Plan to ‘recreate public higher education’ in cooperative university

International group plans new institution run by staff and students

August 17, 2016
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A group of 25 academics from 10 countries plans to develop a new cooperative university that aims to reinstate public universities as “good educational institutions” and places of “significant social mobility”.

Davydd Greenwood, emeritus professor of anthropology at Cornell University and member of the group, said that the project developed during Universities in the Knowledge Economy’s University Futures conference at Aarhus University in June. He said that during the event it emerged that several academic attendees shared an interest in the development of alternative ways of structuring universities.

The members of the group come from universities in China, Denmark, Finland, France, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Turkey, the UK and the US.

Professor Greenwood said that his aim is to “recreate a public higher education system of quality at low cost or no cost to students”, with members of the group exploring various existing models of universities, including cooperative institutions, open universities and liberal arts colleges in Europe.

He said that his main motivation was to “recover the capacity of public universities to be not only good educational institutions – which I don’t think they are any more – but also to be a mechanism for significant social mobility for working- and middle-class people, without huge debts being incurred and without burdens on their families”.

He said that his interest in this topic is due partly to his age – 73 – as he had “lived through the golden days of public higher education in the US and probably in Britain”, when there were large university budgets and “enormous growth in the social representation of people who could get a college education”.

“And then I’ve lived long enough to see it come apart,” he added. “Right now our public higher education system is reinforcing social inequality and consolidating the grip of elites on educational opportunity.”

Professor Greenwood said the problem is “acute” in Europe, but “devastating” in the US, where “most of the public universities now are shackled to neoliberal accountability of the sort that doesn’t produce much in the way of education”.

“My take is that what we’re doing is producing a new proletariat with a college education instead of a high school education,” he said.

He added that the goal of the project, which does not yet have a name, is to establish a new university that would be run collaboratively by staff and students and would alleviate these issues. The main inspiration is Mondragón University in Spain, which he described as a worker-managed cooperative, with 4,000 students, nine campuses and a central administration of just six people.

Professor Greenwood said he had planned to “take advantage” of the proposal in the UK’s higher education White Paper that stated that new universities should be able to apply for degree-awarding powers from day one of their operation. But “Brexit has put all that on hold”, he added.

He said that a potential approach would be to convert existing regional campuses that are either “failing or losing political and economic support” into “worker-owned, worker-managed” cooperatives, based on the model of employee buyouts.

Another possibility would be to convert such institutions into trusts, modelled on the John Lewis Partnership Trust, in which staff would be beneficiaries but not owners, he continued.

Professor Greenwood said it would be essential for the new university to integrate both teaching and research, in line with the Humboldtian model of higher education.

“The separation of teaching and research [in some university systems] is part of what we think has wrecked the system,” he added.

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