Notes from the ‘Legal’ workshop for Co-operative Higher Education

Beyond Private and Public: a model for co-operative higher education [ISRF]

Croft Street Community Centre, 9th October 2015, 10-4pm

Cassie Earl, Joss Winn, Rory Ridley-Duff, Ian Snaith, Martha Vahl, Gerard de Zeeuw, Kai Haidemann, Mike Neary, Tara Mulqueen, Pablo Perez Ruiz,

This roundtable discussion began with an overview about the frame of reference for the research project, with a review of the two workshops that have already taken place, on pedagogy and governance, setting the topic for this workshop on legal arrangements for co-operative higher education into context. We agreed to consider the three possible forms of co-operative higher education already established as an organising model for co-operative forms of higher education: conversion, dissolution and creation (Winn, 2015)

There was a strong sense that higher education needs to be embedded within the co-operative movement as one of its core values, not only to support commercial activities but as foundational aspect of co-operatives as a social movement and a significant matter for a ‘new co-operativism’.

This sparked a discussion about whether we use the title of ‘university’ or ‘higher education’ for our new institution and, in what was to become a main theme for the day, to what extent we work inside or outside HEFCE frameworks. We heard about the Architectural Association School of Architecture, which validates its undergraduate programmes through RIBA and post-graduate programmes through the Open University. It is able to flourish as a higher education institution due its very credible reputation and the quality of the students it produces. We also heard about alternative forms of co-operative education in Argentina that had emerged after the economic crisis in the 1990s and in opposition to the increasing marketisation and privatisation of schools.

Working from recently published HEFCE documents we looked at the requirements to become a HEFCE approved university. This route to becoming a ‘university’ requires a threshold level of higher education students, currently fixed at 1000, and already attained degree awarding powers. An attraction of the HEFCE framework is the funding that is associated with the student numbers.

We thought about credible organisations deeply embedded within the co-operative movement, the co-operative College and the International co-operative Alliance, which might become primary coordinating institutions based on the HEFCE model of ensuring quality assurance and good governance, organised around a confederated secondary network of co-operative higher education centres/universities.

We agreed that there was no legal reason why a co-operative university could not be established under the HEFCE regulations, via the established gateways. A legal framework could be created that would meet HEFCE stipulations concerning quality, financial sustainability and governance. There was a concern about the amount of time it takes to be recognised as an HE provider by HEFCE, currently at least four years, and the politics of dealing with HEFCE, not least because of its currently neoliberal agenda and the regulatory audit culture that it creates. It was mentioned that all of the organisations associated with the governance of HE in the UK are currently under review by the Conservative Government, including the Funding Councils and the QAA, and may not exist in their current form in the near future.

There was a greater interest in developing an alternative form of co-operative higher education that was not dependent on HEFCE validation and funding. We learned that there are validating bodies, other than HEFCE, through which courses and programmes of study could be validated. These alternative awards remain government regulated and we were interested in looking at the full range of possible awards, including diplomas and certificates.

This alternative model should aim to keep all legal arrangements to the minimum of what is required to fulfill certain legal obligations. The co-operative could be un-incorporated and set up contractual agreements to deal with specific issues, for example, the employment of workers through self-employment schemes, or owning property through the creation of trusts, or dealing with other types of liability through insurance schemes. What was made clear is that in the UK, a ‘co-operative’ can take different legal forms and therefore flexibly accommodate the aspirations of its founding members.

There was a very strong feeling that the co-operative should not create precarious forms of employment, but pay workers a wage that is commensurable with other academic labour, including professional and support staff, and for workers in the education co-operative to have access to full employment rights. One unique aspect of this co-operative form of higher education is that students could be paid a salary, maybe on the lines of craft apprentices.

All of this raises the question about the relationship of this new form of co-operative higher education to the local and national state as the main arbiter of legal matters and source of public provision. This is a highly practical matter but should also be considered as a form of intellectual inquiry through, for example, a critique of political economy and critical legal studies.

It was suggested that we work towards a distinct research project to actually establish an autonomous form of co-operative higher education, going further than the current form of the Social Science Centre, and working through the specific issues in relation to the matters discussed at the workshop and the final recommendations of our current research project.

Workshop – Law for Co-operative Higher Education

Beyond Public and Private: A model for co-operative higher education.

Funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF).

Workshop – Legal Considerations for Co-operative Higher Education

Venue: Croft Street Community Centre, Lincoln, LN2 5AX.

Date: Friday 9th October, 2015, 10am – 4pm

This workshop will focus on how co-operative legislation and regulation can enable and support the development of co-operative higher education. We will consider this within the context of existing legislation and regulation of higher education in the UK.

Two scenarios will guide the day:

  • The creation of a new co-operative ‘higher education provider’
  • The conversion of an existing university into a co-operatively owned and democratically governed institution that maintains its university title.

A summary of what was achieved in previous workshops (pedagogy and governance) will be presented to you at the start of the day. We have suggested a structure for the Legal workshop, together with a number of key themes to be addressed and some suggested reading material.

An important principle of the work we are doing together is that it should involve collaboration and co-operation at all stages, so we are very keen for your suggestions as to how the workshop should be organised as well as important matters you feel need to be discussed, together with suggestions for further reading.


Key suggested themes to be addressed at this workshop include:

  • ‘University’ title or simply ‘higher education’?
  • Navigating the HEFCE framework: From validated courses to degree awarding powers.
  • Applying co-operative legislation to a change of legal status or control/ownership of a university.
  • Alternatives to the HEFCE framework.


Some reading is suggested to inform your thinking about these issues before coming to the workshop:

Cook, Dan (2013) Realising the Co-operative University (pp.51-56)

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills: Higher Education: market entry guidance.

HEFCE Operating Framework for Higher Education

Mulqueen, Tara (2012) When a business isn’t a business: law and the political in the history of the United Kingdom’s co-operative movement.

Snaith, Ian (2014) Handbook of Co-operative and Community Benefit Society Law. (chapter one)


We are expecting fewer participants at this workshop (about ten), perhaps due to the specialist nature of the topic. Because of this, we are proposing a ‘roundtable’ format, but welcome suggestions on the day for how we might organise our time together.

10.00 – 10.15 Coffee

10.15 – 10.30 Aims for the day

10.30 – 11.00 Presentation – Summary of previous workshop outcomes.

11.00 – 13.00 Roundtable discussion: Co-operative law and regulation

13.00 – 13.45 Lunch

13.45 – 15.45 Roundtable discussion: Higher Education law and regulation

16.00 Wrap up and action planning

Online Focus Group

We are organising an online focus group for those of you who cannot attend the workshop. This will be on Thursday 22nd October 19.00 – 21.00 BST. More details will follow on how to join the online focus group. Please let us know ( if you wish to join it instead of this workshop.