Co-operative university discussion at #DPR14

I led a discussion at the Discourse, Power and Resistance conference last week, which rested on the question of whether a ‘co-operative university’ is an appropriate and adequate response to the crisis of higher education. The discussion was rich and engaging and consequently my notes are sparse and banal, but I will try to collect a few thoughts here now.

The conference was comprised of academics, educators and activists who share a mutual sense of despair, anger, irritation, and fear for the future of higher education in the UK and elsewhere (the conference was 50% non-UK delegates). The opening keynote for the conference from Prof. Richard Pring set the tone by detailing and lamenting the various neoliberal reforms that have occurred across the education sector in the last two decades. While taking questions, one delegate asked the obvious question: “So, what is to be done?” Pring had no real answer, except to propose that a professional ‘council’ be established to protect the interests of the profession. Understandably dissatisfied with that response, someone else said that it required educators to engage in acts of subversion and that many of us are already doing so. We should recognise that the classroom still remains a space of relative autonomy. I wasn’t convinced by that. It may be the case, but those days are numbered. Finally, someone else appealed to us all to organise and strike.

In that context, our discussion the next morning about co-operative higher education had something to kick against. Might the idea of a co-operative university, or more generally, co-operative higher education in a variety of forms, be another, more adequate response to the question: “So, what is to be done?”? As I’ve noted before, I think it could be and the general tone among the 15-20 participants during our hour-long discussion was one of curiosity and interest.

I first introduced the idea with a handful of slides:

As you can see, I proposed that there are three ways to think about and plan for a co-operative university:

  • Conversion: Constitute universities on co-operative values and principles. Read Dan Cook’s report: ‘Realising the co-operative university‘.
  • Dissolution: Radicalise the university from the inside, starting with the relationship between academics and students. Read about Student as Producer.
  • Creation: Build experiments in higher education outside the financialised sector. Read about the Social Science Centre.

Throughout the discussion, I kept the slide containing the co-operative movement’s values and principles on the screen so as to establish some of the constitutional features of a co-operative university.

Participants spoke about their own efforts at establishing those values and principles in their current work, ranging from individual efforts in the classroom, the design of degree programmes and the establishing of formal centres within their institutions. Broadly, these came under the ‘Dissolution’ route and in my case I spoke about Student as Producer as such an example.

Given the news headlines over the last few weeks about the financial problems of the Co-operative Group UK, it was inevitable that this was brought up and participants rightly questioned whether the co-operative movement remained an oppositional, if not radical, response to capitalism. My own view is that despite the current crisis in the UK’s co-operative group, the co-operative movement as a whole, including its rich history and internationalism, has much to offer and inspire radical educators. I am under no illusion that it is the ‘answer’ to the crisis of capital, but the values and principles; the movements’ relationship with socialism and its members’ deep sense of politics; its commitment to education; and its variety of constitutional forms, do seem to offer a useful framework for pursuing democratic control over the future of higher education and its institutions. Yes, co-operatives necessarily operate within the logic of capital, but they exist in contestation with it. Since the movement’s origins, their very existence is a critique of capitalism in practice.  One participant in the discussion remarked that it’s “impossible” to exist outside capitalism. Another responded: “The fact that it’s ‘impossible’ means that we should keep trying!”

Other points of discussion touched on the role of students, who are “increasingly self-commodifying” – how can we work with them to realise an alternative form of higher education? Where are the students at DPR? Does their opinion matter at this stage or is this more about academics determining their own future first and foremost? We should be “bold and resolute” with students. What is the university for? Knowledge? The re-production of labour power? What does work look like in the future? Some participants had “given up on the university” and saw the future as one, not in dialogue with the institution but with students. We were reminded that “there will be dangers” as we move forward.

For a co-operative university?

In April, I am running a workshop with Richard Hall at the Discourse, Power and Resistance 14 conference. Details below.

This discussion takes as its premises the following:

  1. The University is being restructured through a neoliberal politics as part of a global pedagogical project.
  2. This project is aimed at the dispossession of free space/time so that all of life becomes productive and available for the extraction of surplus value.
  3. This pedagogic project is recalibrating and enclosing the roles of teachers and students as entrepreneurial subjects. In part it is also creating a surplus academic population, consisting of the academic unemployed, the precariat, the outsourced, and so on.
  4. If this project is to be resisted then the premises that underpin the economic utility of higher education as a positional good need to be revealed.
  5. If this project is to be resisted then the idea of academic labour that underpins employment in the increasingly digitised and stratified universities of the global North needs to be critiqued.
  6. If this project is to be resisted then the marketised organising principles that underpin the idea of the University need to be challenged.
  7. If this project is to be resisted then educators need to define structures and practices that reinforce the sociability of everyday life, in order to realise new opportunities for pedagogic co-operation.
  8. If this project is to be resisted then histories and cultures of co-operative education need to be revealed and critiqued.

The session will briefly position these headline statements about the idea of the University, and of academic labour, in the UK. The session will then ask participants to uncover stories of how and where pedagogy/educational institutions might be used for co-operation rather than competition. The session will ask participants to discuss what a co-operative University might look like.