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.

Communes, commonism and co-ops: rethinking the university as a hackerspace

My abstract for the British HCI conference 2015 at the University of Lincoln. I’m on the ‘HCI, politics and activism‘ panel.

In this talk I reflect on the history of hacking and its origins in the ‘commune’ of the academy (Winn, 2013). I then discuss the role of Copyleft licenses (Stallman, 2010) as “the practical manifestation of a social structure” (Weber, 2004, 85; Winn, 2015); a form of administration for the production of ‘commonism’ (Dyer-Witheford, 2007; Neary and Winn, 2012). Finally, I argue that the emerging form of ‘open co-operative’ can be understood as a latent material response to Stallman’s original predicament when Venture Capitalism took over his ‘Garden of Eden’: mutual ownership and control of knowledge production. Significantly, the “crucial innovation” for an emerging form of ‘open co-operative’ (Bauwens, 2014) is a further adaptation of Copyleft called Commons-Based Reciprocity Licenses, or ‘Copyfarleft’ (Kleiner, 2007), thereby uniting co-operative legal structures with subversive licensing contracts. To what extent can we reconstitute higher education and the idea of the university along the lines of an open co-operative, so that academic science can continue to contribute to the common good? (Winn, 2015) All Power to the Communes!

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.

A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Academic Labour

The following paper abstract has been accepted for the Academic Identities conference 2014. I will be co-presenting with Prof. Richard Hall (De Montfort).

In this paper we analyse ‘academic labour’ using categories developed by Marx in his critique of political economy. In doing so, we return to Marx to help understand the work of academics as productive living labour subsumed by the capitalist mode of production. In elaborating our own position, we are critical of two common approaches to the study of academic labour, especially as they emerge from inside analyses of ‘virtual labour’ or ‘digital work’ (Fuchs and Sevignani, 2013; Newfield, 2010; Roggero, 2011).

First, we are critical of efforts to define the nature of our work as ‘immaterial labour’ (Hardt and Negri, 2000; Peters and Bulut, 2011; Scholtz, 2013) and argue that this category is an unhelpful and unnecessary diversion from the analytical power of Marx’s social theory and method. The discourse around ‘immaterial labour’ raised by the Autonomist or Operaismo tradition is thought-provoking, but ultimately adds little to a critical theory of commodity production as the basis of capitalist social relations (Postone, 1993; Sohn-Rethel, 1978). In fact they tend to overstate network-centrism and its concomitant disconnection from the hierarchical, globalised forces of production that shape our objective social reality (Robinson, 2004).

Second, we are cautious of an approach which focuses on the digital content of academic labour (Noble, 2002; Weller, 2012) to the neglect of both its form and the organising principles under which it is subsumed (Camfield, 2007). Understandably, academics have a tendency to reify their own labour such that it becomes something that they struggle for, rather than against. However, repeatedly adopting this approach can only lead to a sense of helplessness (Postone, 2006). If, rather, we focus our critique on the form and organising principles of labour, we find that it shares the same general qualities whether it is academic or not. Thus, it is revealed as commodity-producing, with both concrete and abstract forms. By remaining focused on the form of labour, rather than its content, we can only critique it rather than reify it.

This then has implications for our understanding of the relationships between academics and virtual work, the ways in which technologies are used to organise academic labour digitally, and struggles to overcome such labour. It is our approach to conceive of ‘academic labour’ in both its concrete and abstract forms and in relation to a range of techniques and technologies. The purpose of this is to unite all workers in solidarity against labour (Krisis-Group, 1999), rather than against each other in a competitive labour market.

References

Camfield, D. (2007) The Multitude and the Kangaroo: A Critique of Hardt and Negri’s Theory of Immaterial Labour. Historical Materialism 15: 21-52.

Fuchs, C. and Sevignani, S. (2013) What Is Digital Labour? What Is Digital Work? What’s their Difference? And Why Do These Questions Matter for Understanding Social Media?, tripleC, 11(2) 237-292.

Hardt, M. and Negri, T. (2000) Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Krisis-Group (1999) Manifesto against labour. Krisis.

Newfield, C. 2010. The structure and silence of Cognitariat. EduFactory webjournal 0: 10-26.

Noble, David F. (2002) Digital Diploma Mills. The Automation of Higher Education. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Peters, Michael A. and Bulut. E. (2011) Cognitive Capitalism, Education and Digital Labor. New York: Peter Lang.

Postone, M. (1993) Time, Labor and Social Domination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Postone, M. (2006) History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism, Public Culture, 18(1).

Robinson, W.I. (2004) A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World. Baltimore, MA: John Hopkins University Press.

Roggero, G. (2011) The Production of Living Knowledge: The Crisis of the University and the Transformation of Labor in Europe and North America. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Scholtz, T. (2013) Digital Labour. The Internet as Playground and Factory. New York: Routledge.

Sohn-Rethel, A. (1978) Intellectual and Manual Labour. New Jersey: Humanities Press.

Weller, M. (2011) The Digital Scholar: How Technology Is Transforming Scholarly Practice. London: Bloomsbury.

The Open Knowledge Conference 2013

A shorter, edited version of the article below has been published on The Conversation.

Last week, I was one of 900 delegates from 55 countries who travelled to Geneva to attend OKCon, the Open Knowledge conference. We convened at Geneva’s International Conference Centre, co-incidentally located next door to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and just ten minutes walk from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).  The theme of this year’s conference (which have been running since 2005) was ‘Open Data. Broad, Deep, Connected’. Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) co-founder, Dr. Rufus Pollock explained in his opening speech that this is “the century of the open knowledge society” and that the conference aimed to broaden access, deepen commitment to openness and connect people.

A post-war legacy

If today we are living through the century of the open knowledge society, we might recognise that the roots of the movement – and it really does feel like a movement – are to be found in the development of 20th century Liberalism as it confronted the totalitarianism of Nazi Fascism and Stalinist Communism. The horrors of World War Two and the paranoia of the Cold War led to intense reflection on the nature of freedom and democracy. In 1945, Karl Popper published his two-volume critique of totalitarianism, The Open Society and its Enemies, two-years after Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, a foundational text for neo-liberalism. Elsewhere in the wartime academy, Norbert Wiener and others were developing the discipline of Cybernetics, which analysed society as a system of communication and feedback – an information society. In 1948, Wiener published the landmark book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine which would influence the emerging disciplines of Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Computer Science.

A convergence of this history of ideas could be clearly felt at the Open Knowledge Conference in Geneva. The themes of the conference included open government, open development, open culture, open science, open education and open innovation. While increasingly broad in its coverage, there remained a tendency in the workshops and talks to view these avenues of openness through the singular lens of open data and the efficiencies that it promises in all aspects of civic life.  In his speech, Pollock was clear that openness in itself doesn’t change the world, but that without open data, “we’re driving blind” and he identified open data with “empowerment” – enabling people to change the world. In his closing speech, Pollock said that the Open Knowledge Foundation is “pragmatic, not fanatic”, recognising that there are degrees of openness, despite having once co-authored the pivotal ‘Open Definition’.

The ‘logic’ of openness

My reason for attending the conference was to participate in a meeting around scholarly infrastructure, but having attended last year’s Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, I was also curious about how the Open Knowledge movement is progressing, especially in the areas of open education and open science. In the past few years I have been awarded grants by Jisc to undertake research and development projects which produced Open Educational Resources, Open Data and Open Source Software. You see, once you catch the openness bug, it remains infectious. This has been neatly articulated by Christopher Kelty, who wrote about the ‘recursive public’ of the Internet, which turns freedom of information advocates into activists who find themselves necessarily campaigning for open standards, open infrastructure, open source and so on, so as to protect the thing they cherish.

We can see this in the Open Access movement, having its roots in the Free and Open Source Software movement that emerged out of the Artificial Intelligence labs of the 1970s. Now over a decade old, Open Access has initiated a recursive response within the academy whereby the ‘logic’ of Open Access – free, public access to scholarly research papers enabled by the Internet – increasingly demands that the underlying research data is also made openly accessible so that the research can be reproduced and verified. But it does not stop there: The source code for the software employed during the research, as well as the algorithms and lab notes should be made open, too. And while we’re at it, why not open peer-review? During one workshop I attended on tools for open science, we were shown how some researchers are now writing ‘executable papers’, constructed in such a way that open source software can reproduce and verify the results of the paper and embedded data sources.

Open data by default

The acceptance of Open Access is opening up much more than access to scholarly research publications. With Open Access now embedded in the policies of major research funders around the world, open research data is next on the agenda. In June this year, the G8 Science Ministers published four principles for open scientific data, focusing on openness, access, efficiency and supporting policy. This statement was published concurrently with the G8’s Open Data Charter, a set of principles intended to improve the transparency and responsiveness of governments, increase innovation and improve government efficiency.

The politics of openness

This year’s Open Knowledge Conference had much to celebrate in terms of what has been achieved since the Open Knowledge Foundation was established in 2004. This was underlined by the announcement of a $1.2m grant from the World Bank, which will fund the ‘Open Data Partnership for Development’, a joint project between the World Bank, the OKF and the Open Data Institute.  The announcement highlights the three objectives of the Partnership: “Supporting developing countries to plan, execute and run open data initiatives; increasing the use of open data in developing countries; and growing the evidence-base on the impact of open data for development.” It is worth remembering that the World Bank is itself the product of and advocate of another form of openness: Open markets. It was established as an outcome of the 1944 Breton Woods Conference and along with the International Monetary Fund, intended to promote international development and trade.

Openness has always been a political project with advocates from across the political spectrum. For some it is about power and accountability, for others it is about innovation and efficiency. Choosing pragmatism over fanaticism has been a sound choice so far. However, if Kelty’s analysis is right – and in my experience it is – the recursive ‘logic’ of openness will continue to extend itself to all aspects of public life while the definition of openness will be contested and stretched to ever greater degrees. Here in the academy, it is re-shaping the nature of scientific practice and discovery and before long will contest the way science has been valorised since it was institutionalised over a century ago.

Situating this year’s Open Knowledge Conference beside the ITU and WIPO buildings was a logistical coincidence. Yet in many ways, delegates at OKCon have a deep interest in the work of both of these agencies of the United Nations and are challenging them to re-think the way in which the ‘information society’ and the ‘knowledge economy’ achieves some of the ideals of openness that were established in the post-war climate and have yet to be fulfilled.