Summary of ‘solidarity’ workshop held at Croft Street Community Centre, Lincoln, on January 29th, 10-4pm.
This final workshop of the project was concerned with ‘co-operation among co-operatives’ and other international organisations providing higher education. We sought to identify the features of a transnational network for co-operative higher education as well as acknowledge existing models and organisations to learn from. Not only were the well-established organisations such as the ICA, CICOPA and UNESCO mentioned, but also the various student co-operative groups in the UK, USA and elsewhere, the national co-operative colleges that already undertake research and coordinate educational activities within the movement, like-minded institutions such as Antioch College, the WEA, Northern College, and other worker education initiatives, the Trade Unions, and national and international campaigns within higher education such as #RhodesMustFall. This activity highlighted how participants understood the role and purpose of co-operative higher education as connecting to and serving a broader concern with social, political, economic and ecological issues. It emphasised both the breadth of existing organisations and campaigns that share similar values and principles with the co-operative movement, as well as the need for the co-operative movement to address a long-standing need for higher education provided by and for its members.
This message came through too, when we discussed what the actual features of a transnational organisation for co-operative higher education might include. Participants felt that institutionally, it would be a ‘secondary co-operative’ consisting of people who were elected by its member co-operatives to coordinate activities among members, promote its members’ interests and the overall idea and purposes of co-operative higher education. This facilitating organisation could exist virtually and take advantage of technologies to allow people from different countries to work together as part of the organisation. There was a strong sense that the transnational organisation would be driven by the active participation of its member co-operatives, rather than simply representing them from a distance. As a co-operative, it would be a democratic organisation established and owned by its members (i.e. organisational membership). It was suggested that in countries where co-operative colleges already exist, such as the UK, those colleges would also be members and continue to take a lead role in coordinating activities at the national level. Other forms of associate membership would be a way for non-educational co-operatives and like-minded organisations to play a part in the development and activities of the international co-operative higher education network. What is clear is the need to recognise the local character of co-operative ‘universities’, which reflect their members’ needs and capacities, while also having democratically run organisations at both the national and international levels, coordinating exchanges of students, academics, arranging events and representing their members both inside and outside the co-operative movement.
Out of these discussions, participants questioned what the purpose of co-operative higher education should be. Here, there was a strong sense that it should primarily integrate into and serve the needs of the co-operative movement, rather than attempt to compete with mainstream universities. Both academics and student members would consciously choose a co-operative university because of its distinctive features as an organisation that is democratically owned and controlled by its members. It should focus on the identity, values and principles of the co-operative movement and the varieties of social concerns that members of the movement have. That is not to say it would be inward looking, but seek to present co-operative higher education as a real alternative to the crisis of mainstream higher education, which is reflective of the broader crises in society. Significantly, it was felt that the international co-operative movement is lacking adequate research organisations that can offer the variety of critiques that the movement needs to ensure that the values and the principles of the movement are maintained and practiced. The role of education within the co-operative movement needs to be ‘reconfigured’ to clearly establish the role and purpose of higher education and as such the development of a transnational solidarity for co-operative higher education would be to strengthen and reconfirm the movement’s commitment to Principle 5.
Finally, it was suggested that Mondragon university should be invited to play a key role in forming the network and also in helping establish new co-operative universities, perhaps by providing accreditation during their formative years. The question of whether a new co-operative university should seek to integrate itself into the national regulatory framework for higher education or partner with an existing university elsewhere, such as Mondragon, remains a key issue for some participants in these workshops.
Gerard de Zeeuw