Updates

My Flamenco guitar

I recently finished making my second guitar, a ‘flamenco blanca’, or a traditional, lightweight, nylon-stringed guitar made from Cypress, Spruce and Cedar. It largely follows Courtnall’s 1950 Barbero plan, but with an eye on Courtnall’s 1933 Santos Hernandez plan and Brune’s 1951 Barbero plan, too. Studying the three plans offered a great deal of information about what makes a traditional flamenco guitar sound the way it does and the different design choices available to the maker.

I also studied Gore and Gilet’s books for any references to flamenco guitar design and found their analysis of six vintage flamenco guitars to be extremely useful. It gave me a couple of key design goals: to build an instrument that weighs around 1100g and with air and top resonances within the ranges they identify.

Finally, I wanted the sound of the instrument to be very dry and percussive with a loud, short, ‘cut’ when appropriately played. I also like to hear the strings buzz under the control of the player. This video of luthier, Richard Brune, playing a 1970 Manuel Reyes guitar has been a constant source of inspiration:

I built this guitar for myself, wanting to learn to play flamenco but not having an instrument designed for that style of playing or sound. The first guitar I made, a contemporary classical design, is completely unsuited to flamenco. As Gore and Gilet write in their book:

“The flamenco ‘cut’ is provided by the high mobility of the top, which contributes to high excursions of the soundboard and the necessarily low sustain relies on air damping and energy diffusing into the low mass sides and back via an impedance matched top and sides junction; exactly the opposite of our objective for all other types of guitar.” (p.1-91) 

Based on their analysis of six vintage instruments, Gore and Gilet suggest that a good traditional sounding flamenco guitar will have an air resonance below 100Hz and a top resonance of around 180Hz (between F and F#) or around 190Hz (between F# and G). They suggest a bridge of no more than 15g, back and sides that are no thicker than 2mm and an overall weight of around 1100g. 

Throughout my time making this guitar, I kept an eye on the weight and density of every piece of wood, as well as the overall weight as it came together. The soundboard is made from Engelmann Spruce, thinned to 2.5mm in the lower bout area. The bridge is Madagascan Rosewood, weighing 15g, the Cypress back and sides are 2mm and 1.5mm respectively. The beautifully figured fretboard, head veneer, binding and pegs are all rosewood. The finished instrument with strings and golpeador weighs 1143g, has an air resonance of 88.15Hz (F2) and a top resonance of 189.76 (F#3). Here’s a graph of the tap tone data:

And here’s the finished instrument.

I’m pleased with the outcome and the instrument sounds as I had hoped it would. Of course, the workmanship could be improved and I made a number of small mistakes along the way that needed rectifying, especially early on. The main thing I wish I had rectified in the build process is the saddle height. I had drawn out the guitar beforehand to determine the string height and neck angle and opted for a flat (no angle) neck, a scale length of 660mm and no fretboard tapering. I calculated that I could get a saddle height of 9mm and action at the 12th fret of 2.25mm.1 However, the finished setup is a saddle height of 10mm and an action of 2.25mm.

The whole experience made me realise that although it was my second guitar, it was in fact the first guitar I was making on my own without direction and supervision from a teacher. In craft work like this, the experience of having to think for myself, face my own errors of judgement or execution and learn how to correct or live with my mistakes, was part of the process of learning, as well as a useful source of humility. Even with all of the detailed plans and scientific information at hand, I still had to rely on my own intuition and relatively inexperienced feel for the wood and tools. Fortunately, I’ve been asked to make the same guitar for someone else and so have the chance to improve on the same design.


Co-operative Leadership for Higher Education

This reports on recent research into co-operative leadership which aims to support co-operative higher education; where co-operative education is understood as the connection between the co-operative movement and co-operative learning (Breeze 2011). The research was carried out in three co-operatives: a co-operative school, a co-operative university, a workers’ co-operative, and an employee owned retail business. The research is framed within a set of catalytic principles established in previous research (Neary and Winn 2016): knowledge, democracy, bureaucracy, livelihood and solidarity. The results have been developed as a diagnostic tool for academics, other staff and students in higher education institutions to assess the extent to which they are already operating in co-operative manner and how these co-operative practices might be further developed. The ultimate aim of these activities is to establish a cooperative university. The research is funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.

The Co-operative University Now!

In May 2018, I gave a presentation at the Co-operative Education and Research conference, which was a precursor to a book chapter that Mike Neary and I have written. The book chapter reflects on the last decade of developments in the UK towards establishing a co-operative university. We wrote the chapter as a personal narrative, but also connected recent developments to a history of the idea that extends back to the 1870s. Here’s the abstract for the chapter and the slides can be downloaded below. The chapter is part of a book to mark the centenary of the Co-operative College and will be published in 2019.

This chapter narrates the recent efforts of a growing number of people, including ourselves, to create a co-operative university in England. In doing so, we situate these efforts within the broader political and economic climate of UK higher education and in light of recent developments in the co-operative movement, in particular the emergence of multi-stakeholder models of governance. In the process of writing this account, we have found it necessary and helpful to look at earlier attempts to create a co-operative university and the aspirations of those people involved. Recognising that the idea of creating a co-operative university in the UK is one that has been written about for over a century, we found ourselves asking, ‘why now?’ and furthermore, ‘why only now?’”

Download slides.

Making classical guitars: A bibliography

A variety of classical guitar making books for the autodidact.

This is a selected, English-language bibliography of literature about or directly relevant to classical guitar making (lutherie). It aims to be comprehensive but never complete. It relates to the making of the modern classical (‘Spanish’) guitar, i.e. the design of instrument going back to Antonio de Torres in the mid-19th century, not the steel-stringed (‘folk’) guitar (although I acknowledge the overlap, but want to keep it focused). There is a lot of literature aimed at or about players of the classical guitar, much of which is not included here unless it is likely to be of interest to luthiers. Finally, there is a constantly growing number of articles published in scientific journals that could also be listed here but on the whole have not been included. Books in the ‘Science’ section offer a sufficiently in-depth discussion of acoustics, and structural engineering and make reference to the peer-reviewed literature.

Suggested additions from enthusiasts, luthiers and organologists are very welcome in the comment box below. Thank you. 

The art and craft

Bogdanovich, John S. (2007) Classical Guitar Making: A Modern Approach to Traditional Design

Courtnall, Roy (1993) Making Master Guitars

Cumpiano, William and Natelson, Jonathan D. (1994) Guitarmaking: Tradition and Technology

Cuzzucoli, Giuseppe (2015) Classical Guitar Design

Doubtfire, Stanley (1983) Make Your Own Classical Guitar

Friederich, Daniel (1998) The classical guitar soundboards and their bracing 

Gore, Trevor and Gilet, Gerard (2011) Contemporary Acoustic Guitar Design and Build (2 vols.)

Guild of American Luthiers (1985-2005) The Big Red Book of American Lutherie Vols. 1-7

McLeod, Donald and Welford, Robert (1971) The Classical Guitar. Design and Construction

Overholtzer Arthur E. (1974) Classic Guitar Making

Romanillos, Jose L. (2013) Making a Spanish Guitar

Sharpe, A. P. (1957) Make Your Own Spanish Guitar

Somogyi, Erwin (2010) The Responsive Guitar (2 vols.)

Sloane, Irving (1976) Classic Guitar Construction

Williams, Jim (1998) Guitar Makers Manual

The science

Bader, Rolf (2005) Computational Mechanics of the Classical Guitar

Bucur, Voichita (2016) Handbook of Materials for String Musical Instruments

Caldersmith, Graham (1995) Designing a Guitar Family

Catgut Acoustical Society Newsletter and Journal

Falk, Robert H. (2010) The Wood Handbook

Fletcher, Neville H. and Rossing, Thomas D. (1998) The Physics of Musical Instruments

French, Richard Mark (2008) Engineering the Guitar

French, Richard Mark (2012) Technology of the Guitar

Gore, Trevor and Gilet, Gerard (2011) Contemporary Acoustic Guitar Design and Build (2 vols.)

Hurd, David (2004) Left-Brain Lutherie

Jahnel, Franz (1981) Manual of Guitar Technology

Jansson, Erik V. (1983) Function, Construction and Quality of the Guitar

Jansson, Erik V. (2002) Acoustics for Violin and Guitar Makers

Kasha, Michael (1971) The Scientific Development of a New Classical Guitar

Lewney, Mark (2000) The Acoustics of the Guitar

Pavlidou, Maria (1997) A Physical Model of the String-Finger Interaction on the Classical Guitar

Richardson, Stephen Jon (2001) Acoustical Parameters for the Classical Guitar

Rossing, Thomas D. (2010) The Science of String Instruments

Taylor, John (1978) Tone Production on the Classical Guitar

Walker, Gordon Peter (1991) Towards a Physical Model of the Guitar

White, Tim (1979-1982) Journal of Guitar Acoustics

The history and culture

Archee, Ray (2014) The Australian School of Lutherie: Origins and AchievementsInternational Journal of Humanities and Social Science

Bower, Rudi (2009) Between Scylla and Charybdis: a South African perspective on guitar building

Busch, Otto. V. (2012), Man–machine–music: Resonances of craft and technology in a study of guitar building, Craft Research

Button, Stuart (1989) The Guitar in England 1800-1924

Coates, Kevin (1985) Geometry, proportion, and the art of lutherie (Original PhD thesis)

Coelho, Victor Anand (2011) The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar

Dawe, Kevin with Moira Dawe (2001) Handmade in Spain: The Culture of Guitar Making, in Andy Bennett and Kevin Dawe (eds.) Guitar Cultures.

Dudley, Kathryn Marie (2014) Guitar Makers. The Endurance of Artisanal Values in North America.

Evans, Tom and Mary (1984) Guitars: Music, History, Construction and Players from the Renaissance to Rock

Greenberg, James B. (2016) Good Vibrations, Strings Attached: The Political Ecology of the Guitar, Sociology and Anthropology 

Huber, John (1994) The Development of the Modern Guitar

Kies, Thomas J. (2013) Artisans of Sound: Persisting Competitiveness of the Handcrafting Luthiers of Central Mexico, Ethnomusicology Forum

Kies, Thomas J. (2008) Aesthetic Judgements of Luthiers: A Case Study of Mexican Guitar-MakersThe Galpin Society Journal

Martin, Darryl (1998) Innovation and the Development of the Modern Six-String Guitar

McCreadie, Sue (1982) Classical Guitar Companion

Nex, Jennifer Susan (2013) The Business of Musical-Instrument Making in Early Industrial London

Ray, John (2014) The Granada School of Guitar-Makers

Ray, John et al., (2016) A review of basic procedures for an organological examination of plucked-string instruments, Journal of Cultural Heritage  

Romanillos, Jose L. (2002) The Vihuela de Mano and The Spanish Guitar

Romanillos, Jose L. (1995) Antonio de Torres, Guitar Maker – His Life & Work

Schott, Howard (1975) Instrument Makers-1: Luthiers. Howard Schott Visits the Workshops of David Rubio and Michael Lowe

Schramm, David (2005) The Definitive Elements of the Hermann Hauser Spanish Guitar

Sharpe, A. P. (1963) The Story of the Spanish Guitar

Southwell, Gary (1983) The Panormo Guitar and its Makers

Suwa, Kazu (n.d.) Interviews with classical guitar luthiers

Turnbull, Harvey (1976) The Guitar from the Renaissance to the Present Day

Tyler, James and Paul Sparks (2002) The Guitar and its Music. From the Renaissance to the Classical Era.

Usher, Terence (1956) The Spanish Guitar in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Wade, Graham (1980/2012) Traditions of the Classical Guitar

Wade, Graham (2001) A Concise History of the Classical Guitar

Westbrook, James (2013) Louis Panormo: ‘The only Maker of Guitars in the Spanish style’

New directions in my research: How do luthiers learn their craft and teach their tradition?

Over the past six months, I’ve been making a classical guitar. It’s been a really wonderful experience and perhaps the most satisfying educational experience of all, to have learned a complete process of making that results in an instrument that I can use and enjoy. I’ve learned how to make a concert-level instrument, one-to-one with an experienced luthier, teacher and author of the established reference book on the subject, Making Master Guitars.

A desire to ‘work with my hands’ has been a recurring impulse over the last decade or more but circumstances hadn’t been right until recently. For the last two years, I have been receiving tuition from Rob Johns to learn how to play the classical guitar and earlier last year I began to notice a series of new instruments pass through my teacher’s studio. They were experiments in a new structural (internal) design of concert guitar that he and luthier, Roy Courtnall, were co-designing and I was privileged to be able to play them each week and discuss their musical attributes and craftsmanship with Rob during my lesson. Then, one day in the Spring, it occurred to me that I had to make a guitar for myself – there was no question about it – I lived just minutes away from a highly regarded luthier/author/teacher whose guitars I’d been playing for several months. From that point on I started to make the arrangements and borrowed £5000 to pay for it all: tuition, tools, wood and a thorough clear-out and refurbishment of my garden shed workshop. From July, I visited Roy’s home and spent, on average, a day each weekend working in his workshop on my guitar. 26 days (over six months) later, it’s now finished and I’m planning my next one – this time on my own. I documented the process thoroughly the first time around, and with that experience and his book, I feel a mixture of excitement, apprehensiveness and sufficient confidence.

My first guitar.

Apart from learning to make a guitar, I also learned from Roy something about the tradition of classical guitar-making in the UK; enough to make me want to find out more when I wasn’t in the workshop. Again, I found myself in a rather unique position, being taught one-to-one by a luthier who was the author of a standard reference book on the subject and who established the UK’s premier guitar-making course at Newark College, just a half-hour drive from where I live. Roy was an autodidact who had carefully researched and beautifully written a book for other autodidacts; he had established a formal, accredited programme of lutherie within an institutional setting, and was now teaching one-to-one in the style of a traditional apprenticeship.  When I started to look around, I found that one or more of these three approaches were typical for all classical guitar-makers. Here’s a list of UK luthiers I have been compiling and a corresponding map I am plotting.

This preliminary research has identified what we might think of as three categories of ‘vocational training’: Self-taught (at home), one-to-one (in a professional workshop) and as a group (in an institutional setting), or rather:

  1. autodidacticism (where individuals learn alone by trial and error with the use of published books and instrument plans);
  2. an apprenticeship model (where a student works one-to-one with an experienced luthier for an extended period of time); and
  3. college programmes, where cohorts of students learn as a group on accredited and non-accredited courses.

This is interesting enough in itself, but then I was listening to the radio while in my refurbished workshop and there was a programme that discussed some recent research about ‘endangered crafts’. I wondered where lutherie stood on the list and found that it was deemed ‘currently viable’. That was a relief, but a number of issues relating to education and training have been identified as threatening the tradition. These include the difficulties of continuing training after completing a college course; college education only prepares individuals for further on-the-job training and self-directed learning. Securing such a position after college is difficult because it’s often not economical for experienced luthiers to take on apprentices/trainees; luthiers struggle to make a living and cannot afford to be spending time teaching someone as well as providing them with an income. Consequently, the traditional apprenticeship model is now very rare. Also, college courses are at risk because the numbers of students required to make them financially viable means that they are closing or accept too many students which, according to Radcliffe, has a detrimental effect on the quality of training.

Reading more broadly, I learned that according to research by the Craft Council, since 2008 there has been a significant decline in the number of young people studying crafts at school and in further education; there are persistently low numbers of formal apprenticeships; there has been a rapid decline in the number of craft-based HE courses; and there has been an increase in BAME students and non-UK domiciled students studying craft in HE.

So, I am embarking on a relatively new area of research for me. Of course, there are some, mainly conceptual, continuities with the work I have been doing on ‘Student as Producer’ and the pedagogic relationship; craft approaches to technology in higher education; non-alienating forms of work and ownership of the means of production. My work on co-operative higher education will continue, but as part of the Co-operative University Forum and Co-operative Higher Education Network.

In terms of my new focus, there is a range of related literature but no academic study of the teaching and learning (i.e. development and transmission of the tradition) of lutherie in the UK has been undertaken. I am interested in the history, but also very much on the different contemporary modes of lutherie education, the variety of pedagogical models, syllabi and institutional and non-institutional environments where the teaching and learning takes place.

A variety of classical guitar making books for the autodidact.

The questions that I have in mind are:

  • How has the experience, knowledge and skills (i.e. craft) of classical guitar-making in the UK been transmitted since the early 20th century? Can a ‘genealogy’ of luthiers be established?
  • What has been the role of colleges/institutions in the education and training of aspiring luthiers? What are the current risks and challenges that such institutions face?
  • What is the contemporary experience of lutherie students on formal programmes of study? Who are they? How are they taught? What are their motivations and aspirations? What challenges do they face after graduation?
  • What role has autodidacticism (i.e. self-taught luthiers) played in the development and maintenance of the tradition of classical guitar-making? What can we learn about the experiences of autodidacts and the literature (e.g. books, magazines, internet forums) that they draw upon to teach themselves.

A. P. Sharpe (1957) The earliest English-language book for making classical/Spanish guitars.

Clearly it will require a study of historical data and literature (archives, books and trade magazines) to understand the 20th century history of UK classical guitar making, how the knowledge and skills of the craft has been transmitted, the role of institutions, and who the significant teachers have been up to the present day and the reasons for their significance.

The historical research will inform biographical research of luthiers who are still working or living, with an emphasis on how and from whom they learned, who they may have taught, and further issues relating to the teaching, learning and transmission of the craft.

A third part of the research will be a case study of the guitar-making course at Newark College.  The aim here is to understand the nature of teaching and learning in this setting, the design and content of syllabi, and the issues and challenges of lutherie education in an institutional setting.

Well, that’s the initial plan. While you’re here, why not watch a fascinating film of José Romanillos, one of the most important luthiers of the 20th century, making a guitar in Wiltshire in 1980. He taught himself with a 32 page book by A. P. Sharpe, published in 1957, which is very modest by comparison with more recent texts, to say the least.

Update: I am maintaining a bibliography here.

Piatigorsky

Among us, he was known as ‘Piatigorsky’, not Alexander or Professor Piatigorsky. During my time as an undergraduate at SOAS, he left an impression on me – his remarkable breadth of scholarship and irreverence for the profane – that I am grateful for.

Piatigorsky was a professor at the London School of Oriental and African studies (SOAS) until his retirement in 2001. (Sir Isaiah Berlin had intervened to ensure his appointment after he fled the USSR.) The topics on which he wrote ranged from the failures of totalitarian communism to Buddhist thought and even to Freemasonry. Piatigorsky was also a talented linguist – he compiled the first Russian-Tamil dictionary – and a novelist. Source.

Piatigorsky disliked traditional academic jargon and for most of his life he upheld the principle that scholars should publish as little as possible on the grounds that publishing interrupts thinking. His lecture style was lively and distinctive: he was able to speak with considerable effect about the most abstruse and difficult concepts. Pacing back and forth, smoking, when it was still permitted, he sometimes stopped to observe his cigarette as it burned, pausing before making the next point. He was never known to consult notes. Source.

a man who was widely considered to be one of the more significant thinkers of the age and Russia’s greatest philosopher…

Sasha joined Soas in 1975 as a lecturer, initially in the history department. Sasha loved Soas; and, to an extent, Soas loved Sasha, although his eccentric dress-style, bohemian manners, thick Russian accent and overt intellectualism bewildered many of his colleagues. But Soas in general, unsurprisingly, did not really know what this Russian, Jewish, Buddhist, philosopher, historian, intellectual, linguist (he knew Sanskrit, Tamil, Pali, Tibetan, German, Russian, French and English) and writer was all about. From his obituary (2010) in the Guardian:

There is no doubt that Piatigorsky was a brilliant lecturer. He never referred to written notes, but delivered what always appeared to be carefully crafted and absorbing talks in a fluent, almost literary form of English. He spoke loudly and clearly, but with a thick, drawling Russian accent, as he paced animatedly about the room. Source.

Watch, Philosopher Escaped, a documentary about Piatagorsky.

The Social Science Centre, Lincoln: the theory and practice of a radical idea

Mike Neary and I were invited to reflect on the Social Science Centre (SSC) for the Italian journal, Roars Transactions. Here’s the abstract.

The Social Science Centre, Lincoln (SSC), is a co-operative organising free higher education in the city of Lincoln, England. It was formed in 2011 by a group of academics and students in response to the massive rise in student fees, from £3000 to £9000, along with other government policies that saw the increasing neo-liberalisation of English universities. In this essay we chart the history of the SSC and what it has been like to be a member of this co-operative; but we also want to express another aspect of the centre which we have not written about: the existence of the SSC as an intellectual idea and how the idea has spread and been developed through written publications by members of the centre and by research on the centre by other non-members: students, academics and journalists. At the end of the essay we will show the most up to date manifestation of the idea, the plans to create a co-operative university with degree awarding powers where those involved, students and academics, can make a living as part of an independent enterprise ran and owned by its members for their benefit and the benefit of their community and society.

Download the essay. Read more about the SSC.

Co-operative Higher Education Network (CHEN)

Following the recent Making the Co-operative University conference, hosted by the Co-operative College in Manchester, it was agreed that a new Co-operative Higher Education Network (CHEN) would be established.
CHEN is a general purpose mailing list with a focus on higher education in the broadest sense. It is open to anyone who wishes to talk and network around co-operative higher education. This is an informal space where ideas, themes, proposals and solutions can be generated and discussed. Moderation will be kept to a minimum.  CHEN members may wish to organised events and other activities.
Click to subscribe: www.jiscmail.ac.uk/CHEN

Co-operative University in Co-operative Party’s Education Policy

In September 2016, in the midst of the Higher Education and Research Bill, Mike Neary and I, together with Cilla Ross and Simon Parkinson from the Co-operative College, wrote a blog post for the Co-operative Party’s website about co-operative higher education. We argued,

“There is nothing within the current legislation that would preclude a more radical form of university from being established: a co-operative university, based not on markets and privatisation but on collaboration and co-operation.”

In July this year, the Co-operative Party were seeking policy recommendations and so we submitted an adapted version of our blog post to the Party for consideration. Therefore, I was pleased to see that our submission (.doc) made its way into the Party’s Education Policy document, published in October 2017 (PDF). I’m told the idea got a round of applause at the Party’s annual conference, too.

Page 25 of the Education Policy

Here is the feedback on our submission:

Pages 23-24 of the Education Policy Submissions and Feedback document.

Political support for the idea of co-operative higher education is very welcome. The Co-operative Party was established 100 years ago and since 1927, has had an electoral pact with the Labour Party. It has 38 MPs in the House of Commons, all of whom are members of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Making the co-operative university

Below is a blog post I wrote for the Times Higher Education. It was edited for publication and may require registration on THE to view it, so is presented here in its original form.

Last week, the Co-operative College, established in Manchester in 1919, hosted a conference on ‘Making the Co-operative University’ with the intention of exploring its role in supporting and co-ordinating a federated model of co-operative higher education.

Throughout the day, there was a sense of anticipation and historic responsibility among the 90 delegates who were told that in 1909, W. R. Rae, Chair of the Co-operative Union educational committee, had addressed the Union and stated that “What we want and seek to obtain is a co-operative journey that will end in a co-operative university”.  Writing at a time when there were only 15 universities in the UK, Rae saw the development of a co-operative university as another example of members providing for themselves where the State did not: “So long as the State does not provide it, we must do, as we have in the past, the best we can to provide it ourselves.” Over the last century, the State has provided a higher education that may have satisfied Rae, but the tripling of tuition fees in 2012 and the incremental corporatisation and marketisation of higher education since the 1980s have angered students, academics and administrators. Once again the co-operative model of democratic member control is being identified as a necessary intervention where the State is failing to provide.

Indeed, the “historic” nature of the event was preceeded by a recent decision by the Co-operative College’s Board of Trustees who committed its members to explore a federated co-operative university and all of its possibilities. The federated model of co-operative solidarity is not unusual among co-operatives. In 1944, the College wrote about how it “could become the nucleus of a Co-operative University of Great Britain, with a number of affiliated sectional and regional Colleges or Co-operative institutes, as the demand arises.” In fact, as the Times Higher Education has previously reported, Mondragon University in Spain already exists as a federated co-operative university with a small number of staff serving four autonomous worker co-operative Faculties with hundreds of academics and thousands of students.

Jon Altuna, the Vice-Rector of Mondragon University gave a pre-recorded interview for the conference, helping establish how and why the university was set up and the way it is run. Alongside Mondragon were presentations from other groups and organisations that are seeking to provide or already providing co-operative forms of higher education: The Centre for Human Ecology, founded in 1972; The Social Science Centre, Lincoln , a co-operative for higher education set up in 2011; Free University Brighton, running since 2012; Students for Co-operation, a national federation of student co-operatives established in 2013 that supports 24 food co-ops and four housing co-ops; RED Learning Co-operative, a new co-op set up by ex-Ruskin College academics to provide training and education to the Labour Movement and other activists; and Leicester Vaughan College, established in 1862 to provide adult education but recently “disestablished’ by Leicester University and re-established as a co-operative by its staff and local supporters, including the city council.

The diversity of these initiatives was celebrated at the conference for meeting local and unmet needs in adult education, while at the same time recognising the limitations of working on the fringes: too much reliance on voluntary labour, insufficient funds and the difficulty of being accredited by an external awarding body. This is where the Co-operative College comes in.

The conference was a pivotal event that came about through the efforts of a Co-operative University Working Group (of which I was a member) that was set up to pull together the work that has been done around co-operative higher education over the last the last few years and advise the Board of Trustees on the feasibility of the College acting as co-ordinator and accreditor for autonomous co-operatives offering degrees or degree-level courses. Looking ahead, the conference also aimed to establish a Co-operative Higher Education Forum that could replace the Working Group and be open to anyone interested in co-operative higher education. Representatives from the Forum will advise the College’s newly established Academic Board on the direction to take.

After presentations from people in the morning, the afternoon of the conference focused on thematic discussions around Democracy, Members and Governance; Knowledge, Curriculum and Pedagogy; Livelihood and Finances; and Bureaucracy and Accreditation. While not determining the final outcome, there does seem to be a direction of travel for co-operative higher education in the UK: It is likely to be based on the principle of subsidiarity, with democratic control in the hands of the people most affected; membership will be open and voluntary and meaningfully linked to the system of governance providing all members, students, academics, administrators, with equal powers. Teaching and learning will draw from traditions of adult, community and participatory education, involving students and academics in a combined culture of research and teaching. Co-operatives are ‘enterprises’ run by and for their members and there is a recognition that members have to face the risks and challenges of creating sustainable business models that draw on the existing co-operative commonwealth and sources of public funding. Perhaps the greatest unknown at this time is what the relationship between the co-operative movement and the state regulator will look like.

The Co-operative College are meeting with HEFCE this month to understand the current regulatory landscape following the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 and are poring over the recently published consultation documents to understand the implications of the new regulator, the Office for Students. If the key requirements of demonstrably good governance, a good quality education, and a sustainable financial model remain the basic threshold for gaining Degree Awarding Powers then there is no reason why Co-operatives, operating on 180 year-old, values-based principles of social organisation, can’t meet those requirements in ways that challenge the existing system of higher education in England with a real alternative.