Business Models for Co-operative Higher Education
Venue – Croft Street Community Centre, Lincoln
20th November, 2015, 10 am – 4 pm
It was great to see colleagues and friends from around the world, bringing knowledge and experiences about co-operatives and higher education and related matters to the discussions.
The workshop had been arranged as part of the ISRF research project to establish a framework for a co-operative model of higher education. The aims of the day were to develop a business model that can enable and support the development of co-operative higher education.
As well as the publicity being put out by those involved with the ISRF project the event was getting extra publicity from being part of a national Anti-University event: a collaborative festival to revisit and reimagine the Anti-university of 1968, in a weekend of events inspired by the spirit, people and activities of the Anti-university of East London. The festival challenges academic hierarchy through an open invitation to teach and learn any subject, in any form, anywhere. The Anti-university was a movement in the late 1960s based in Shoreditch, East London. It included iconic figures such as C.L.R James, John Latham, Juliet Mitchell, R.D. Laing and Stuart Hall, who wanted to break the structures forced by institutions such as schools, universities and hospitals. The Anti-university wanted to allow people to meet each other without having to act out socially prescribed roles, believing that this would expose the terrible reality of modern life, in which nobody really knew anyone, and spark a revolution.
All those present at the ISRF workshop, share the spirit of Anti-University realising that what we are doing is part of a much wider international movement that is looking to deconstruct and reinvent and transcend the capitalist university.
Key suggested themes to be addressed at this workshop included:
- What services and/or products will the co-operative university provide?
- Who are the co-operative’s members and what co-operative model are we proposing?
- What is the financial framework, including start-up costs, overheads, projected income streams, distribution of profits?
- Getting started – registering the co-operative, being an employer and general responsibilities?
There was a short report at the beginning of the day on the main issues that were emerging from the previous workshops on Pedagogy, Governance and Legal issues relating to the establishment of a framework for co-operative higher learning. This framework is being considered within the concept of distinctively different possible institutional forms of co-operative higher education that have emerged from the research and been consolidated in previous workshops: conversion, creation and dissolution. Reference was made to another form of cooperative model for higher education, not previously mentioned, evergreen co-operatives: as a network of semi-autonomous worker cooperatives supported by local ‘anchor’ institutions that could include universities.
The focus for the day was maintained by thinking about each of the themes in terms of what we would need to do if we if we were starting up a higher educational cooperative in the near future.
There was a brief presentation at the beginning setting out in general terms some of the issues that need to be considered when developing a business plan for co-operative higher education. These included power and power relations, the nature of the cooperative’s politics and how radical we wanted to be, specific roles that would need to be adopted, funding models for financial support, the different membership(s) models, e.g. consumer and worker co-operatives, stakeholder and solidarity co-operatives, so as to make the link between individual needs and capacities and the general interest of the collective co-operative group as a whole; and, as ever, the important question of language and concepts that are used to best express the nature of our political standpoints. One important concept that emerged in the presentation and throughout the day was the idea of ‘social value’ as opposed to economic value, and how that might be generated and maintained and expanded and amplified.
There were no firm conclusions about what the definitive output or product of this co-operative version of higher education would be, but it would involve:
Being part of a radical democratic social experiment which enables members to be debt free, and that it should be for the production of social value in the form of knowledge and science. Membership does not have to be time limited to 3 or 4 years, as in mainstream university programmes. An expectation of this co-operative is that all members, including students, would get ‘paid’.
We struggled with the word ‘product’, suggesting as alternatives: ‘interactions’ or ‘experience’ or ‘curriculum’ or ‘pleasure’ as part of a ‘sensual’ and ‘intellectual life’ in a way that amplifies the intellectual and human/physical capabilities of each individual member and the collective group.
We heard about plans being developed by academics and students in Greece that share these ideas, and which come very close to the Student as Producer model that formed the starting point for the Pedagogy workshop.
Members of the co-operative must have freedom to learn, freedom to create/critique – to create a way of living – or make a living: a livelihood, a concept that was preferred to business plan. Other concepts felt to support this philosophy were ‘surviving well’, ‘etre pour soi’ and ‘Ubuntu’
The curriculum would be theoretical and practical. For example, designing a dry toilet should involve muscle and science: manual and mental labour, in a way that amplifies the contribution of others. Practical work (e.g. cleaning) can be a starting point for teaching and learning – especially when related to green and eco-political issues, but also social class, gender and other considerations relating to in/equalities. Part of the curriculum would be to support people to start their own cooperatives. It was felt that the curriculum would need to overcome any sense of community deficit, by being sure to ground the curriculum in the needs of the community in which it is embedded.
There was a consensus that the membership must be able to incorporate various needs and capacities (stakeholders and interests groups; users and consumers) while maintaining a sense of common purpose and solidarity. The co-operative does not need to be locally based and could making use of digital technologies, e.g., to operate as a platform co-operative, taking advantage of already existing cooperative protocols, e.g., Somerset Rules .
We learned about how these membership models could be supported by ideas emerging out of the spirit of ‘new co-operativism’ and about a recent event at the New School in New York, with very interesting models for workers to make a living while maintaining some control of their own labour processes through the use of digital technologies: platform co-operativism.
It was felt that people most likely to be members of this new co-operative for higher education would be adult and mature, the group most disadvantaged by the current funding regimes in England, who want not only to gain a qualification, but part of a meaningful social experiment.
There was much support for the idea that the cooperative for higher learning would need to connect to a wider membership of co-operatives, e.g., housing coops and across other social movements around the world.
There was a recognition of the need for different types of funding: seed funding and continuing funding.
Based on a co-operative university outlet with 10 FTE staff supporting approximately 100 students, salary costs were estimated at about £300k per annum, most of which to be paid as wages for part time work in the first instance.
Other major costs include premises and IT. It was felt we could look for a premises from the local cooperative association or philanthropic donor(s). IT can be got for free from open online resources, although not completely free of charge and the hardware would cost. We did not estimate this but it was agreed it would be more expensive than we might at first imagine.
The co-operative might be financed by a Members’ levy from co-operative enterprises to support education (Principle 5) as a contribution from the global co-operative movement; or by operating a scheme of Community Shares, or FairShares or investing through a Loanstock share offer. Another way of generating income could be by individual subscriptions: 5000 people giving £10 per month would give us £600,000 per year, or by setting up a Solidarity Fund. We discussed the possibility of approaching the Co-operative Bank as well as other philanthropic donors and Educational Trusts. It might even be possible to ask Co-operative Societies for a cut of monies earned from the sale of plastic shopping bags, now 5p each, which has already been committed in general terms to ‘worthy causes’.
The co-operative might find another form of social wealth not based on money but on labour, as a form of labour bank, that could generate its own currency. Or, in the form of barter/gift economy. Or through a scheme of co-operative work experience making links with local co-operative schools. It might also be that courses are donated by scholars for free.
It was felt that these ideas to generate social wealth and work less are part of a much larger political project around the themes of Basic Income and the Reduction of Working Hours that the new co-operative university should be plugged into.
Other ideas for Generating income:
We considered other money making schemes linked back the the idea of what is the nature of our product. It could include:
- Research contracts
- Residential courses – cooking, living and eating together, overcoming ’community deficit’, doing foundation programmes and having ‘edventures’
All of which could generate monies for the co-operative university.
Remembering, at all times, that the way to make a living, or make a life, is not by making money but by abolishing money and work so as to create a new form of social wealth, or social value. Some felt these ideas might be too utopian, while others felt a utopia frame of mind is what is required in the current crisis.
Gerard de Zeeuw
Rory Ridley Duff