They’re all in it together

The coalition wants competition to shake up higher education, but could a cooperative model also be worth exploring?

August 29, 2013

Where do your professional loyalties lie? If you work in an administrative role, you may feel most allegiance to your university as your employer and the focus of all your efforts.

If you are an academic, however, the answer may be rather different: many identify most strongly with their discipline – or more specifically their niche area of research.

Students are another obvious focus for those who teach, but institutional loyalty often comes some way down the pile, something that is reinforced by the way research is funded and an “us and them” attitude that can prevail between rank-and-file university staff and “management”.

It is notable that in a preliminary finding from the inaugural Times Higher Education Best University Workplace survey (which is still open on our website, so do take part if you have not already), more than half of the first 2,300 participants said they were not able to “make their voice heard” within their institution.

The idea is that people in co-ops see their organisation’s problems as their problems, which can mean less of the conflict that comes with change

This is a problem for universities, particularly as they grapple with a harsher environment that will make input from all their staff essential if they are to prosper.

In our cover feature, we report from the Basque region of Spain, where the University of Mondragon has for more than a decade and half been operating an alternative model.

As a cooperative, all fully fledged members of staff at Mondragon invest in the university, buying a £10,000 stake, which can be retrieved when they retire or leave.

There are strict controls on earnings, and a particular determination to keep the salaries of the highest-paid staff much closer to those of the lowest-paid (a striking difference from the UK, where a vice-chancellor can earn up to 20 times as much as their lowest-paid employees).

This principle of shared ownership, a pay scale that allows staff to feel that they are, to use George Osborne’s phrase, “all in it together”, and a focus on transparent governance does seem to have brought benefits to Mondragon, where many of the staff have stayed put for a long time and seem unusually committed to the “project”.

The idea is that people in co-ops see their organisation’s problems as their own problems, not just something for management to worry about, which can mean much greater buy‑in for big decisions as well as less of the conflict that comes with change.

The result is that the university is more closely controlled by the academics – they can certainly “make their voices heard” – but they also worry more about how their university will survive and prosper, giving them a personal investment in such matters as recruiting students and bringing in income from industry.

It is unlikely that a large UK university will suddenly become a co-op, but there are still lessons to be learned from the way Mondragon operates, and it is suggested in our feature that there are other possibilities, such as a university converting to mutual status.

The government has said that it wants “alternative providers” to enter the market, but thus far this has not meant anything more nuanced than a greater role for private providers. It would be interesting to see something along the cooperative line thrown into the mix.

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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