Towards co-operative higher education

Towards cooperative higher
Peter Somerville
University of Lincoln
7th May 2014
The case for reform
• University governance is increasingly undemocratic and
managerialised (Deem et al, 2008; Woods, 2011) – a
problem of internal power
• Academic labour is increasingly geared towards
meeting more immediate economic needs of capital
and the ‘market’ (Ciancanelli, 2007; Hill, 2009; Hussey
and Smith, 2009; Molesworth et al, 2011; McGettigan,
2013; Brown, 2013) – a problem of purpose
• Governments are increasingly interfering directly in
how universities are run (Readings, 1996; Collini, 2011;
Molesworth et al, 2011) – a problem of autonomy
Interrogating the academy
Academic labour processes – teaching, research, administration, innovation,
University employees operate within a variety of labour markets, in all of
which people hire out their labour power in return for a wage or salary
Teaching is a distinctive kind of labour because its product (learning) is
produced by students as well as by teachers – learners are both products and
co-producers of education (Jones-Devitt and Samiei, 2011: 94)
Fee-paying students are customers (of the university as provider) rather than
consumers (Barnett, 2011: 43-5)
It is often said that education is a public good (e.g. Collini, 2011) but it is not –
it is a service provided to individuals by individuals
The means of production are broadly the same across universities, whether
they are publicly or privately funded
Critics of recent changes in higher education tend to ignore the fact that
academic labour is already commodified, and also fail to notice the
contradiction within the form of the education product, namely that it is
beneficial both to individuals (as use-value) and to capital (as exchange value).
Why cooperatives?
Cooperatives are democratically controlled and collectively owned organisations
(Somerville, 2007; Woodin et al, 2010; Parnell, 2013) - UK universities are not!
Cooperation is not about volunteering or duty or even about solidarity, it’s about ritual
and habit, which has to be learned as a skill or craft (Sennett, 2012).
Academic labour processes already involve a high degree of ‘cooperation’ (‘collegiality’
and ‘collaboration’), so cooperative governance is reasonable
Cooperatives decommodify labour power to the extent that the workers are their own
employers and their remuneration is decided by the cooperative collectively
Such decommodification challenges both the capitalist wage form and managerial
Cooperatives protect themselves against both state interference and the depredations
of corporate capitalism, e.g. by means of an asset lock (against possible
recommodification) – cooperatives as autonomous
The cooperative movement is a movement in abeyance (like the women’s movement Taylor, 1989: 761)
Cooperative education so far
The University of Mondragon – jointly owned by its academic and
administrative staff, governed by a general assembly composed of 1/3 staff,
1/3 students and 1/3 outside supporters (mainly other coops in the
Mondragon Corporation) (Matthews, 2013; Cook, 2013: 25)
BUT Mondragon is part of a social movement of Basque nationalism, different
from the international coop movement
Cooperative trust schools and cooperative academies in UK ( – over 700 created over the last few years. In a
cooperative trust school (or network of schools), the categories of member are
staff, parents, pupils, and local community, all represented in a ‘forum’ that
appoints trustees who appoint governors. In a cooperative academy, the
school is sponsored by, e.g., the Cooperative Group.
BUT cooperative academies are like the Coop Bank, i.e. (loosely) controlled by
the Cooperative Group but not by their members, and therefore not
cooperatives at all; while in cooperative trust schools, the links between the
membership and the running of the school are far too tenuous.
‘Trust Universities’
• Perhaps surprisingly, the idea of cooperative HE has been developed only
• Boden et al (2012) have proposed a trust model along the lines of the John
Lewis Partnership:
– Ownership would be clarified by placing each university’s assets in a nonrevocable trust, which would hold the formal legal title to the organisation’s
assets. This would also create clear governance responsibilities under trust law
and prevent the privatisation of publicly funded assets. All current employees
(academics and those in other roles) and students would be designated as
trust beneficiaries, entitled to utilise university assets and resources… The
trust deed, echoing that of JLP, would designate the purpose of the university
as facilitating socially, culturally and economically beneficial scholarship,
through the work of all employees and students, whether in research,
teaching and learning, or public debate. This would affirm the university’s
status as a community social asset and an element of the knowledge
commons. By virtue of this legal strategy, Trust Universities would be beyond
the predation of managers, markets or state interests.
• (Boden et al, 2012: 21)
Evaluation of the trust model
A trust has advantages over current HE governance:
– protecting university autonomy
– enshrining in law the social and civic purposes of universities (effectively, converting
them into social enterprises)
– mandating universities to act towards the benefit of all their employees and students
BUT a trust is not a cooperative:
– A trust is not a membership body
– University employees and students do not control the trustees and do not decide what
is to their benefit
– The employer/employee relationship form is retained (e.g. JLP’s ‘partnership’ is just
– The concept of a trust derives from philanthropic traditions, not from the cooperative
• Therefore this is ‘a sub-optimal model in comparison with a true cooperative’ (Cook, 2013: 36 – see further criticism in Cook, 2013, fn70: 3637)
The Mondragon model
• All cooperatives must first identify the nature and composition of
their membership
• Research by Dan Cook (2013: 24) has shown that the most popular
model is that of the University of Mondragon, namely 3 categories
of member (staff, students and supporters)
• However, Cook suggests that the representation of these categories
should not be equal, and that staff should have greater
representation than students, while the identity and position of
supporters need to be clarified
• Beyond a certain size of organisation (over 500 members) it may be
necessary to form coops within the organisation, e.g. in Mondragon
University each of its four faculties is a coop in its own right (Cook,
2013: 34)
Comments on the Mondragon model
• Clearly a member-owned, member-controlled
• Meets aspirations for workplace democracy
• Shows that a strong federation of cooperatives
may be necessary for a cooperative (university) to
be viable (see Galor, 2008: 54)
• Should (external) ‘supporters’ be ranked equally
with (internal) staff and students?
• Should students have the same degree of
representation as workers?
The purposes of higher education must include that of emancipation from
capital-labour relations, and the cooperative form is a step towards this.
Moving forward requires a form of collective action in which the ‘collective’ is
‘a broad and distributed entity that includes those engaged in theory building
alongside, and in collaboration with, participants in particular projects. And
their “action” is viewed as having a performative force, surfacing tacit
knowledge and bringing it to bear on what they [Gibson-Graham, 2006: 166]
term “world changing experiments”.’ (Newman, 2013)
The formation of cooperative universities as such ‘collectives’ will have this
performative force, taking us beyond the false dichotomies of capital versus
labour, and private versus public, towards the transformation of capitalism
into a society where wealth is not measured in terms of the cash nexus.
The cooperative movement remains in abeyance but the potential for
collective action is there.
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