A cooperative university must ensure high standards

Rigour, hierarchy and payrolls are not incompatible with an anti-managerial, democratic and grades-free approach, says Eliane Glaser

November 30, 2017

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.


Print headline: Cooperative excellence

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Reader's comments (3)

Although I am pleased to see Eliane Glaser makes reference to the art schools, which is especially significant as the art schools were at the forefront of the events in 1968 she also cites, I am a little concerned at the highlighting of Mondragon University as a model for a British Co-operative University. It might be a co-operative in its structure, but looking at its website it seems to neglect the arts and humanities. Mondragon does have what it calls a humanities faculty, but for most British readers this will undoubtedly look more like an faculty of education, which is not really same thing. My fear is that in using Mondragon as a model we risk reinforcing what I have already observed, albeit from a personal point of view, as a general disinclination on the part of the co-operative movement to engage with the arts and humanities. This is despite the fact some of the most vibrant and numerous co-ops in Britain are arts co-ops. Certainly at a political level I have encountered co-operative activists, especially in the Co-op Party, who seem to dismiss or even despise the arts. This was reinforced for me by the recent policy review conducted by the Co-operative Party, in which a significant number of preliminary submissions calling for action to halt the serious decline in arts education in British schools were ignored in the final policy discussion document. This looked as though, at some level in the co-op's political hierarchy a deliberate decision was made to scotch all talk of the arts. Together with the citing of Mondragon as a model, this makes me less than confident a co-operative university will have time or space for genuine co-operative education in the arts and humanities, even if passing references are made to initiatives like Open School East.. As someone who would support the establishment of a Co-operative University, this is both saddening and, I believe, a fundamental mistake. If we are not careful the proposed Co-operative University risks institutionalising a very narrow-minded attitude to what co-operativism really means, limiting it to the spheres of social policy and economics. It is not difficult to see why this might happen – political activists are perhaps more interested in social policy and economic systems than they are in the work of artists, actors, musicians and writers – but surely a genuine co-operative attitude to life is more than this. Co-operativism is surely about creating a society in which people are able to become fully developed human beings, and that means creating systems to encourage the widening of peoples' intellectual and emotional horizons. Of course social and economic questions are part of that, but these are really areas in which the arts and humanities are central. Unfortunately I think this is something the Co-operative Movement, and the wider political left, forgets that far too often. So, by all means, let’s start a Co-operative University, it is a wonderful idea: but let’s also ensure it is a fully-rounded university and not simply a narrow-minded co-op business school, and co-op political studies college, by stating clearly from the outset it must include studies in the arts and humanities.
By making the Cooperative Univesity democratic and participatory the students, faculty and administrators, if it’s at all meaningful in its dedication to those principles, will give the people within the university the ability shape the education system there. If Humanities or the arts are less focused on, then that’s by their decision and the opportunity is there to create it if the community decides to at anytime. This is much better actually because part of creating a better educational system and giving people more control over it means not forcing people to learn what “we” think is important. Humanities and the arts aren’t anymore or less important than science or medicine, people can’t learn everything nor is there a “necessary” amount that can be given without huge biases... The point is for society to give individuals the tools to educate themselves and so they choose* how they will use their tools to better themselves and society.
Your suggestion that if people in the arts and humanities want to be involved then they will be seems little better than leaving the whole thing to market forces. The point raised is that they won't want to be involved if they are made to feel unwelcome. What I mean is that if the arts and humanities are not seen to be valued by co-operators, and are possibly even devalued by them, then it is difficult to imagine anyone interested in the arts and humanities even contemplating pursuing their interests through a co-operative university, no matter how democratic it might be. Surely that explains why, despite arts co-ops being so numerous in the UK today, very few of them choose to affiliate to any of the co-operative umbrella organisations. Why would you when you are made to feel unwelcome? In terms of a co-operative university, all of this can be solved easily and simply just by inviting people from the arts and humanities to get involved in the early stages of the process of setting up this proposed institution. Why is that too much to ask?