Is cooperation the antidote to higher education’s competitive anxiety?

As concerns rise about mainstream universities’ affordability, social impact and working cultures, the UK’s Labour Party is mulling the idea of fostering cooperative, comprehensive universities. John Morgan travels to Manchester and Preston to examine some experiments that could point the way 

December 5, 2019
cooperative university
Source: Getty/Alamy montage

Competition is everywhere in academia. Universities compete over prestige and ranking positions, sometimes by becoming ever more selective in their student recruitment, while academics compete over the grants and publications that they hope will secure them tenure and promotion.

Yet the effects of this system on academics’ mental health are becoming increasingly apparent; according to one researcher, for instance, more than half of all UK academics have suffered from depression, anxiety or other stress-related mental health problems. And it is arguable that these issues are traceable to the dislocation between the outlook of university staff – many of whom were drawn to the sector in the expectation of spending their working lives in a relatively collegiate environment, where different kinds of ideas and attitudes could flourish – and the rigid marketised institutional structures by which they find themselves surrounded.

So is there any viable alternative to the established model of the marketised university, as it is evolving across the leading higher education nations of the West?

Mondragon University, the Basque Country institution that is part of the wider Mondragon Corporation federation of cooperatives, is the world’s most prominent example of a university owned and run by its staff, and now it has inspired a project to create a comparable institution in the UK. Aiming to be run by both its staff and its students, the Co-operative University promises a “democratic” approach to teaching, and an “open access” approach to student entry. Times Higher Education understands that the Labour Party is taking a close interest in the university’s formation, seeing it as a model that it may seek to foster across English higher education if it wins a majority in next week’s general election.

Meanwhile, ideas about new economic models and cooperation are also at the heart of a fresh direction at the University of Central Lancashire (Uclan), in Preston.

The university is the brainchild of Manchester’s Co-operative College. Up a side street close to Victoria station, the adult education institution is based in an office block built in 1911 to house the Co-operative Union. The cooperative movement was set in motion 10 miles up the road in 1844 by the Rochdale Pioneers – textile workers who banded together to establish a business selling affordable, decent food to members – and Manchester became the movement’s hub. While the city was the world’s first breeding ground for industrial capitalism and its attendant social ills, the region was also the cradle of the earliest efforts at protective action on behalf of workers.

Co-operatives UK – as the Co-operative Union is now known – asserts the modern relevance of the UK’s 7,200 cooperative enterprises, of which it acts as the umbrella body. “As businesses owned and run by their members, co-operatives offer a solution to the growing sense of powerlessness people feel over business and the economy, giving them control of the businesses they are closest to,” its website states.

The Co-operative College, an independent charity that receives small levels of funding from the wider Co-operative Group, was set up in 1919 to provide coops with the right skills. In the years following the 2008 financial crash, the college conceived the bigger idea to create a cooperative university as it started to think about its place in the future of work – and as funding for adult education “dried up”, says Cilla Ross, the college’s vice-principal.

A 2013 report on “Realising the Cooperative University” by Dan Cook – now head of policy and development at the Higher Education Statistics Agency – provided a further stimulus, as did the opportunities created by the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act. That legislation sought to further marketise English higher education by bringing in new, for-profit providers to compete with universities, but perhaps also created an opening for a different sort of “alternative provider”.

Those involved with the Co-operative University project have a “real commitment to, and interest in, doing higher education in a different way”, says Ross, adding that she always sought to focus on “non-traditional” students in a career that has included posts at the universities of Sheffield and Leeds, and at London Metropolitan University. “A lot of the people who’ve come forward to speak with us are people who feel very alienated from what’s being currently offered as higher education,” she says, citing discontent from academics about managerialism, vice-chancellors’ pay and the “narrowness” of some higher education provision.

Jon Altuna, vice-rector of Mondragon University, who has offered advice to the Co-operative University project, says the institution would bring “diversity” and “a new air to the [English] university system”. Mondragon is focused on teaching, applied research and “the socio-economic development of our community”, through its nine campuses across the interior of the Basque Country: areas not touched by traditional institutions, he says.

The Co-operative University plans to offer three BA courses, including a BA in international development and cooperation, plus a postgraduate certificate in cooperative education and practice. The plan is to deliver four-year, part-time courses to an initial intake of 90 students via blended learning, combining online classes with face-to-face teaching delivered in other institutions’ teaching spaces – in Manchester and other locations – to avoid the costs of building and maintaining estate. An application for probationary degree-awarding powers was submitted to the Office for Students (OfS) in August 2018.

Labour and cooperative universities
Getty/Alamy montage

The Co-operative University aims to be different from other universities in its governance, pedagogy and tuition fees. While the Co-operative College is currently a charitable incorporated organisation rather than a cooperative, the plan is for the university to be run by its staff and students. Ross says that Mondragon has shown that that model can be “fulfilling and valuable” for staff; in Altuna’s experience, “if you own your work environment and all rules [then] capital is subject to work”, rather than work being subject to capital. “That will provide a very good environment for personal development and…for the social [atmosphere] of your community,” he adds.

On the Co-operative College’s website, Mike Neary, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Lincoln, puts the case for the Co-operative University – whose interim academic board he chairs – in the context of “calls by academics and students for more democratic governance in higher education”, in the face of factors such as strike action by UK university staff in defence of their pensions. Meanwhile, Cook’s report argued that adopting “cooperative principles in the running of universities” could deliver “more committed staff, better connections with community and business, and an organisational character that puts education at its core”. The idea of universities as self-governing communities might be seen as conservative rather than radical: in the UK, the universities of Cambridge and Oxford are the only ones to have retained those traditions.

But it isn't just about academics. Polly Wilding, academic programme manager at the Co-operative College, argues that the benefit of a cooperative structure is “just as much about the students being members [and] having a vote”, from the annual general meeting to decision-making forums at all levels, including on a “micro-level…how individual classes and sessions and activities are run”.

Wilding, who has taken a career break from her post as a lecturer in gender and international development at the University of Leeds to work on the Co-operative University project, adds that research into non-traditional learners’ access and retention “consistently stresses the importance of belonging and feeling part of the community. Our structure, teaching approach, student engagement and support are therefore designed to maximise the likelihood of students’ feeling they belong and have an influence in the institution we are creating together.”

On fees, the college initially thought “let’s hardly charge anything”, says Ross. But after taking advice it now plans to charge £22,000 across the four years – slightly lower than the £27,750 full fees for a three-year, full-time degree charged by other English universities. Students would, though, receive a dividend of £500 per year – in keeping with cooperative traditions.

The aim is to primarily recruit mature students, but to be open to all students who have not felt or been able to access a traditional university. The number of mature students at English universities has collapsed since the trebling of tuition fees in 2012, and they are now regarded by the OfS as a key under-represented group.

“Our approach and ambition are based upon our belief that the levels of inequality [between different social groups in access to higher education] demand a radically different type of higher education,” says Wilding. The Co-operative University’s open access approach to admissions will “start with the individual”, she adds. “Fundamentally, every application will be assessed on its merits, and strict rules will only be applied where necessary”, such as for vocational programmes.

That approach might be thought to chime with some of the ideas advanced by Tim Blackman, recently appointed vice-chancellor of the UK’s Open University. He has previously advocated introducing a “large comprehensive element” to UK higher education admissions, arguing that academic selection in universities has “gone too far” and now “compounds Britain’s social class inequities” owing to the advantage it gives to the children of people able to afford private schools and tutors.

The Labour Party’s support for the Co-operative University project was evident in the speech delivered by shadow education secretary Angela Rayner to this autumn’s party conference. Rayner invoked the foundation of the Open University as an institution that could be accessed by all, adding that “if our education system isn’t for everyone, the problem isn’t us, it’s the system. So we will establish a comprehensive and co-operative university.”

In the context of Labour’s commitment to introducing tuition-free university education via its planned National Education Service, THE understands that key figures shaping the party’s education policy see it as a point of principle that anyone should be able to access higher education regardless of prior academic achievement, given that universities will be funded entirely publicly. The party also has a commitment to making public services more democratic and participatory, with shadow chancellor John McDonnell setting out an aim to double the size of the cooperative sector. In those contexts, Labour sees the Co-operative University as a potential early step towards moving the whole higher education system in a more comprehensive and cooperative direction.

No pressure on the embryonic institution, then.

But the Co-operative University has hit a snag. The plan has been for it to be a federation, bringing together some distinctive institutions across the UK that have sought to keep the flame of adult education burning in an era of cuts. Those partners include the superbly named Feral Art School, formerly part of the Hull School of Art and Design until cuts hit, and Leicester Vaughan College, formerly the University of Leicester’s lifelong learning arm and now an independent cooperative.

But the OfS, the gatekeeper for “market entry” created by the Higher Education and Research Act, has told the Co-operative College that it can’t grant probationary degree-awarding powers to a federated institution. The college does not quibble with that, but would have liked the point addressed earlier in the application process. Still, the institution remains confident that it can secure degree-awarding powers and ultimately become a university.

Getty/Alamy montage

Preston, 30 miles north-west of Manchester, has its own history of workers taking action to combat the ills of the market economy. A sculpture in the city centre commemorates the “Preston Martyrs”, four textile workers shot dead by soldiers during the 1842 general strike. Karl Marx visited the city as confrontations between workers and industrialists continued in the 1850s. “The eyes of the working classes are now fully opened: they begin to cry: ‘Our St. Petersburg is at Preston!’” he wrote in the New York Daily Tribune in 1854.

Marx was wide of the mark there. But Preston, a city that retains strength in the defence aerospace industry but lost its textile manufacturing long ago, is still wrestling with questions central to the economic and political future of nations: in this case, how – if at all – can deindustrialised towns and cities provide decent livings for their residents?

Uclan is an integral partner in the Preston Model, the project led by the city’s Labour-run council that has drawn much attention from the party’s national leadership – and from national and international media – as a potential new economic approach.

There are two elements to the Preston Model. First, the city’s anchor institutions – the city and county councils, the police and further education colleges, as well as Uclan – aim to direct as much as possible of their procurement spending at local firms instead of national or multinational companies. Second, when the anchor institutions cannot procure particular goods or services locally, local workers are encouraged to form cooperatives to fill those supply gaps (an aim partly inspired by the Mondragon Corporation, via the use of cooperatives in the Cleveland Model, adopted in the US Rust Belt city).

Preston City Council describes the project as a “community wealth-building” scheme that “offers an opportunity for local people to take back control, to ensure that the benefits of local growth are invested in their local areas”. This amounts to a radical reinterpretation of the “take back control” slogan deployed by the Vote Leave campaign in the European Union referendum (in common with most deindustrialised towns and smaller cities in the north, voters in Preston backed Leave – by 53 to 47 per cent).

Julian Manley, social innovation manager at Uclan, who has led the university’s work on the Preston Model, acknowledges all the “buzzwords popping up” recently around the civic role of universities, but insists that the Preston Model is “the real thing” because it is “an in-depth partnership” between local institutions.

Uclan’s work on the Preston Model was boosted earlier this year when it won a $300,000 (£232,000) grant from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations to support the creation of 10 worker-owned coops. David Bright, director of grants at the Open Society Economic Justice Programme, says that businesses with “shared ownership” have been “shown to be more resilient, increase productivity, and better share profits across the entire workforce, so we hope this work [in Preston] can inspire other UK cities and regional networks, given the increasing interest to grow this [cooperative] part of the economy”.

Uclan is a post-92 university, focused on widening participation, “high-quality, real-world teaching and ensuring that students get the best outcomes”, along with applied research, according to its vice-chancellor, Graham Baldwin. The university’s significance in Preston can be seen in the enormous building project on the fringe of the city centre, where land has been cleared to create a £60 million student centre and new civic square, beside a recently opened £35 million engineering innovation centre.

Matthew Brown, leader of the city council’s Labour group and the architect of the Preston Model, says Uclan’s campus masterplan amounts to a £200 million investment in the city, which, given that Uclan has “worked to increase spend significantly with locally based businesses”, delivers a “huge boost to our local economy”. The amount of Uclan’s spend on its top 300 suppliers nationally that goes to businesses in the Preston postcode area has risen from £7 million in 2015-16 to £12 million in 2017-18.

One factor is the “sustainability impact assessment” that the institution has introduced for contracts worth more than £100,000. This means that the reduction of carbon emissions and other environmental factors are now considered in the bid evaluation process. And the university now considers whether a big contract “can be divided into smaller lots, providing more opportunities for SMEs in Preston and around the world that may not have the resources to take on larger projects”, a Uclan spokesman says.

Meanwhile, the Preston Co-operative Development Network, created as a result of Uclan research and recommendations to the council, aims to foster a network of cooperatives in the city. There will also be a Preston Co-operative Education Centre, intended to be a branch of the Co-operative University (Uclan’s Manley is a member of the planned university’s interim academic board). Its exact relationship with Uclan is yet to be decided, but the centre aims to broaden educational opportunities to people who have not attended university.

Uclan also offers support for students, graduates and staff wanting to set up local businesses, through a business incubator and hub. Sue Smith, interim director of innovation and enterprise at Uclan and chair of its Centre for SME Development, says that about 50 Uclan students set up businesses last year, although coops are advocated as just “one route [they] might like to consider”.

The plan in Preston is to create coops in construction, social care, furniture manufacturing and renewable energy. Advocates believe that coops will bring entrepreneurial employment opportunities with good working conditions for Uclan students and graduates. And there could be a boost to the Preston economy if these employment opportunities keep graduates in the city, instead of leaving for London or Manchester.

The city council and Uclan are also working together “to explore how new technology like unmanned aerial vehicles can be manufactured in our region”, the council’s Brown adds. And Smith says that Uclan is working with Preston and Liverpool city councils on replacing closed high street bank branches with “challenger” community banks, and is “looking at setting up a mutual, which is owned by the members and [whose] profits would come back into Lancashire”.

Although Uclan’s work with the Preston Model will be “slow burn” and he does not want to “overplay” its impact, Manley feels that what is happening could be “changing the nature of the silos in the university”. And there is “something about the cooperative principles and values that chime with the Uclan values”, he adds.

Baldwin, who returned to Uclan this autumn after five years leading Southampton Solent University, emphasises that “regional, national and international activities continue to be important” for the university alongside its Preston role. But there is a “difference around the city” in the wake of the Preston Model, he says. “There’s more of a collective drive to enhance the city. You feel that.”

Preston city centre certainly appears to have more life to it than the centres of other deindustrialised cities of comparable size. Although there are vacant and derelict buildings on the fringes, the main street of Fishergate is smart, side streets feature an unusual number of independent shops, while the grand, neoclassical Harris Museum, Art Gallery and Library is a fine showcase of Preston’s civic past and present.

However, Preston’s approach has its critics. Paul Swinney, director of policy and research at urban policy thinktank the Centre for Cities, says it will be a couple of years before it will be possible to see the Preston Model’s impact in the data. But he likens it to “trade protectionism”, questioning whether businesses “wrapped in cotton wool” will deliver value for money, including for anchor institutions. Successful cities are ones that attract investment and businesses, and the “big driver” of that is the presence of “workers with the skills that [businesses] are looking for”, Swinney argues.

Others will doubt whether returning to a free market in skills and investment is the right option for Preston, with the far bigger cities of Manchester and Liverpool – and their Russell Group universities – so nearby.

But can non-market aims really flourish in a market environment? The conscious logic of the English higher education system is that if institutions fail to attract students, they will not survive, and Mondragon’s Altuna cautions that to be “self-sustaining”, the Co-operative University will “need to obey some of the rules of that market”, since “you can’t change the rules of higher education”.

Nevertheless, he believes that the conditions are ripe for a wider take-up of the cooperative model, given the “crisis” in higher education systems across the world. “We see the [level of] student debt in the US and the difficulties in public financing of universities worldwide, the emergence of big for-profit providers…There is a need to look for alternatives,” he says.

And, for his part, Baldwin believes it is possible to “synthesise” market and non-market goals “and operate on that basis”. He insists that Uclan’s embrace of the Preston Model “probably enhances our opportunity: making the city more prosperous, making it better known, making it more attractive, making this a more desirable location for students to come”.

The key question is surely whether the competitive and selective orientation of conventional universities is delivering improved social cohesion, access for the disadvantaged or economic benefits for their local areas. If the answer is “no”, then maybe it is indeed time to consider what the alternatives might look like.


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