Last week, the Co-operative College hosted a conference in Manchester on Making the Co-operative University, with the intention of exploring its role in supporting and coordinating a federated model of cooperative higher education.
It was in 1909 that W. R. Rae, then chair of the Co-operative Union educational committee, addressed the union and stated: “What we want and seek to obtain is a cooperative journey that will end in a cooperative university”. Writing at a time when there were only 15 universities in the UK, Rae saw the development of a cooperative institution 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,” he said.
Over the past 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 cooperative model of democratic member control is being identified as a necessary intervention where the state is failing to provide.
The Manchester event was preceded by a recent decision by the Co-operative College’s Board of Trustees to commit its members to explore the possibility of establishing a federated cooperative university. The federated model of cooperative solidarity is not unusual among cooperatives. 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 Times Higher Education has previously reported, Mondragon University, in Spain, already exists as a federated cooperative university with a small number of staff serving four autonomous worker cooperative faculties with hundreds of academics and thousands of students. Jon Altuna, the vice-rector of Mondragon, gave a pre-recorded interview for the conference, helping to establish how and why the university was set up and the way that it is run.
Alongside Mondragon were presentations from other groups and organisations that are seeking to provide or are already providing cooperative forms of higher education: The Centre for Human Ecology; The Social Science Centre, Lincoln (a cooperative for higher education set up in 2011); Free University Brighton; Students for Co-operation (a national federation of student cooperatives established in 2013); RED Learning Co-operative (a cooperative 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 the University of Leicester and re-established as a cooperative by its staff and local supporters.
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 cooperative higher education over the past few years and advise the board of trustees on the feasibility of the college acting as coordinator and accreditor for autonomous cooperatives offering degrees or degree-level courses.
Looking ahead, the conference also aimed to establish a Cooperative Higher Education Forum that could replace the working group and be open to anyone interested in cooperative higher education. Representatives from the forum will advise the college’s newly established academic board on the direction to take.
While not determining the final outcome, the conference confirmed that there does seem to be a direction of travel for cooperative higher education in the UK. It is likely to place 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 with equal powers. Teaching and learning will draw from traditions of adult, community and participatory education, and will involve students and academics in a combined culture of research and teaching.
Perhaps the greatest unknown at this time is what the relationship between the cooperative movement and the state regulator will look like.
The Co-operative College will be meeting with the Higher Education Funding Council for England this month to understand the current regulatory landscape after the Higher Education and Research Act, and is 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 cooperatives, 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.