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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.

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 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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.