Cooperative Universities

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Joss Win:

"Recent years have seen the dramatic growth of ‘co-operative schools’, which have adopted and adapted co-operative values and principles in working with key stakeholder groups such as learners, staff, parents and community. Co-operative and mutual models have also been developed across other areas of civil society including health, leisure and care. Given the dramatic transformation of higher education in recent years, the potential for universities to be remodelled along co-operative lines is being assessed. This approach offers a new take on debates over privatisation, marketisation and the defence of the ‘public university’." (


Social Science Centre, Lincoln

"The Social Science Centre (SSC) organizes free higher education in Lincoln and is run by its members. The SSC is a co-operative and was formally constituted in May 2011 with help from the local Co-operative Development Agency. There is no fee for learning or teaching, but most members voluntarily contribute to the Centre either financially or with their time. No one at the Centre receives a salary and all contributions are used to run the SSC. When students leave the SSC they will receive an award at higher education level. This award will be recognized and validated by the scholars who make up the SSC, as well as by our associate external members – academics around the world who act as our expert reviewers The SSC has no formal connection with any higher education institution, but attempts to work closely with like-minded organizations in the city. We currently have twenty-five members and are actively recruiting for this year’s programmes.

The energy to create the SSC reached critical mass when we saw the writing on the wall for the funding of the social sciences and the further indenture of people wanting an education. The Browne Review was in full swing, Middlesex had lost its Philosophy department, and we saw an ‘urgent need’ to build an alternative model of higher education that wasn’t subject to the discipline of debt and the market, while at the same time protesting against the Coalition government’s actions and fighting for funding to be restored. We also drew inspiration from the network of Social Centres that exist across Europe and the UK and thought that the SSC might be a model for a similar network of centres for higher education. That is still our hope.

In May 2013, we held our second AGM, which marked two years as a formally constituted cooperative for higher education. Over the last year, we’ve run an entry-level evening class called ‘The Social Science Imagination’ (after C. Wright-Mills’s 1959 book The Sociological Imagination), which is an open course run by and for people who want to develop a critical understanding of the social world through social-scientific inquiry. The class proceeds from scholars’ everyday problematics to theoretical critique. Through this emerging curriculum, we take up Mills’s key challenge: how can individuals who appear powerless change and transform wider social structures in ways that are progressive and humanizing? Why does it matter that we learn to make links between our own private troubles and our more collective public issues? And how can we contextualize this work, as Mills suggests we must, as social theory and social history? The wide range of issues that emerged from this were documented, compiled, collectively coded and reorganized to form the basis for the coming year’s programme of study.

Underpinning ‘The Social Science Imagination’ is the SSC’s pedagogical approach, which attempts to fix the dysfunctional relationship between teaching and research that constitutes the core of higher education. We want to find ways to reconnect research and teaching, while at the same time removing the distinction between students and academics, seeing them both instead as scholars in the pursuit of creating new knowledge. We decided early on to refer to all members of the Centre as ‘scholars’ in an attempt to trouble the traditional relations of power between academics and students. Our experience within the SSC has confirmed our belief that teachers and students have much to learn from each other, and that calling these roles into question allows people to become aware of their position of privilege and/or subordination, and thus begins to open up possibilities to build more critically transformative learning relationships.

In addition to the Social Science Imagination course, we also run a photography project called ‘Our Place, Our Priorities’, which is a collaboration with the residents of the Pathways Centre, Lincoln. The aim of the project is to promote active citizenship by simultaneously celebrating the city and identifying priorities for change within it. We also organize periodic public seminars on themes of critical and radical education and politics, and from September 2013 a monthly public seminar series.

Building and running the SSC is not without its difficulties. We are a social, political project that aims to be inclusive and appeal to those still at school and school leavers as well as retirees, part-time workers and the unemployed. How we communicate our work to different people and how we negotiate difference and dissent among ourselves are recurring questions. We are based in a small city; while there are fewer existing networks of solidarity than might exist in larger cities, there is also an intimacy and a proximity that provide possibilities for associational networks that might be diffused in larger cities. Most of us work full-time and cannot give the time to the SSC that we would like to. Without the material basis on which to work and study full-time at the SSC, we have to think creatively about the form and nature of education practised within the SSC. Do we have courses, semesters, students, teachers and assessments? What do they look like? How does it all work?

So, from the start, the SSC was a political project that took a particular organizational form. We are not all Marxists; nevertheless some of us have been inspired by Marx’s recognition that workers’ co-operatives ‘attack the groundwork’ of capitalism. As ‘knowledge workers’ in the ‘knowledge economy’, control over the production of knowledge – and its institutional forms and organizing principles – is what gives the SSC its criticality, allowing for experimentation with different ways of teaching, learning, reflecting on our past, and creating our future. Recognizing ourselves as social individuals, our organizing principle is that we are producers of knowledge who own and control the means of our own knowledge production.

We also therefore recognize that cooperation can’t be sustained in isolation and that developing solidarity with other co-operatives, locally, nationally and internationally, must be part of our long-term vision. We’ve participated in the first Free University Network meetings and invited the People’s Political Economy project from Oxford to share their experience at our second AGM. We’ve also been in talks with the Co-operative College about developing a model for cooperative higher education.

It was always our intention that the SSC would become international in scope. We imagined that ‘associate members’ living anywhere in the world would want to join the SSC and carry it forward, helping develop cooperative higher education and acting as peers to the members who run it day to day. Associates might support the SSC financially, but also through offering to assess work, provide specialist advice, and develop the cooperative model itself. As we write, we’re trying to reach out for new members to work and study with us. We also hope to inspire thinking about." (


Joss Winn:

"Dan’s report [1] is an excellent summary of the initial issues to consider when thinking about co-operation in higher education: the practical considerations about converting existing universities to co-operatives as well as starting wholly new co-operative institutions for higher education. After my initial reading, here are a few points/quotes I would highlight:

  • ”The Co-operative University is an institution in potentia, which already possesses the legal basis to acquire form. The central concepts of ‘Co- operative’ and ‘University’ are defined in legislation in most states, and this report will explore the case in England. A Co-operative University would necessarily meet the legal definitions of a co-operative and a university, simultaneously. What are these definitions?” [Paragraph 3.1]
  • “Co-operative principles are academic principles. There is arguably a close alignment between co-operative principles and mainstream academic values.” [Paragraph 3.2]
  • In a future co-operative university, who would the members be? A multi-stakeholder co-operative is the most natural form for the university as currently conceived. [Paragraph 4.1.4]
  • A student-run co-operative university is not inconceivable. [Paragraph 4.1.3]
  • “The requirements of workplace democracy may be considered as either an onerous burden, or as a source of strength; depending on arguments around efficiency and transaction costs. A traditional view is that the costs of operating an internal democracy are a burden upon co-operatives, making them less efficient than organisations which do not undertake this sort of activity. However, in ‘professionally argumentative’ organisations like universities this argument is untenable: purposeful internal debate is more efficient than attempting to manage dissent.” [Paragraph 4.1.13]
  • “The very high approval ratings for workplace democracy among all categories of respondent indicate that universities should consider workplace democracy a potent offer for recruiting and retaining tomorrow’s academic staff.” [Paragraph 4.1.14]
  • What size should the co-operative be? Should the university be a co-operative group of co-operative faculties/departments, like Mondragon? [Paragraph 4.2]
  • A ‘network co-operative structure’ “possesses greater co-operative advantages.” The classic example of a network university is the Open University. [Paragraph 4.6]
  • “Unionised academic staff are likely to find the idea of a co-operative university appealing and given the broad literature about and largely against managerialism, there is prima facie evidence of the potential for a dialogue with staff about establishing a co-operative university.” [Paragraph 5.1]
  • “Respondents to our survey demonstrated that co-operative values are attractive to current and recent research students.” [Paragraph 5.4]
  • “All co-operative values received an overall approval rating above 50% when considered as ways that universities could become more attractive places to work, and women found the values marginally more attractive than men. We found no correlation with respondent perceptions of the competitiveness of their own discipline of study. Solidarity was the most attractive value with over 90% approval, and was the only value to attract more than 50% strong approval.” [Paragraph 5.5]
  • “Further research is required into this prima facie evidence that the culture of universities already seeks closer alignment with co-operative values.” [Paragraph 5.6]
  • “I found that the characteristics of co-operatives are largely independent of corporate form, and can realistically be incorporated into existing or replacement governing documents.” [Paragraph 8]

“The Industrial and Provident Society (I&PS) corporate form is a rational choice for a genuinely co-operative university startup.” [Paragraph 8.1.2]

  • “The benefits are multiple, and I offer arguments and examples that demonstrate the co-operative advantage that universities might enjoy: more committed staff, better connections with community and business, and an organisational character that puts education at its core.” [Paragraph 9]
  • “My investigation shows that in many ways the Higher Education sector already is co-operative. Many of the preferences, assumptions and behaviours preferred in universities are co-operative ones. Despite this the possibility of a co-operative university has not been considered by the sector. I suggest that this can change, and must change: the challenges universities face are too great, and the opportunities co-operative working offers are too pregnant with potential, to do otherwise. [Paragraph 9.5]
  • “The Co-operative University offers a distinctive and radical model of mainstream higher education with the potential to provide a peerless higher education, secure public benefits and increased access, with affordable fees, and provides an institutional form to address the concerns and ambitions of the ‘the great age of participation coming’.” [Paragraph 9.6]

Finally, Dan offers a useful table of enabling factors and barriers to the co-operative university. His report also includes a list of immediate recommendations in pursuit of this project as well as a series of appendices with useful discussions around the policy and funding environment for UK HE, how a co-operative university might be capitalised, and reflections on his survey, his methodology and the (lack of) literature in this area." (

More Information

* Report: Dan Cook. 'Realising the Co-operative University'.


The report examined the barriers and enabling factors for the establishment of a co-operative university in England.


Compiled by Joss Winn:

Albornoz, O. (2003) Higher Education Strategies in Venezuela: Higher Education Changes Under a Revolutionary Government and the Threats to Academic Freedom and Institutional Integrity. Universidad Central de Venezuela.

Boden, R. et al (2012) Trust Universities? Governance for Post-Capitalist Futures. Journal of Co-operative Studies, Volume 45, Number 2, Autumn 2012 , pp. 16-24(9)

Cook, Dan (2013) Realising the Co-operative University. A consultancy report for The Co-operative College.

Cunningham. (1874). Higher Education on Co-operative Principles. In Co-operative Congress Proceedings (pp. 54–55 & 89–90). Presented at the Co-operative Congress, Halifax: The Co-operative College.

Dilger, A 2007, ‘German Universities as State-sponsored Co-operatives’, Management Revue, 18, 2, pp. 102-116.

Findlay, L. (2010). Academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and the co-operative university. In J. Newson & C. Polster (Eds.), Academic callings: The university we have had, now have, and could have (pp. 212-218). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Haubert, Maxime (1986). Adult education and grass-roots organisations in Latin America: The contribution of the International Co-operative University. International Labour Review. 1986, Vol. 125 Issue 2, p177. 16p.

James, E. & Neuberger, E. (1981) The University Department as a Non-Profit Labor Cooperative. In: Public Choice, 36: 585-612.

Juby, P. (2011, September 3). A Co-operative University? Conference presentation at the Society for Co-operative Studies Conference, Cardiff.

Puukka, J. et al (2013) Higher Education 
in Regional and City Development: Basque Country, Spain. OECD.

Ridley-Duff, R. (2011) Co-operative University and Business School: Developing an institutional and educational offer. UK Society for Co-operative Studies.

Ridley-Duff, R. (2012, November 1). Developing Co-operative Universities. Presented at the ICA Expo, Manchester, UK

Somerville, P & Saunders, G. (2013) Beyond Public and Private: the transformation of higher education. Conference paper.

Woodhouse, Howard (2011) Learning for Life: The People’s Free University and the Civil Commons. Studies in Social Justice. Vol. 5, Issue 1, 77-90

Wright, S. et al (2011) Report on a field visit to 
Mondragón University:
 a cooperative experience/experiment. Learning and Teaching. Vol. 4, Issue 3.