teacher and student learn from each other in their social context.

Student-as-Producer

At the University of Lincoln, we recognise that this pedagogic relationship for the production of knowledge can be greatly enhanced, perhaps even accelerated, if teaching and learning is based on research that teachers and students do together. Such ‘research-based teaching and learning‘ is the basis of our teaching and learning strategy at the University of Lincoln and we call it Student as Producer.

I appreciate that it goes against the grain to refer to students as workers and learning as a form of labour, especially now when students are driven by government policy and a pedagogy of debt to assume the role of consumers.

wages for students

Nevertheless, I’m by no means the first person to frame the role of students as workers and argue that their labour is both reproductive and productive. If you accept that both teachers and students co-operate through a division of labour to produce knowledge (and remember it’s the production of new knowledge that distinguishes a higher education), then we have a situation where labour is understood as the basis for a social, pedagogic relationship.

students coop

My point then is that in rethinking pedagogy, where the student is also understood as a producer of knowledge, we have to rethink the division of labour, too, and the roles we slip comfortably into as ‘teacher’ and ‘student’, producer and consumer. I think that a new form of co-operative higher education should challenge these roles and recognise that we have much to learn from each other.

What I want to focus on for the second half of my talk are some existing models of co-operation and how they might be applied to a co-operative form of higher education; one which is not primarily aimed at teaching students skills for the social factory, but instead aimed at students discovering for themselves the processes of knowledge production, within which we find our own place and meaning.

Models of co-operation

Web

As well as being a lecturer at the University of Lincoln, I’m a founding member of a small co-operative for higher education in Lincoln called the Social Science Centre (SSC). The life of the SSC is very well documented on our website and elsewhere so I won’t go into any detail about it today, except to say that one of the discussions we’ve had within the Social Science Centre over the last few months is around that of membership: What categories of membership are appropriate for a higher education co-operative like ours? Should we distinguish between members of the co-operative and people who are primarily interested in using the SSC as a service without taking an active role in the running of the co-op? How do we define ‘active’ participation? How do we accommodate new members and ensure they understand the SSC and our responsibilities to each other? These types of questions are familiar to many member organisations, I’m sure.

For me, these discussions around membership at the SSC have further stimulated an interest in the constitutional models of higher education co-operatives. I think an appropriate constitutional model should help clarify the relationships and responsibilities between members with different needs and capacities and ultimately support the production of knowledge, which is what the work of research, teaching and learning in higher education aims to do.

open_coops

We’re all familiar with Co-operatives UK’s model rules for worker, multi-stakeholder and consumer co-operatives. I was also pleased to see that Ed Mayo included ‘open co-operatives’ among his ‘five hopeful trends‘ for 2014.  Earlier this year, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation proposed four recommendations for a new era of open co-operatives:

  1. That coops need to be statutorily (internally) oriented towards the common good
  2. That coops need to have governance models including all stakeholders
  3. That coops need to actively co-produce the creation of immaterial and material commons
  4. That coops need to be organized socially and politically on a global basis, even as they produce locally.

I think much of this will sound familiar to you all, perhaps with the exception of the need for co-operatives to co-produce the immaterial and material commons. Michel argues that the “crucial innovation” of open co-operatives are new methods of reciprocity among co-operatives and private for-profit enterprises which aim to promote the building of both the immaterial and material commons. The devil is in the detail, but the basic message is clear enough: We build a commons as we build co-operative solidarity and the novel forms of reciprocity that are now widespread on the Internet are clearly having a recursive effect on the way we produce and consume both immaterial and material goods and on our subsequent expectations of social life.

Having read the recent report on Social Co-operatives by Pat Conaty for Co-operatives UK, it seems to me that open co-operatives are a form of ‘social’ or ‘solidarity’ co-operative native to the Internet Age. In the UK, social solidarity cooperatives are more often referred to as ‘multi-stakeholder co-operatives’, which I think is a thoroughly uninspiring name for them. Basically, social co-ops exist primarily for the benefit of society, rather than their members. That is, they must have clear social objectives, rather than, say, worker self-management or better prices for their customers. What is encouraging to me is that both social and open co-operatives are very much the off-spring of the traditional worker co-operative model, which has always been the most progressive and radical form of co-operative.

coop hands

Reading the growing literature around the idea and practice of social solidarity co-operatives in Italy and Canada, I understand that they currently cater mainly to health and social care services for the elderly and work-integration for the disadvantaged. Education forms a part of their overall purpose but a relatively minor part. There are of course, similarities between health and educational services. The teacher, like the doctor or carer has among other things a pastoral role and increasingly the patient is encouraged to take a proactive, productive role in the improvement of themselves. Just as I’ve argued that student work is a form of labour, others have argued that patients also perform reproductive labour as they work on themselves with their carers.

solidarity

In 2011, CICOPA, which represents the interests of worker and social co-operatives worldwide, approved the World Standards of Social Co-operatives, which defines the main characteristics of this relatively new model of co-operative, so we now have something clear to work with. What gives me some confidence in this model is that as well as their primarily social objectives, the model of governance in social co-operatives is still weighed towards worker members (i.e. labour):

“Worker-members should be represented at every possible level of the governance structure of a social cooperative. The representation of worker members should be higher than one third of votes in every governance structure… at least 51% of workers should be members. In addition, all the standards of the World Declaration on Worker Cooperatives should apply to worker-members.”

As well as the application of the 2005 Declaration on Worker Co-operatives, the document makes explicit that social co-operatives

“fundamentally share all the commonly agreed standards of the cooperative model, namely the definition, values and operational principles enshrined in the ICA Statement on the Cooperative Identity (Manchester, 1995) and in ILO Recommendation 193 on the Promotion of Cooperatives (Geneva, 2002).”

ilo coop

We might remember that the International Labour Organisation’s 2002 Recommendation on the Promotion of Cooperatives begins by recalling its first and foundational principle, that “labour is not a commodity“. This is an affirmation, albeit perhaps also an aspiration, that the ILO has held since its formation in 1919 with the Treaty of Versailles. Subsequently, since 2005, the international co-operative movement has also shared the conviction that “labour is not a commodity” as recognised in the CICOPA Declaration on Worker Co-operatives. Clearly, worker and social co-operatives recognise the problem of wage work as a decisive issue.

For us, working in higher education, if we agree that teaching and learning is labour that forms the basis of a social and pedagogical relationship, then how do we ensure that that relationship is not commodified? What can the co-operative values and principles and the lessons from the movement’s history bring to a reconception of the work of teaching and learning that attempts to overcome the commodification of research, teaching and learning? Because in much of UK higher education today, academics, students and our collective production of knowledge are being reduced to exactly that: commodities.

I don’t know how you feel about that, but I suspect that like it or not, in higher education we’re gradually becoming used to, if not accepting, of the commodification of all aspects of our work. And as prospective students and their parents calculate the extraordinary loans they need to take out to pay for their higher education, what can become a productive relationship between teacher and student is at first an exchange relationship where the student is purchasing the range of services offered by the university at the centre of which is the labour of teaching and learning and its derivative services of assessment and accreditation.

Towards a model

I want to end my talk by outlining a way forwards for one model of co-operative higher education. This is not intended to be the only model. As I’ve indicated, I hope that co-operative higher education will grow in diversity and federate in co-operative solidarity rather than consolidate into a single monolithic form as we see in the existing universities.

My thinking is the product of collective work through the Social Science Centre, through Student as Producer at the University of Lincoln and through many discussions with some of you here and others elsewhere.

  1. First, despite having talked a lot today about models of co-operation, we should start with a clear understanding of our intended pedagogic model and always be mindful that the institutional form and our chosen co-operative model are first and foremost derived from the pedagogical relationship that we’re aiming to create in our co-operative for higher education. For example, a pedagogical framework that is based on doing collaborative research, across a network of people, requires a different model than a more traditional, didactic pedagogical approach. In short, the pedagogical framework will define the membership categories and the form of governance in the co-operative, and most likely its physical, virtual and spatial form.
  2. Having established our pedagogical framework, we then need to look at existing models of co-operation. We need to break down the features of worker, social and open co-operatives, identifying their categories of membership, their overall purpose and the ways in which they distinguish between the production of goods and the provision of services, between physical and intellectual property, and the forms of reciprocity between producers and consumers. Are the existing model rules adequate for higher education or do we need a new set of rules? In the UK, perhaps the Somerset rules or FairShares are flexible enough to support our objectives?
  3. Next, we need to understand how national legislation affects our aspirations for co-operative higher education. To what extent do we wish to align co-operative higher education with the existing funding and regulatory system of universities? It’s a question about what is required by law and also about our relationship to the state and the important idea of ‘public education’. We know from the history of our movement that co-ops often arise out of the failures of the state to provide adequate welfare provision. Co-operative education is likely to gain more support in countries where the state is seen as failing in its traditionally conceived role of the ‘welfare state’. We need to recognise that social co-operatives in Italy and Canada have expanded because of both cultural reasons and changes in legislation that have supported their formation. What legislative assistance and barriers are there in the UK and other countries where co-operative higher education is desired?
  4. We need to work on business models and understand the legal and financial frameworks that might inhibit and support the financing of co-operative higher education. I think we should start small, not attempting to imitate existing universities and everything they try to do. We should consider what services, other than teaching and learning, members can provide in exchange for income but also in exchange for other services provided by co-operatives. We need to plan for forms of mutualism, seek support from the national and global co-operative movements and from trade unions; we need to talk to real co-operative banks, credit unions and philanthropic trusts; consider various membership funding schemes, such as  community shares; and think of ways that both academics and students can be paid for their work, as is the case at some liberal arts colleges in the USA.
  5. Social co-operatives and open co-operatives rely on non-monetary forms of reciprocity, often in the form of volunteers. We need to think carefully about the role of volunteers and our dependence on the volunteering of time and energy by all members to ensure that various forms of reciprocity are recognised and valued and that members are not exploited. My colleague Mike Neary has suggested to me that Andre Gorz’s distinction between heteronomous work and autonomous work might be developed to help us distinguish between work that is socially necessary and work that is necessarily social. For Gorz, the objective is to reduce the amount of socially necessary, unavoidable, heteronomous  work as much as possible thereby allowing one to autonomously volunteer our free time to things that are fulfilling and necessarily social. Taking this view, volunteering should be welcomed if it is truly volunteered by the individual for the social good and not done out of individual necessity, as is often the case. A reliance on individual members who find it necessary to volunteer their time because they are unemployed or disadvantaged is a problem for us, I think.
  6. Finally and importantly we need to concurrently plan for national and transnational federations of co-operatives for higher education. We need to work with a global body such as CICOPA, who already represent the interests of worker and social co-operatives worldwide, and develop mechanisms of global solidarity and support for co-operative higher education. This might be in the form of sharing resources and knowledge, the development of recognised and accredited programmes of study, perhaps in partnership with existing awarding bodies, that carry all the experience, recognition and endorsement of the co-operative movement. We need to work with housing co-ops and other co-operative enterprises that can meet the needs of academics and students, and with trade unions who have always recognised the value of education, but also understand that co-operative work can still benefit from the protections of being unionised work. We need to recognise that most social and worker co-operatives are intentionally small by comparison to existing universities so as to retain their democratic principles and that based on this fact, we are planning relatively small but networked and federated co-operatives that exist for the social, for the common. We need a model that can scale horizontally rather than vertically and in doing so, we need to employ the tools and techniques of open co-operatives to the governance of our co-operatives for higher education at the local and transnational levels.

There’s lots to do and I know that collectively the people in this room have the experience and knowledge to take this forward.

Reimagining the University

Below are my notes for a keynote talk at the Reimagining the University [pdf] conference, University of Gloucester.

Thank you for inviting me here today to contribute to what is clearly a growing desire to fundamentally rethink the idea, social purpose and institutional form of the university. This is not the first, nor will it be the last time when academics and students have come together to ‘reimagine the university’. Only two weeks ago, the Scottish unions also held a ‘Reimagining the University‘ [pdf] conference where my colleague from Lincoln, Prof. Mike Neary, was speaking.

ReimaginingtheUniversityEventFlyer copyI was told that there is a much stronger sense of resistance in Scotland to the changes they see being undemocratically imposed in England and more opportunity for dialogue between the unions, academics, students and policy-makers. We only have to look to Scotland to see that the conditions we face in England are not inevitable. That there is some kind of alternative. More so, if we look to continental Europe where recently all German universities removed their tuitions fees. Denmark, Sweden and Finland do not charge  fees either. However, my talk today is not about fees, but about something that I think is more fundamental than how money circulates in our sector.

I want to begin by looking back to an earlier conference to ‘Reimagine the University‘, organised this time by students at the University of Leeds in November 2010, shortly after the first of the recent student protests.

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I was there on the third day, scheduled to talk about a new model of free, co-operative higher education called the Social Science Centre.

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The conference organisers stated that

“It is clear that the university system is bankrupt and in need of profound change, but no-one can see an alternative, a solution, a way out. We need to resist the threatened cuts and the ongoing onslaught on education – but we also need a transformation.”

The conference was both an act of resistance to the recent Browne report that indicated the rise in tuition fees, and also an act of solidary, as students and their teachers walked out of their classes and occupied a central lecture theatre. You’ll understand that the atmosphere at that time was both intense and joyful. Perhaps some of you were there. Across the country, students were occupying their universities, and by doing so were making a direct claim on the property of the institution, rather than walking away from it. They stated:

“We don’t want to defend the university, we want to transform it!”

This is something we need to consider today.  What is the relationship between resistance and reimagining? What are we resisting exactly? How can we transform the university through its re-imagination?

book-bloc02web Again, my colleague Mike Neary, who always seems to have the foresight to arrive at the scene before I do, had spoken on the previous day of the Leeds occupation about Student as Producer, a project that ran at Lincoln from 2010-2013.

I’d like to use the remainder of my time in front of you to talk about the relationship between Student as Producer, the Social Science Centre, and most recently, the idea of a co-operative university, and in doing so, to offer some ideas about different routes of resistance and transformation.

And to frame these related projects, I’d like you to think about our collective work as being ‘in, against and beyond’ the university.

Or, if you prefer, work that has as its objective, ‘conversion, dissolution and creation’.

Student-as-Producer

Student as Producer is the teaching and learning strategy for the University of Lincoln. It is a model for teaching and learning based in part on the arguments made by Walter Benjamin in his essays, ‘The Life of Students’ (1915) and ‘Author as Producer’ (1934). In The Life of Students, he writes that

“The organisation of the university has ceased to be grounded in the productivity of its students, as its founders envisaged. They thought of students as teachers and learners at the same time; as teachers because productivity implies complete autonomy, with their minds fixed on science instead of the instructors’ personality.” (Benjamin 1915: 42)

Later, in Author as Producer, he writes,

“[For]… the author who has reflected deeply on the conditions of present day production … His work will never be merely work on products but always, at the same time, work on the means of production. In other words his products must have, over and above their character as works, an organising function.” (Benjamin 1934: 777)

Student as Producer has closed the 19 year gap between these two essays, and argues that

“it is possible to apply Benjamin’s thinking to the contemporary university by applying it to the dichotomous relationship between teaching and research, as embodied in the student and the teacher… to reinvent the relationship between teacher and student, so that the student is not simply consuming knowledge that is transmitted to them but becomes actively engaged in the production of knowledge with academic content and value.” (Neary 2008: 8)

And this is what Student as Producer has aimed to do, inside the University of Lincoln, across the whole institution. Crucially, we have gone to the bureaucratic centre of the university. In every programme and module validation, academics and students are asked to consider how their work could incorporate greater collaboration between students and teachers through the principle of research-engaged teaching and learning. Furthermore, numerous grants are provided to students and staff to support real collaborative research projects outside of the classroom. Out of this climate there is now a Student Engagement team, led by Dan Derricott, a recent graduate and ex-Vice President of the Student Union. Earlier this year, the Lincoln Student Union presented Mike Neary with a lifetime membership in recognition of the work he has lead on Student as Producer.

To what extent we’ve achieved Benjamin’s, and frankly our own, revolutionary ambitions is of course questionable but its impact both inside and outside the institution is undeniable. Yet we must recognise that over time, the subversive, radical language of avant-garde Marxists such as Benjamin has itself been subverted and expressed in the more familiar language of consumption and marketisation, such that  it is now common to hear across the sector of ‘Students as Partners‘ and ‘Student as Change Agents‘.

Like all other institutions in the UK that are permitted to hold the title of ‘university’, Lincoln operates within an environment regulated by the State, which increasingly aims to financialise our institutions through coerced competition. It is no longer sufficient to conceive of our universities simply as sites of knowledge production as Benjamin might have. They are now, as Andrew McGettigan’s excellent work informs us, sites of financial speculation. When Benjamin demands that we reflect deeply on the conditions of present day production and its organising function, we must acknowledge that these conditions are fabricated out of fictitious capital, fiat money, and absurd sounding financial instruments such as the “synthetic hedge“, which refers to the use of public funding to guarantee returns to private investment.

So, I put to you that Student as Producer can be seen in terms of a large scale institutional project that has operated inside the university, grounded in social theory that is against what the university has become. It has offered a framework to students and academics for the conversion of the university into an institution grounded in a theory of co-operative knowledge production which recognises that the organising principle of wage work and private property still exists at the heart of the capitalist university, despite the instruments of fictitious finance being constantly employed to conceal the crisis that is capitalism.

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More than this, in its most subversive moments, Student as Producer has been an attempt by some of us to dissolve the university into a different institutional form based on a social, co-operative endeavour between academics and students. An endeavour which, as Vygotsky recognised, is not aimed at teaching students skills for the factory, but rather aimed at them discovering for themselves the processes of knowledge production, within which they will find their own place and meaning.

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As I mentioned earlier, I was at the Leeds Reimagine the University conference to talk about the Social Science Centre, an initiative which has developed alongside Student as Producer, but outside the university.

In November 2010, the Social Science Centre was little more than an idea that we had written up and were beginning to share with friends and colleagues. It was appropriate that the SSC had its first public outing at the Leeds conference because of the work that Paul Chatterton and Stuart Hodkinson at Leeds had done on autonomous social centres.

What's this place?Their ESRC-funded research project had revealed to us a network of inspiring autonomous social centres across the UK and Europe, which acted as hubs of resistance to the privatisation of public spaces, such as universities. We saw how these co-operatively run Centres collectively broaden and strengthen the efforts of existing social movements by providing space and resource for the practice of different forms of social relations, not based on wage work and private property but instead on mutual aid and the construction of a social commons. Modelled on the social centres, we wanted the Social Science Centre to provide a space for higher education and for developing our work on Student as Producer in ways that were impossible within a mainstream university.

With the constitution of the Social Science Centre as an autonomous co-operative in May 2011, and having no formal relationship to any university, we were able to take Student as Producer outside the walls of the university and with it reconceive higher education itself.

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And this is a distinction I want to underline, one that I think we sometimes forget:

Higher education and universities are not synonymous. Universities represent the existing, historical institutional form of higher education, but in our efforts to reimagine the university, we need to extend our work to reimagining the social form of higher education.

That is what the Social Science Centre is for. It is a laboratory for experiments in higher education. It is a model that we think could be replicated by other people. It is not and never has been an alternative to everything that the modern entrepreneurial university seems compelled to do. How could it possibly be compared to the University of Gloucester, Leeds, Lincoln, Oxford? Yet what we can say is that it does provide an alternative to individuals who desire a higher education at the equivalent level to that found inside a university if they wish, with a progressive model of teaching and learning which is reflected in our constitution that insists all members, or ‘scholars’ as we call ourselves, have an equal say in the running of the co-operative. Rather than make the distinction between academics and students, we recognise that we all have much to learn from each other.

And what exactly, I am often asked, is the Social Science Centre?

In a recent collectively authored article in Radical Philosophy, we state that:

“The Social Science Centre (SSC) organises free higher education in Lincoln and is run by its members. The SSC is a co-operative and was formally constituted in May 2011 with help from the local Co-operative Development Agency. There is no fee for learning or teaching, but most members voluntarily contribute to the Centre either financially or with their time. No one at the Centre receives a salary and all contributions are used to run the SSC. When students leave the SSC they will receive an award at higher education level. This award will be recognized and validated by the scholars who make up the SSC, as well as by our associate external members – academics around the world who act as our expert reviewers. The SSC has no formal connection with any higher education institution, but attempts to work closely with like-minded organizations in the city. We currently have twenty-five members and are actively recruiting for this year’s programmes.”

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With this in mind, I want to move to the final part of my talk about co-operative higher education and, in fact, about the idea of a ‘co-operative university’. It might help to recall an article on financialisation and higher education written by Andrew McGettigan in which he concludes:

“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 the 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.”

The democratic deficit that McGettigan highlights is undoubtedly a key issue that any reimagining of the university must address. However, democracy itself is malleable both as a concept and in practice. What does it even mean to practice democracy here in Cheltenham or in the UK, when supranational networks of capital are being formed to effectively control national and international economic processes?

Resistance to the apparent hegemony of neo-liberalisation and the resulting financialisation of the university is not simply a matter of arousing the public through the media and pushing for changes to institutional governance structures, although both of these are necessary.

Resistance so far has largely been left to students to get on with. What seems clear from this is that the wage we receive as academics is a greater form of discipline than the debt held by students.

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I have attended a number of conferences in the last four years which in one way or another sought to answer the question: ‘what then should be done?’ and at each one of them I have been left with a sense of helplessness which I know others share, too.

I think that is because to resist the ‘synthetic hedge’ for example, is not a matter of putting it to the vote, for it is an expression of what the Historian Moishe Postone refers to as “abstract historical processes [that] can appear mysterious ‘on the ground’, beyond the ability of local actors to influence, and can generate feelings of powerlessness.” This ‘mystery’, not to be confused with the complexity of some of the financial instruments, is, Postone argues, a form of “misrecognition” related to the tendency to grasp the abstract domination of capital as something concrete, such as ‘neoliberalism’. He argues, and I am inclined to agree, that this tendency “is an expression of a deep and fundamental helplessness, conceptually as well as politically.”

I am not suggesting that resistance is futile – it can be both satisfying and in the short term, effective – but it no longer seems adequate as a conceptual or political approach to making local changes in the face of global capital.

SSC Conference PosterIn reimagining the university, I’d like to suggest that we think of ways, not of resisting but rather of overcoming our current historical context and in doing so I want to propose that in addition to democracy, a number of other values can be combined to create a sustained alternative to how we think about the organising principle of wage work and private property in higher education.

“Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity. In the tradition of their founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for others.”

Co-operatives are based on the seven principles of:

1. Voluntary and Open Membership
2. Democratic Member Control
3. Member Economic Participation
4. Autonomy and Independence
5. Education, Training and Information
6. Co-operation among Co-operatives
7. Concern for Community

As with the Social Science Centre,

“a co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.”

This combination of values and principles does not take a single institutional form but like Student as Producer, offers a framework for reconceiving, or reimagining, our social relations, the meaning of work and the purpose of teaching and learning. It does take real effort though, and none of this will be easy to construct unless is it formed out of a conscious act of solidarity not just among a few individuals, but within the national and international co-operative movement as a whole.

Whether there is the appetite for it, is not yet clear, although something is stirring. 1 In the last three years, there have been meetings and conferences where the idea of co-operative higher education has been discussed; and a recent report by Dan Cook and sponsored by the Co-operative College, was pivotal in framing both the interest from the College and the initial questions one might ask. These questions will no doubt be discussed again at a forthcoming conference on co-operative education, hosted by the Co-operative College.

Screen Shot 2014-10-16 at 15.17.30In a recent paper, I have argued that taken as a whole, efforts around co-operative higher education over the last three years can be understood in terms of the three routes I mentioned at the beginning of this talk: Conversion, dissolution, and creation.

By this I mean the wholesale conversion of existing universities to co-operatives; or the gradual and possibly subversive dissolution of university processes into co-operatively governed equivalents; or the creation of new institutional forms of co-operative higher education. The success of each should not be measured against the apparent success of existing mainstream universities, but rather on the participants’ own terms and the type of higher education they need and desire.

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At this stage, we should not privilege one route over another nor any single institutional form over another. It is too early to draw lines and there is a need for much more experimentation before the dust settles on what specific social form co-operative higher education might take. For my part, I am interested in drawing from the theory and practice of worker co-operatives, which Marx recognised as ‘attacking the groundwork’ of capitalism due to its unique configuration of worker democracy, social property and the absence of wage labour.

Co-operativism is no panacea to the abstract domination of global capital and certainly not our end goal, but rather a historically and politically constituted framework that places an emphasis on values and principles that cross the divisions of public and private, wage work and unemployment, teacher and student, teaching and learning. Whatever forms it takes, one thing is for sure: we must not end up with more of the same.