I love higher education, but I’ve been dismayed to see it corrupted and deadened by marketisation and bureaucracy.
The cooperative university could provide an antidote to these ills by embodying democratic values and stakeholder control. And although the UK government’s efforts to make it easier for new “challenger institutions” to enter the “market” are motivated by promoting competition, the new rules could just mean that the cooperative university’s time has come.
Earlier this month, a major conference in Manchester was held to explore the implications of cooperative education. It was not merely a theoretical discussion; last month the board of the Co-operative College, the Manchester educational charity founded in 1919, voted to explore the process of acquiring degree-awarding powers.
A useful precedent is provided by the Mondragon Corporation in Spain’s Basque region, where each university department function as an autonomous worker co-op, and representatives from the Co-operative College (or University, as it may become known) will meet regulators shortly to discuss governance, pedagogy and funding.
If established, the institution could act as an umbrella to a loose federation of institutions, some of which already exist across the UK. These include Lincoln’s Social Science Centre, which has been offering degree equivalents since 2011, as well as the Free University Brighton, the Ragged University in Edinburgh, the Cardiff People’s University, London’s Antiuniversity Now and art school initiatives such as Open School East.
I am instinctively attracted to these initiatives, many of which were inspired by the 1960s free university movement. But they also raise for me some difficult questions. The Cardiff People’s University believes that “education should be non-hierarchical, self-managing (run by the learners and those who facilitate learning), and free (as in ‘freedom' as well as cost)”. Antiuniversity Now events are billed as “free, accessible and inclusive” and teaching is “non-hierarchical, participatory and democratic”. The tagline of Free University Brighton is “education for love not money”.
Students may receive the benefit of free education, but this relies on lecturers working for nothing: a trend which is aggressively promoted by the Silicon Valley mantra of “free content” and often replicated in the funding models of literary festivals, newspapers and the music industry – not to mention massive open online courses.
With drastically pared-down management costs, it’s conceivable that a cooperative university could offer degrees for much less than £9,000 a year, but it would still have to charge something if tutors were to be paid. If we want properly free education we need to take action on a macro, political scale, since free education is rightly funded by the state through general taxation. The cooperative and free university movements tend, by contrast, to be anti-statist.
Then there’s the issue of hierarchy – in both teaching and organisational structure. As the feminist scholar Jo Freeman noted in her seminal 1980 essay, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, many ostensibly “horizontalist” formations often contain informal, concealed power dynamics. And while the argument against high-handed elitism may have had some purchase in a more deferential era, it seems more than a little misplaced at a time when academics themselves are under pressure from senior management and student satisfaction ratings, which discourage demanding lectures and rigorous reading lists.
At the very least, the prospect of a cooperative university offers a chance to air publicly debates about how higher education should operate. While some proponents of reform would simply be happy to get back to how things were before the dominance of markets and metrics, others want to rekindle the true revolutionary spirit of 1968 Paris.
So what would my ideal cooperative university look like? It would be highly selective and intellectually exacting, attracting a reputation for academic prestige. It would be anti-managerial, anti-bureaucratic and democratic, with meaningful input from academics, students and all employees. But it would have a well-designed and supportive administration and a hierarchical structure. Courses would be simple, with limited choice and no assessment or grading. Lecturers would be paid and granted respect and autonomy, based on their research and expertise.
The question is, am I simply describing a traditional, pre-neoliberal university or something radically new?
Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer in English and creative writing at Bath Spa University.