Value for money student accommodation

A major piece of research on student perceptions of value for money, undertaken by students unions, has been published by the Office for Students. The research findings around student accommodation were that:

  • nearly a quarter of students did not feel informed about how much everything would cost as a student, with accommodation cited as one of the main  factors
  • students believe that accommodation should be subsidised by their higher education provider
  • 62% of students believe their fees should be used to fund the cost of accommodation
  • only 30% of students believe that accommodation should be entirely paid for by students (as up-front costs/additional charges), whereas 58% of students believe that accommodation fees should be partly subsidised by the higher education provider (with student contributions)
  • accommodation charges are a consistent theme in the research and many students believe that charges are too high.

This won’t be news to many readers, who may remember the UCL students’ rent strike in 2016, which ended with a £1.5 million concession from the University.

Some students are now taking control of the housing market for themselves, by setting up housing coops. A new national body has been set-up by Cooperatives UK, which aims to grow the movement from 150 to 10,000 bed spaces in 5 years.


The aim to to offer accommodation on average 30% cheaper than on the commercial market, which fits with the experience of current student housing coops in Edinburgh, Birmingham and Sheffield. A press release gives a range of details about the reasons for establishing democratically-controlled student housing, but it is perhaps better to hear the students talk about their experiences, while seeing the fantastic job they have made of their accommodation in this short video:

Watching this, I felt envious. I wish there had been accommodation like this when I was at university – it looks fantastic. To find out more, the newly-launched national body, “Student Co-op Homes” can be found at

Oh, and I think we can safely say we now know how the Halls of Residence at our Cooperative University are going to be run…


“The Enemy Within”

King of the HE policy wonks, Mark Leach has written an outstanding article on the political and narrative crisis universities now find themselves in. I won’t attempt a summary for the tldr crowd – it is worth engaging with in its entirety. At the end of the article, Leach diagnoses four areas in which the HE sector needs to improve, and second among them:Snip20180309_9

To expand and deepen his analysis of the remedies required for the HE sector, Mark has co-written an accompanying article, in which he proposes an agenda for change. Key to this agenda is embracing democracy inside institutions, and looking to cooperative models of governance and operation. The key section is here:


Five years ago I wrote a report for the Cooperative College looking at the barriers and enablers to the establishment of a cooperative university in England. At that time it seemed like a distant dream, a piece of hopeless romanticism. Nevertheless, the barriers I identified were insubstantial – practically nonexistent. And since that time, the HERA has established a climate more friendly to new or “converted” cooperative institutions, in England.

Mark is a highly respected and politically savvy commentator on HE policy. For him to be advocating experimentation with cooperation in HE is highly significant in terms of the acceptability of this idea, now.

The Cooperative University may be an idea whose time has finally come.

Higher Education and Research Act 2017

A new chapter in the regulation of Higher Education in England has been opened with the passing of the first significant piece of legislation affecting tertiary education for a generation. For general coverage of the Act and its implications, I recommend the analysis of team WonkHE (Be It Enacted being a good place to start).

Now that the “HERA” (for short) is law, what are the implications for establishing a Cooperative University? (For a blow-by-blow account from the Bill stage, see my previous post).

HERA2017: Implications for a Co-operative University

On the face of it, the HERA says nothing much about cooperation, but the Act enables cooperative higher education to become a viable form, by lowering barriers to entry for new institutions and establishing a level playing field for all HE providers. It also makes provision for a cooperative form of student finance.

A level playing field

The Office for Students (OfS) has an explicit duty “to protect the institutional autonomy”, “to promote quality, and greater choice (particularly between a diverse range of types of provider) and opportunities for students”, and “to encourage competition” in English Higher Education. In seeking this it is expected to have regard to principles of good governance and ensure it behaves in a way that is “transparent, accountable, proportionate and consistent”. This all sounds very noble, but is a good omen for a putative cooperative university, which might be regarded as offering a distinctive offering that creates choice in the HE marketplace, and which can expect its independence to be respected. Well, within reason. Institutional autonomy means inter alia “the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way”. This is a constrained freedom: how judgements of effectiveness and competence are made will define the bounds of acceptability in the emerging English HE sector. The relative dominance of financial returns on publicly-underwritten student loans is the thing to watch. Happy students and graduates may not be enough if the financial returns on investment in HE do not meet the expectations of the Treasury.

All (or nearly all) HE providers will be entered on a public register, and there will be tiers or “descriptions” of providers in the Register, delineated principally by level of access to publicly-underwritten finance. It will be a matter of choice for the Cooperative University to determine the extent to which it wishes to raise capital from these sources, in exchange for submission to a more stringent regulatory regime (which involves a cap on fees, the provision of data and information, and compliance with various processes and conditions).

The new legislation ends a state of affairs where different types of HE are regulated differently (or not regulated at all) for essentially historical reasons. It establishes a single unified market logic for the risk-based regulation of the entirety of HE provision in England. There is nothing to preclude a cooperative higher education provider entering this market, and in fact it would appear to be encouraged by the Act.

Lower barriers to entry

Prior to the HERA, an institution needed 1,000 students to get close to applying for Degree Awarding Powers and University Title. One of the principal effects of the HERA is to lower barriers to entry for HE providers. The nature of the Register which the OfS will be required to maintain contains a range of “descriptions” of providers, and take a risk-based approach to the likelihood of their conditions of registration being breached. “The OfS must, from time to time, prepare and publish a regulatory framework.” While this has not yet occurred (and we will learn much when it does) we can gain some insights as to the conditions that might initially prevail from a number of provisions in the Act. To summarise conditions that will be applied to providers on different parts of the Register:

  • There can be both generic conditions for particular descriptions of providers, and specific conditions for individual providers.
  • The basic mandatory conditions for all providers on the Register are that they make OfS aware of changes that affect their Register entry; to provide the OfS with information they require to perform their duties, and; to provide the Designated data publication body any information it requires.
  • Some providers will be required to provide transparency data about their admissions processes (including offer-to-acceptance ratios) and student attainment, split by a variety of protected personal characteristics.
  • Some providers will have fee limits set for regulated courses.
  • Some providers will be required to have an approved “access and participation plan” in place in order to access more generous fee limit conditions.
  • Other general conditions are allowed for, such as:
    • Relating to meeting applicable quality and standards
    • Relating to principles of public interest governance, over and above the basic protections afforded to all academic staff to “question and test received wisdom, and […] to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges…”. Those principles apply to the entire Register, but other principles may differ for different descriptions of provider.
    • Provision of a Student Protection Plan (in the event of institutional failure, for example).
    • Payment of a fee relating to Registration.
    • Payment of fees to designated bodies or the OfS.
    • Working with relevant Electoral Registration Officers to facilitate the electoral registration of students.

What is not said is as important as what is said. There is no mention of precise conditions under which an institution may or may not be granted the power to award degrees or use the title “University” so the OfS will presumably have considerable latitude to establish conditions appropriate to the authorisation of “a registered higher education provider to grant taught awards or research awards or both.” This power will be exercised under a Statutory Instrument. This is an area to watch closely for signs of the emerging practice for authorising degree awarding powers to new entrants. The power for one provider to authorise another to be able to utilise its degree awarding powers is also controlled by the Act, and time-limits may also be set for awarding powers.

The scene is set for a diverse range of HE providers to be recognised, and regulated in a risk-based way, that explicitly recognises differences in size and mission. Barriers to entry are thus lowered for new entrants to enter the HE market, and the consumer interests of students are protected separately to the success or failure of the institution at which they study.

It would even be possible, in time, for cooperative higher education to develop a distinctive set of principles that could be recognised by the regulator as having validity within a “certain” “description” of providers: Cooperative Higher Education Providers.

Cooperative Student Finance

The current style of student loans are inequitable in that their use is incompatible with the precepts of certain faiths, notably Islam. This places an unnecessary and unjustified restriction on some students accessing HE. The HERA rectifies this by introducing the phrase “or alternative payments” after the word “loans” throughout the Teaching and Higher Education Act 1998. This has the effect of permitting the SLC to create a “Consolidated Fund” into which contributions can be made. This is in effect a State-backed mutual fund that can be used to fund HE studies in a way that has the same financial costs and benefits as a student loan, but is organised on a different set of principles that ensure no interest is charged. This is often referred to using the Islamic finance term “Takaful“.

While these are technical changes, a Cooperative University might decide to take a principled stance on the preferred method of publicly-backed funding students entering its courses should be recommended to consider.

In summary

While the market regulation approach HERA will not be universally welcomed, it is potentially a very positive Act under which the creation and growth of Cooperative Universities is made possible at lower cost and in a fairer way than was previously the case. Such growth could even be funded by a mutualised financial arrangement for the payment of tuition fees.

The passing of the Act creates an opportunity to be seized by cooperators in higher education, to create new organisational forms that are fully both “cooperatives” and “universities”.

Cooperative University ’roundtable’ – Report

Cooperative College, Holyoake House, Manchester – 2017.01.27

Today I attended a Co-operative Higher Education/Co-operative University Roundtable discussion organized and hosted by the Cooperative College. I was invited alongside a list of parties interested in the advancement of cooperative higher education or the establishment of a cooperative university in England. Among those present were leading thinkers and actors in the cooperative HE movement, as well as representatives from emerging and potential co-operative HE providers in England. I’ve listed the attendees at the foot of this post.

We started with an update on the HE Bill in progress, and I reiterated my view that the HE Bill as presented opens the possibility of the creation of new small HE cooperatives, as a more rapid and likely potential route to establishing a Cooperative University, than a conversion of an existing University to Cooperative status. Given the passage of the Bill through the Lords at present, I suggested it was probably not fruitful to speculate on the exact outcomes of the legislative process, but that the resulting Bill was highly-likely to be passed into law in something like its current format, and we should proceed on that basis for the time being.

For me, the discussions coalesced around three main areas: the intellectual and historical foundations of Cooperative HE; organizational forms and structures, and; business models, capitalization and sustainability. Although discussions moved back and forth between these themes, I’ll organize this post around them.

Intellectual and historical foundations of cooperative HE

Mike Neary opened by contrasting the idea of Co-operative Higher Education with both public and private HE – it is a new form of higher education. Mike considers it important to highlight the role of theory in creating a new form of social wealth, and he spoke about the work that he and Joss Winn had done on cooperative leadership and governance, and the framework they had developed for thinking about what makes a cooperative higher education distinctive. This is valuable work, and I intend to write about it from a HE management perspective in a future post. Stephen Yeo also emphasized the importance of positioning cooperative higher education within the context of respectable academic discourse.

We discussed the extent to which there is intellectual agitation about the extent and nature of academic inquiry on campus, and the relative absence of cooperatives from discourse in all relevant disciplines. There were felt to be isolated examples, especially in Economics, but this is not something the NUS have been talking about. Students appear to be interested in more hands-on learning when they engage in it, and there seems to be an issue of lack of awareness about cooperatives. In the Scottish context, the Cooperative Education Network Scotland has met to consider how to get cooperative education back on the agenda.

At Mondragon, when moving from three separate higher education cooperatives to a university, there was a clear decision that to use the ‘university’ title in a credible way required that there be at least three disciplinary areas: technical, business and humanities. The same issue of determining how small a HE provider can be and still be called a ‘university’ is under active discussion by the House of Lords at the time of writing.

Organizational forms and structures

By way of background, John Altuna talked about the creation of Mondragon University in 1997, as the natural development of three separate cooperative colleges that came together with a new university structure as an umbrella organization. The trigger was a piece of legislation in Spain that permitted the creation of private universities (a similar situation to that in England). The new structure enabled each cooperative’s mission to be fulfilled in a deeper way, and also led to the creation of a fourth faculty, as a separate cooperative alongside the existing three. It sits within the broader ecosystem of cooperatives in the Basque country. The University of Mondragon, and its faculties have evolved as institutions in response to barriers.

What are the organizational barriers that need to be overcome in England? For some: space is an issue, and there was a discussion about whether a HE cooperative needs bricks and mortar, or if we should be aiming at a kind of virtual university. Needs vary by discipline, and suitable space cannot always be hired, where there are specialist requirements. For others, library infrastructure, especially access to electronic resources, was a problem. There was discussion about the kind of access to academic materials that cooperative HE providers required, and examples of resources that are available were shared. The other major issue was access to HE validation services, and this was another area where cooperative educators need support to access and share the costs involved.

Simon helpfully summarized a possible model: an organizational form could be a federated structure of some kind. Some kind of centralized back-office management support, and support with infrastructure, whether in terms of access to materials, or the regulatory and quality assurance activity that must be handled. Under an umbrella organization of this kind, multiple cooperative HE providers might find common cause: encompassing everything from a free-at-the-point-of-access ‘night-school’ HE, to a traditional HE offer to young people, to a premium executive education programme. In time this might evolve into a university, but might initially be positioned as a secondary cooperative, that individual HE cooperatives might join. It might also host a virtual research centre and offer facilities to support this.

There was some discussion about whether the Cooperative College is that body, or if a separate ‘apex body’ should be created. The mood in the room seemed to be that since the Cooperative College already exists, we should explore building-out from it in the first instance.

Business models, capitalization and sustainability

A Cooperative University needs to be the kind of University that people want to go to – and offer robust scholarship. But who are the students? Clarity on the profile of the learners that the offer would be marketed to is essential in order to envisage what the business model might be.

We began by considering Mondragon’s business model. In Spain, students normally pay EUR 1,000 per  year at a public university (90% of the cost of tuition is covered by the state). At Mondragon, which is a private institution, students pay a EUR 6,000 annual fee (about 60% of the cost of tuition). The other 40% is generated by the University’s other surplus-generating activity, and so there is substantial cross-subsidy. It is a self-sustaining non-profit organization. Each Faculty is financially autonomous. There is a financial solidarity scheme at University level to help each faculty balance the books over time.

There are 4,600 students who are young (18-22) and 5600 professional course students, and the latter group generate substantial surplus, but are generally part-time/CPD-type learners. Students tend to be middle-to-high-income, a change from the past, and partly reflecting changes in the region. Students get involved in everyday work in the University through ALECO, a student cooperative that helps students contribute to the cooperative in non-financial ways, and also to receive some support. Students can sometimes use wages drawn from ALECO to self-finance. The educational model involves hands-on learning and seeing the workplace as a place of learning, and although the term ‘apprenticeship’ is not used, there is substantial practical similarity with the emerging Higher and Degree Apprenticeship educational formats in England.

John stressed that developing a sustainable business model is absolutely crucial to success.

Possible business models were discussed, and these resolved into three basic formats:

  • Accessing state-backed student loans to cover fees. There is also going to be a cooperative finance package introduced in England as a result of the HE Bill, currently planned to be an islamic finance ‘takaful’ product. This will require involvement in the developing regulatory framework in England, as a result of the HE Bill.
  • A subscription-based model, either as a way of operating a kind of ‘night-school’ format, or as a way to build-up capital to create positive pathways for children/grandchild (there was some discussion about whether a trust-fund financial product might marketed by another cooperative to effect this form of mutual support, for those parents or grandparents who might want to save a few pounds each month). This is suitable for low-cost education, but unlikely to offer a full ‘living’ to staff unless the concept could reach a high critical mass.
  • Accessing apprenticeship levy funds by offering degree/higher apprenticeships, perhaps concentrating on offering services to cooperative businesses. Large cooperatives (and indeed any employer with turnovers in excess of £3 million) will have to pay this tax, and so have an incentive to get good value from it, by accessing £2 government funding for every £1 they spend on apprentices.

There was some discussion about appropriate financial language. Students might make contributions to the ‘commonwealth’ rather than pay a fee for services (though in law there would likely be no distinction). Students could also be workers in the coop, as in Mondragon. Mike and Joss offered the language of a ‘living’ rather than using financialized language.

Ultimately, we must deliver HE that communities want and need and will support, and this is the root of sustainability. We also need cooperative HE to offer livelihoods. It was asked what is gained if staff move from being exploited by employers to exploiting themselves? There is a desire for a shift not only in the formal relationships of capital and labour, but in the creation of livelihoods that permit intellectual life to be pursued. This will all cost money, so there is some creative work to do to define a model that can be made to work sustainably in a market context, and without substantial donations required. However, that looks rather more feasible this afternoon, than it did this morning.

What are the next steps?

Today’s meeting was the result of momentum that has built over several years. It was the first time that I had observed a group of interested individuals earnestly exploring what a viable business model for cooperative HE might look like, which was gratifying. We agreed that the next step is to work together on a paper that can be presented to the Cooperative College’s Board to help ascertain and direct developments that might take place under its aegis.

It is no-longer unreasonable to believe that a Cooperative University might exist within the next decade – perhaps sooner.


I’ve included Twitter handles where I know/could find them.

Cilla Ross – Vice-Principal: Co-operative Education & Research at the Cooperative College – @cillaross5

Mike Shaw – A member of the Student Housing Cooperative in Edinburgh, and the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts – @MikeJamesShaw

Pablo Perez -History Student at the University of Edinburgh, and also a member of the Student Housing Cooperative in Edinburgh

Simon Parkinson – Chief Executive and Principal of the Cooperative College – @SimonParkinson6

Dan Cook – me – @Dan_HE_man

Malcolm Noble – Teacher Vaughan College (see Lucy France, below) – @MagickLoge

Lucy Faire – Teacher at Vaughan College, an adult education college currently within the University of Leicester

Stephen Yeo – formerly a academic Historian at the University of Sussex, later Principal at Ruskin College

Linda Shaw – Formerly Vice President at the Cooperative College, and staff at the OU. Experience of working with two co-operative universities in Kenya and Tanzania –

John Altuna -Academic Vice-Rector, Unibersitatea Mondragon

Fenella Porter – Ruskin College, Oxford. International Labour and Trade Union Studies researcher – @fenellaporter

Joe Darlington – SSC Manchester, and also a Programme Leader at FutureWorks (a for-profit Alternative Provider validated by UCLAN, and seeking independent degree awarding-powers) – @Joe_Darlo

Steve Hanson – Academic and leading light at SSC Manchester – @drstevehanson

Rory Ridley-Duff – Academic with a central interest in cooperative business at Sheffield Business School, Sheffield Hallam University – @roryridleyduff

Joss Winn – Academic in Education at the University of Lincoln, and a leading light in the Lincoln SSC – @josswinn

Pat Juby – former staff at the University of Gloucestershire, and contributor to work and debates in cooperative HE – @PatriciaJuby

Carola Boehm – Academic staff at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Crewe campus – Carola_Boehm

Mike Neary – Professor in Sociology and a former senior manger at the University of Lincoln, and a leading light in the Lincoln SSC – @mikeneary

Amanda Benson – Research Co-ordinator at the Cooperative College

Mohammed Abdelwahab – Consultant working on Cooperative development in education in Egypt and Oxford.


Vignettes of Cooperative Universities

The Higher Education and Research Bill shortens the timescales and liberalises the conditions under which University Title can be obtained – I’ve written about this elsewhere. We are now at liberty to imagine a wider variety of cooperative universities in England than ever before, something that Joss Winn has done through fictional letters from a student at the University of Utopia. I thought I’d follow his lead and indulge in a bit of creative writing.

Four hypothetical cooperative universities are described below. Neither utopian nor dystopian, these universities exist in a world very much like our own, perhaps a few years hence. Each follows a different interpretation of the co-operative form, and each is capable of being considered a good institution. By considering in each case the finances, the market offering, regulation and the cooperative form employed, we see lighthearted sketches of four feasible organisations at their outset, and ten years later on.

They conform to four basic models, respectively: the ‘founded’ university; the ‘converted’ university; a radical take on the ‘grown-from-scratch’ university, and; a final scenario that explores a mixed-economy development of a national cooperative university architecture.

Owen University

From the outset, Owen University did not intend to depart far from the model of universities familiar in popular consciousness. Without a track-record it could have found start-up difficult, but being in a relatively under-served part of the country, and having looked carefully at the market, especially with regards to  popular subjects with students and industries growing locally, it pulled together a solid business plan, and got the support of the local authorities. It was able to enter into a validation agreement and establish a student protection plan with the support of a sympathetic institution 45 miles away. Under the new legislation it was given the provisional right to call itself a University, renewable annually subject to criteria. The initial cohort of students (only just enough to be viable) included a number of more mature students who were looking for a different model of education, and as a result, the University quickly developed a rather ‘alternative’ feel, reminiscent of Warwick University’s early days.

The founders were not only enthusiastic and entrepreneurial – they were each, in their own ways, well-connected and in one case a rather well-known public academic who had presented television programmes about nature back in the 1990s. Benefiting from a generous benefaction in the form of a slightly dilapidated former stately home in 300 acres, and start-up capital totalling £1.5 million from a variety of public and business sources (including a canny investment by the cooperative group) Owen University opened its doors to the first 150 undergraduate students offering a largely traditional curriculum, initially in three subjects: Agricultural Sciences, Business Studies, and Computer Science. Charging fees at £6,000, the University aims to become self-sustaining with a permanent staff of 30 in the fourth year of operation, and to repay the capital investment over the following eight years. Students are encouraged to take-out ‘Takaful’ cooperative state loans to finance their studies.

Owen University is an employee-owned university, and the six founding members (former colleagues and associates with similar views and a great deal of entrepreneurial energy for the venture) initially took modest salaries and lived on-site. A students’ union was encouraged to form, but mindful of the limited housing available on-campus, a great deal of effort was put into the establishment of a student housing co-operative that could purchase housing in the large town nearby, and the University used its own funds to seed this venture.

Ten years later, staff numbers have grown to fifty, and in a partnership between the new Sustainable Construction programme and the student housing cooperative, the first on-campus Hall of Residence has been constructed – the largest straw bale building in England. Good food is available at the Canteen, a business venture that sources food grown on campus. Salaries are still relatively modest, but with the provision of so much food and accommodation on-site, Owen University has established a reputation as a community of enterprising and ethical scholars, drawing students from across the UK, with a small number travelling in from countries of the European Union. UCAS tariff points have increased for the past six years as a result of the demand for places. Alumni of the University get good jobs, and while the energy and enthusiasm of the first pioneering cohorts has given way to something a little more mainstream, Owenites (as they are known) have started to develop a reputation for enterprise across a range of ecologically-focussed businesses.

Borchester Metropolitan University

Being the second university in the city, and a former polytechnic, Borchester Met offered a wide range of programmes in engineering, social sciences, biology, fine art, law, business studies, media studies, marketing and computing to over 17,000 students. Tracing its history back over 165 years (longer than the prestigious redbrick University of Borchester across town, in fact) Borchester Met was proud of its reputation as a comprehensive university offering access to higher education to the Greater Borchester region.

Until disaster struck. Two decades of an increasingly technocratic approach to management, coupled with a growth in workloads and a growing reliance on casualised labour (in the face of rising emoluments for senior staff) had led to a deterioration in staff relations. Senior managers had taken a string of decisions that had left borrowings excessive in relation to often-missed targets. This state of decline might have grumbled along for many more years, had the University not lost its Tier 4 license in the most scandalously public way. In a short period of financial crisis, it looked like the University was to become a test-case for the transfer of a University into the for-profit private sector. Instead, massive concerted action by BMSU, the NUS, UCU and UNISON, along with some clever lawyers and the behind-the-scenes support from figures in the Greater Borsetshire Coop (not to mention the even-handedness of the OfS, Borchester Met’s principal regulator) led to an unlikely eleventh-hour conversion to co-operative status. A quickly cobbled-together set of Rules gives students, staff, and a combination of Alumni and Local Businesses elected places on the Council. An OfS observer attends all the meetings, too. Not all the staff wished to transfer to the new organisation (or take the hit on wages that was necessary for survival) and Borchester Met is in a weakened financial state, and has had a drop in student numbers.

Ten years later, Borchester Met is still doing a lot of navel-gazing about its strategy, including its co-operative form. It sometimes feels like an uneasy truce between Staff and Students, but on balance, relations are robust but constructive. The covenants the University is tied in to will not be paid-off for another 25 years, but despite this income has stabilised and financials are slowly improving. The University never got its Tier 4 license back, but somehow that’s not been a big problem – it always was a local university and there is still a need for what it offers. If the local branch of a Chinese engineering firm does decide to invest in a new joint venture, well, then things would be looking up. Met has been through four Vice Chancellors since conversion, but the latest looks like she’ll stay. She says she’s been impressed by the laser-focus on student support and employability, and thinks that something really special is going on. She thinks there’s room to deepen the cooperative ethos of the institution. Staff feel like they’re so busy these days – there is still so much to be sorted out! And while there are never enough people to do the work, it is a buzzing, friendly place. Even the most jaded of old lags will tell you (if you press them) that management don’t get in the way as much as they used to…

London Free University College

For a few short years in the 2010s, radical universities had become the form of protest of choice for an educated, disposessed youth with high ideals and poor prospects in terms of jobs and debt. Following Brexit, a group of young intellectuals had taken-up residence (technically not squatting, due to the clever exploitation of some legal loopholes relating to the absentee Russian owners) in a rather expensive residential tower in a hip neighbourhood just outside Zone 1, and it was in this location that the London Free University was born. Without any formal distinction between students and staff (all were considered ‘learners’, without distinction) there were a few individuals whose current PhD studies and part-time researcher and postdoc appointments made them natural leaders in the curriculum. Students of other universities nearby used the Free Uni as a way of living cheaply and well, and making their student loans go further. A variegated hetrogeneous collection of anarchists, students and homeless people has found common cause in a radical model of higher education. The financial model that made the enterprise possible is largely based on the free accommodations and the meagre earnings from casual academic appointments elsewhere.

No matter what time of the day or night, a cup of tea or a glass of gin distilled on the premises, and a debate about Nietzsche, Universal Basic Income, or legalisation of all drugs can be had. The formal educational offerings are focussed on current issues and political affairs, and the pedagogy is inspired by Paulo Freire. The organising committee decided to register the London Free University with the Office for Students, and while openly in rebellion against the neoliberal norms of the age, utilised the recently-passed Higher Education and Research Act 2017, to become recognised as a bona-fide HE provider (with the lowest tier of formal recognition).

Ten years later, the London Free College of Higher Education as it is formally known (OfS threatened to take legal action if they did not stop using University Title in breach of the law) is still essentially a squat in a tower block locked in legal limbo. Most of the original founders have moved-on, and many folk have passed-through in the meantime. The number of graduates is only 316 (over 90% of whom also earned a degree elsewhere in London’s vibrant HE sector) with their names inscribed by hand against their portrait in the mural in the lobby. Among the faces on this well-known mural are two presidents of the NUS, three serving MPs (one Labour, one Tory, and one Green) and a tech entrepreneur who is now CEO of a business valued at £2 billion – along with more than thirty academics and researchers making a name for themselves in the traditional HE sector.

Intellectuals and public figures (including no less than eleven heads of state and prime-ministers) have lectured at Free College – it has become de rigueur for visiting EU diplomats and elected representatives to offer a lecture here on the way back home. In fact, it has become something of a thorn in the side of the longest-ruling Tory government in English history (it’s only England, now) and the source of a resurgent and intellectually robust cooperativism that looks set to win power as a ‘rainbow’ cross-party grouping at the next election.

Fees are still free, and the gin is reliably good.

Cooperative University (UK) and Wilson Cooperative Technical University College

The Cooperative College brokered some useful relationships to establish a small but viable HE programme. Working with some of the cooperative businesses centred on Manchester, it developed a financial model that utilised the new Apprenticeship Levy to deliver £2 of government funding for every £1 the businesses spent on education. For £1,850 annually, plus the cost of an apprentice wage, the Cooperative College obtained an effective fee of £5,550. With a first cohort of 20 apprentices, word spread and the programme grew to 120 places in just three years. The businesses involved were initially in finance, but retail soon joined. In short order, a pump engineering firm in the west of England, a turbine manufacturer in the north east, and an automotive parts producer became (through serendipitous personal links) part of a new degree apprentice programme in engineering, and teachers and peripatetic support workers were found, and course materials developed. The Levy offered a source of finance that made this new model work, and word-of mouth interest grew rapidly.

The College had always intended this venture as a part of the establishment of a cooperative presence in higher education, and as early as the second year of operations had built a team to develop and spread the model. In fact, following some hasty advice and the development of the Rules for the newly-converted Borchester Metropolitan University, The College had two main aims. First to become in its own right, an Apex body for HE in the UK, able to accredit cooperative HE elsewhere, and second, to establish a ‘standard’ operating model for cooperative universities, to make future conversions/transitions easier, by creating a template for new HE providers to adopt a cooperative form. It turned out easier to develop a suite of models, than to create a single ‘best’ approach – universities seemed to require a range of forms, and early experience showed they liked to tinker and bespoke the forms.

One factor was powerful: the opportunity to cost-share became a core plank in the Co-operative offer, and support service venture ‘’ rapidly developed a model of shared service delivery that spread cooperative working arrangements to a range of administrative functions that many cooperative HE organisations required to purchase as a service, or preferred to outsource, often picking-up good staff from HE providers that had reduced spend on administration.

Registering with the OfS, and with validation provided by the Open University initially, the Cooperative college moved purposefully to fulfil the technical requirements of University Title. QAA, HEA, Jisc and HESA subscription arrangements were entered into, and a central office established to manage the proto-University’s affairs. In parallel, the College established Cooperative HE UK – a representative body for cooperative higher education to sit alongside UUK, Guild HE and Independent HE as a statutory consultee of the Office for Students.

The income from the degree apprenticeship programmes run directly by the college was soon supplemented by subscriptions from Borchester Metropolitan and Owen University, which each paid a modest fee to support some central costs. After five years of operation, The Cooperative University (UK) opened its doors, and the Cooperative College brand was retained for FE-level provision only. An early (and long-desired) venture for the Cooperative University was to offer its own validation service for small cooperative providers of HE. In the first year, the Social Science Centres in Lincoln and Manchester, Ruskin College, the WEA and London Free College took advantage of the service, with other centres of radical education across the UK and beyond taking note of these early adopters.

Ten years on, the degree apprenticeship programme in engineering had taken on a life of its own, so much so that in this year the students had a choice of accepting a degree from either the Cooperative University (UK) or from the newly independent Wilson Cooperative Technical University College, still offering apprenticeship-based undergraduate study in engineering, but now to many more students.

Borchester Met was the first of several universities to make an awkward transition to cooperative status. As time wore on, the Cooperative University (UK) became less like a University, and more like an umbrella organisation, reminiscent of the University of London, or the University of California. Under its broad canopy clustered a range of institutions, large and small, mainly (but not exhaustively) not-for-profit, and even some small research centres – each united by a preference for education done the democratic way. New HE providers looked to the forms of rules offered by the Cooperative University (UK) as an obvious starting point, and in partnership with the NUS, Student Cooperatives on the Korean and Canadian models became common at such institutions, often offering accommodation alongside representation.

The UK doesn’t exist any more, but the Cooperative University is something much bigger now, anyway. Working closely with the Open University (which has never quite got around to becoming a proper cooperative) the international validation and cooperative HE outreach programme has become worldwide, with affiliated campuses in Africa, South America and here and there elsewhere. There’s a HE strand at the ICA conference every year, and a growing impetus for an international apex body for HE, as more and more academics worldwide perceive the necessity of education as a human practice, and of universities as institutions, to restore democracy and care to a world torn by wars and climate change.

The cooperative university sector is a rag-tag bunch of organisations, but you only have to attend a staff meeting, or a seminar, to see there is something vibrant and new going on here: together through practical research projects, learners are exploring enlightenment values of enquiry and liberal thought, and are developing the knowledge and skills needed to produce a better future in association with each other.


Is there progress toward cooperative aspirations for HE in Iraqi Kurdistan?

I became aware of the cooperative movement in the Rojava and Bakur provinces of Kurdistan through Twitter, when @cooprojavabakur followed me (thanks!) I am no expert on Kurdish culture, but there appears to be a thriving economic and cultural cooperative movement there. For more information, see: which is a project of the Institute for Solidarity Economics. There you will find a wealth of information about the economic model that is developing in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan.

I could not anything about the impact of the cooperative economic model on Higher Education until a few days ago, when I stumbled across a phrase that was drawn from the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research website. The Ministry has a “Vision” (Ala’Aldeen, 2009) for the future development of HE, which can be found here: The first priority of the Ministry speaks directly to a cooperative vision for higher education:

“1- Reforming the management structure of Universities, and introduce a modern democratic system where the staff’s ownership of their institution and students rights of quality education are protected.”

Crucially, this primary goal is aligned with the Ministry’s aims of increasing the independence and autonomy of institutions. Another concern the Ministry has is that the quality of higher education is not as high as they would like. It is fitting therefore that they have identified that the way to achieve this includes introducing stronger processes of quality assurance based on student and staff evaluations, and linking the achievement of key performance indicators to pay and promotion. There is also a role for strong independent audit. There appears to be a lot to like about the approach that the Ministry has prescribed.

What is the effectiveness of the Ministry’s prescription? I could not find documentation of the Ministry’s website that indicates how progress is being monitored toward its stated aims, despite the role they assign to audit, no audit reports appear on the Ministry’s website.

In one MA dissertation study (Pallander, 2013) criticism is levelled at the Ministry for perpetuating Saddam-era bureaucratic and hierarchical control:

“change must start within the government structure and administration moving towards minimizing bureaucracy and hierarchy, such that other areas become decentralized and make progress” (Pallander, 2013, 110)

Perhaps, in the last three years, progress has been made towards developing autonomous universities, but if so information is hard to find. In order to demonstrate progress, and to address the criticisms levelled by Pallander, the Ministry should be encouraged to publish its audit methodology and to regularly report on audit findings, alongside an annual report on progress towards the goals stated in the Vision.


Ala’Aldeen, D. A. A. (2009). A Vision to the Future of Higher Education in Kurdistan. Retrieved 12 November 2016, from
Palander, N. (2013, July 10). Higher Education Policy-building in Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Perceptions of University Representatives (Thesis). Retrieved from


Cooperative Party weighs-in on the Higher Education and Research Bill

The Co-operative Party (which is funded by the co-operative movement and affiliated to the Labour Party) has made a public statement about the HE and Research Bill.

In the article, the opportunity created by the forthcoming Higher Education and Research Bill is to move beyond a narrow consumerist vision for the university, and towards a pluralist, internationalist and radically independent cooperative form of the university. It envisages a university based in notions of the commons, rather than on a statist ‘publicly-owned’ university.

Co-operation has always sought to reconcile good ethics and good business. This new legislation provides advantageous financial and regulatory conditions in which to establish a substantial cooperative presence in the HE sector, whether through conversion of existing institutions to a cooperative form, or through the founding of a large or small new institution.

While new HE cooperatives in the UK have tended to opt for a low cost base, the HE and Research Bill creates the conditions for new ‘challenger’ institutions to award degrees and obtain government-backed student finance from the outset. The Bill even establishes a new cooperative form of student finance to allow for Sharia-compliant equivalents to a student loan, meaning that a university could be (technically) cooperatively financed.

The for-profit private sector has been establishing a foothold in the HE sector for some years. Now really is a good time to start planning for a future for cooperative higher education in England.


Social Science Centre: Manchester

The Co-operative News has covered the opening of a new cooperative higher education provider in Manchester.

As a new branch of the Social Science Centre, based on the original SSC in Lincoln, SSC Manchester has begun by tackling the biggest issue of the day, by running a course in “Understanding Brexit“.

The SSC uses the same constitution as the SSC in Lincoln, and has drawn-up a business plan. The aim is to create a self-sustaining co-operative, with a low cost base. Members contribute an hour’s pay per month.

Good luck to all involved.