Towards cooperative higher education
Peter SomervilleUniversity of Lincoln7thMay 2014
The case for reform
University governance is increasingly undemocratic andmanagerialised(Deem et al, 2008; Woods, 2011) – a problem of internal powerAcademic labour is increasingly geared towards meeting more immediate economic needs of capital and the ‘market’ (Ciancanelli, 2007; Hill, 2009; Hussey and Smith, 2009;Molesworthet al, 2011;McGettigan, 2013; Brown, 2013) – a problem of purposeGovernments are increasingly interfering directly in how universities are run (Readings, 1996;Collini, 2011;Molesworthet al, 2011) – a problem of autonomy
Interrogating the academy
Academic labour processes – teaching, research, administration, innovation, etc.University employees operate within a variety of labour markets, in all of which people hire out their labour power in return for a wage orsalaryTeaching is a distinctive kind of labour because its product (learning) is produced by students as well as by teachers – learners are both products and co-producers of education (Jones-DevittandSamiei, 2011: 94)Fee-paying students arecustomers(of the university as provider) rather than consumers (Barnett, 2011: 43-5)It is often said that education is a public good (e.g.Collini, 2011) but it is not – it is a service provided to individuals by individualsThe means of production are broadly the same across universities, whether they are publicly or privately fundedCritics of recent changes in higher education tend to ignore the fact that academic labour isalreadycommodified, and also fail to notice the contradiction within the form of the education product, namely that it is beneficialbothto individuals (as use-value)andto capital (as exchange value).
Cooperatives are democratically controlled and collectively owned organisations (Somerville, 2007;Woodinet al, 2010; Parnell, 2013) - UK universities are not!Cooperation is not about volunteering orduty or even about solidarity,it’s about ritual and habit, which has to be learned as a skill orcraft (Sennett, 2012).Academic labour processes already involve a high degree of ‘cooperation’ (‘collegiality’ and ‘collaboration’), so cooperative governance is reasonableCooperativesdecommodifylabour power to the extent that the workers are their own employers and their remuneration is decided by the cooperative collectivelySuchdecommodificationchallenges both the capitalist wage form and managerial hierarchyCooperatives protect themselves against both state interference and the depredations of corporate capitalism, e.g. by means of an asset lock (against possiblerecommodification) – cooperatives asautonomousThe cooperative movement is a movement inabeyance(like the women’s movement - Taylor, 1989: 761)
Cooperative education so far
The University of Mondragon – jointly owned by its academic and administrative staff, governed by a general assembly composed of 1/3 staff, 1/3 students and 1/3 outside supporters (mainly other coops in the Mondragon Corporation) (Matthews, 2013; Cook, 2013: 25)BUT Mondragon is part of a social movement of Basque nationalism, different from the international coop movementCooperative trust schools and cooperative academies in UK (www.co-operativeschools.coop) – over 700 created over the last few years. In a cooperative trust school (or network of schools), the categories of member are staff, parents, pupils, and local community, all represented in a ‘forum’ that appoints trustees who appoint governors. In a cooperative academy, the school is sponsored by, e.g., the Cooperative Group.BUT cooperative academies are like the Coop Bank, i.e. (loosely) controlled by the Cooperative Group but not by their members, and therefore not cooperatives at all; while in cooperative trust schools, the links between the membership and the running of the school are far too tenuous.
Perhaps surprisingly, the idea of cooperative HE has been developed only recently…Bodenet al (2012) have proposed atrustmodel along the lines of the John Lewis Partnership:Ownership would be clarified by placing each university’s assets in a non-revocable trust, which would hold the formal legal title to the organisation’s assets. This would also create clear governance responsibilities under trust law and prevent the privatisation of publicly funded assets. All current employees (academics and those in other roles) and students would be designated as trust beneficiaries, entitled to utilise university assets and resources… The trust deed, echoing that of JLP, would designate the purpose of the university as facilitating socially, culturally and economically beneficial scholarship, through the work of all employees and students, whether in research, teaching and learning, or public debate. This would affirm the university’s status as a community social asset and an element of the knowledge commons. By virtue of this legal strategy, Trust Universities would be beyond the predation of managers, markets or state interests.(Bodenet al, 2012: 21)
Evaluation of the trust model
A trust has advantages over current HE governance:protecting university autonomyenshrining in law the social and civic purposes of universities (effectively, converting them into social enterprises)mandating universities to act towards the benefit of all their employees and studentsBUT a trust isnota cooperative:A trust is not a membership bodyUniversity employees and students do not control the trustees and do not decide what is to their benefitThe employer/employee relationship form is retained (e.g. JLP’s ‘partnership’ is just window-dressing)The concept of a trust derives from philanthropic traditions, not from the cooperative movementTherefore this is ‘a sub-optimal model in comparison with a true co-operative’ (Cook, 2013: 36 – see further criticism in Cook, 2013, fn70: 36-37)
The Mondragon model
All cooperatives must first identify the nature and composition of their membershipResearch by Dan Cook (2013: 24) has shown that the most popular model is that of the University of Mondragon, namely 3 categories of member (staff, students and supporters)However, Cook suggests that the representation of these categories should not be equal, and that staff should have greater representation than students, while the identity and position of supporters need to be clarifiedBeyond a certain size of organisation (over 500 members) it may be necessary to form coops within the organisation, e.g. in Mondragon University each of its four faculties is a coop in its own right (Cook, 2013: 34)
Comments on the Mondragon model
Clearly a member-owned, member-controlled organisationMeets aspirations for workplace democracyShows that a strong federation of cooperatives may be necessary for a cooperative (university) to be viable (seeGalor, 2008: 54)Should (external) ‘supporters’ be ranked equally with (internal) staff and students?Should students have the same degree of representation as workers?
The purposes of higher education must include that of emancipation from capital-labour relations, and the cooperative form is a step towards this.Moving forward requires a form of collective action in which the ‘collective’ is ‘a broad and distributed entity that includes those engaged in theory building alongside, and in collaboration with, participants in particular projects. And their “action” is viewed as having aperformativeforce, surfacing tacit knowledge and bringing it to bear on what they [Gibson-Graham, 2006: 166] term “world changing experiments”.’ (Newman, 2013)The formation of cooperative universities as such ‘collectives’ will have thisperformativeforce, taking us beyond the false dichotomies of capital versus labour, and private versus public, towards the transformation of capitalism into a society where wealth is not measured in terms of the cash nexus.The cooperative movement remains in abeyance but the potential for collective actionis there.
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