Notes from the Co-operative Higher Education Governance Workshop

Date: 17th July, Lincoln, 10-4pm.

Venue: Croft Street Community Centre, Lincoln, UK

This was the second of five workshops being run for our research project on co-operative higher education. The workshops are being held at Croft Street Community Centre, a place that the Social Science Centre uses regularly for its meetings and seminars. There were nineteen participants (nine members of the Social Science Centre), including seven women and twelve men. Three people had been specifically invited for their expertise in co-operative governance. Participants also included academics (sociology, education, policy, business and management), a co-operative legal specialist, an ex-university administrator, a local educational consultant, a long-time member of a worker co-operative, a schoolteacher, someone from the Leadership Foundation, a student, and community educators.

A draft report from the previous workshop on ‘pedagogy’ was handed out to everyone and discussed. We emphasized that our project is intended to develop a model, rather than the model, for co-operative higher education. We recognized that there are different routes that have been proposed: conversion of an existing university, dissolution by establishing co-operative structures, strategies, services, etc., and the creation of a new form of co-operative higher education.

Among participants with experience in the co-operative movement, there was a strong sense that a ‘co-operative’ refers to an organization that identifies with the International Co-operative Alliance’s statement of identity, values and principles. We discussed these so as to make them clear to everyone and establish a shared understanding of what we mean by a ‘co-operative’:

“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.”

Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity.

The co-operative principles are guidelines by which co-operatives put their values into practice.

  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

Drawing from what we learned at the previous workshop on pedagogy, we noted that the theory and practice of ‘Cooperative Learning’ does not explicitly identify with the international co-operative movement. The co-operative movement is a social, historical and political movement that, beyond the identity statement, is not prescriptive. For some it is simply a better way of doing business and not necessarily about changing society; for others it is a radical social movement. When developing ‘a model for co-operative higher education’, we need to be clear about what ‘co-operative’ means to us. For those at the workshop, there was general agreement that we do wish to draw on the radical, social and political history of the co-operative movement.

We agreed to focus on five themes for the day:

  1. The relationship between pedagogy and governance
  2. Membership
  3. Size and scale
  4. Methods of governance
  5. Existing governance in HE

The group split into four tables and discussed each of these themes for the rest of the day, having lunch between (2) and (3). After lunch, new groups formed.

We questioned what we mean by ‘governance’ and noted that it involves relationships of power and is politically situated. We discussed governance as:

  1. The mechanisms through which an organisation is accountable to its stakeholders/members.
  2. Systems and processes ensuring overall direction, effectiveness, supervision and accountability of an organisation.
  3. Broader politics and social processes that define and organise – relational – addressing issues of power.

Related to this, we questioned the difference between ‘stakeholders’ and ‘members’ and noted how we need to use language carefully and consciously to avoid reproducing the neo-liberal status quo.

As the day progressed, we reported back from each table to the whole group. People at each table focused on different ‘routes’ to a co-operative university: some discussing issues of governance when converting an existing university; others thinking about governance and membership of a newly created co-operative university. It wasn’t until the end of the day that we made the distinction between co-operative higher education and a co-operative university – a university being one institutional form of higher education.

Reading notes taken by Andrea, who has offered to be our project’s ‘ethnographer’, I have highlighted the following representative points made by different participants:

Who are the members?

Everyone should be multi-skilled not a division between manual and intellectual work and roles.

Students should be paid like other workers.

Who is in the community of interest? Who will continue to come to the university because they need it?

People would not be coming to be educated but to be part of the running of the organisation.

Cooperation is knocked out of us, we have to learn how to govern co-operatively.

It’s the idea of an organisation where members are jointly producing knowledge.

People have to have commitment.

You have to work to become a member.  

There are different stakeholders – internal and external.

How the decisions are made is as important as who is voting.

Teaching the social and political economy is social and political. Teaching the capitalist relationships and how they affect teaching and learning.

Talked about a horizontal structure. Whoever is in the decision-making positions should be rotated very regularly.

The process of governance is a process of learning and governance.

Would probably want consensus decision-making. It would be small and networked. It wouldn’t comply with HEFCE codes.

What is learned in the classroom should inform the governance. The people who are teaching and learning are deciding what is taught and learned.

Employability – there might be an alternative agenda that enables students to create their own cooperatives. The Co-op university would give people the confidence and skills to go on and create their own co-ops.

Students and their associations should not just be a sounding board but should have constitutional recognition. People may be transient but it is about the associations they represent which are permanent.

Could be both individual and institutional membership.

Distinction between members and ‘stakeholders’ who may have an interest but not constitutionally members.

Wage labour changes the way an organisation is governed. Could categorise core (those who learn or work in the cooperative) but also there may be other forms of stakeholders and representation.

There is always an issue of scaling up. There is a size of community that people can identify with.  

Rather than define by size, it could be defined by place. In a town the size of Lincoln the identity can be distinctive.

There may be a ‘hub’ that connects to the various coops: cleaning coop, catering coop, academic coop, etc. Separate identities joined to the hub.

Specialists can do things like cleaning which should not be an identity.

Can we have smallness on a big scale? Can we have a scaling up of ‘cells’ that multiply?

The learning environment of smallness is more suited to educational purposes and especially cooperative educational approach where you learn from doing and need to build up relationships.

Space and the type of space is critical.

Once the people are cooperative learners then you can have big groups.

The principle of ‘subsidiarity’. Only do at the centre things that have to be done at the centre. Radical devolution is when all power is at the bottom unless the bottom gives power to the centre.

Alumni as custodians of the vision as well as retired staff.

‘Graduated to’ rather than ‘graduated from’ the co-op university. Membership is not immediate upon ‘enrolment’ – a probationary period.

Equalise subsidiary groups. Equalise and get away from low and high function groups – such as cleaners and academics

Grow small organisations who in the course of growing would link up with other similar organisations.

Some kind of federation. Generating – synthesising – coordinating and accrediting.

Incorporation might be problematic but also could be helpful. There could be advantages to one in the middle being incorporated but the rest only legal and cultural framework but the others do what they want. Small enough for direct democracy to work at the level of the individual educational grouping.

We are learning how to govern and this is a process of empowerment.

If you do not have executive management and keep operational management you will save a lot of money on cost and administration of cost.

The cooperative movement is concerned with housing. Housing cooperative could be a way to raise funds.

With the potential failure of existing universities, what can this project contribute to a potential worker takeover? There is no legal impediment to a worker takeover.

Everybody at the workshop ended up focusing on the small-scale creation route.

General state of the radical imagination: inability to think at scale. Why is this? Where have the institution-building skills gone? Big institutions are so easy to capture. Almost any reasonable person can run a group of people of 50 so it is enabling and democracy can survive.

It’s important to link to the unions.

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As you can see, the governance workshop ended up focusing primarily on the creation route, allowing participants to imagine co-operative higher education in an ideal democratic form. However, the question of converting an existing institution was not lost as we recognized the need to respond to the possibility of a worker takeover of a failing institution, as has often happened in other industries past and present in the UK and elsewhere.  The two scenarios of 1) small, federated social co-operatives for higher education; and 2) action planning for worker takeover of an existing (possibly failing) institution, provided us with something concrete to take to the next workshop in October, where we focus on the legal frameworks for co-operative higher education: What legal structures currently exist in the UK (and elsewhere) that might enable and/or prohibit 1) the creation of a federated network of social co-operatives for higher education, and 2) a worker takeover of an existing university?

Attendees

Andrea Abbas (SSC and University of Bath)

Sarah Amsler (SSC and University of Lincoln)

Edwin Bacon (Birkbeck Collegee, University of London)

Bob Cannell (Suma whole foods co-operative)

Gerard de Zeeuw (SSC and University of Lincoln)

Elio Di Muccio (City University of Birmingham)

Cassie Earl (SSC and University of Lincoln)

Judy Harris (Leadership Foundation for Higher Education)

Stephen Hopkins (SSC and Independent Consultant in Education)

Pat Juby (Secretary of the UK Society for Co-operative Studies)

Joel Lazarus (University of Warwick)

Mike Neary (SSC and University of Lincoln)

Rory Ridley-Duff (Sheffield Hallam University)

Peter Somerville (University of Lincoln)

Ian Snaith (Independent Consultant in Co-operative Law)

Martha Vahl (SSC and University of Lincoln)

Wendy Vause (SSC)

Mervyn Wilson (Co-operative College)

Joss Winn (SSC and University of Lincoln)

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