Organisational form and university purpose?

Joss Winn makes a number of important points about university organisation and structure in his recent post:


Reflecting on organisational models, Winn argues that form must follow function:

‘the organisational form should be an expression of the pedagogical relationship between teacher-student-scholar-members i.e. ‘scholars’’

Rather than function following form (quoting Kasmir):

we must “be skeptical of models that make business forms rather than people the agents of social change.”

This understanding places the social relationship at the heart of organisational design. Of course, it is not so simple in practice – but to avoid a detour through anthropology and actor-network theory at this stage, let us accept as a hypothesis that social relationships should be at the heart of organisational design. What are the implications for universities?

What sort of social relationships between scholars do we wish to promote? What sort of purposes do we think a co-operative university should have? How could these be encoded in organisational design?

Surfacing tensions inherent in co-operative ideals such as democracy offers us a thought experiment. For instance, the co-operative value of democracy is not unproblematic in the context of a co-operative university. Should a lecturer who holds unpopular views potentially be subject to dismissal on the grounds of the democratic will of the student members? Or does this infringe academic freedom? Conversely, if academic freedom is held to be more important than democracy in a case like this, is this a reasonable infringement of co-operative principles? By unpacking issues such as this we can start the process of organisational design, and decide what rules pertain in the co-operative university.

What is certain is that the co-operative university will need both big institutional ideas about purpose and the character of relationships that ought to be sustained, while also confronting head-on issues about who holds what stake, and how legitimate decisions will be made.

MOOCs and co-operative university futures

Some subscribers to this blog are interested in developing a Transnational Co-operative University. This putative organization could transcend existing models of the university, taking full advantage of the internet, and freeing itself from the sometimes restrictive legislative frameworks in individual states.

In their MOOC “Globalizing Higher Education and Research for the ‘Knowledge Economy’” launched yesterday on the Coursera platform, Susan Robertson and Kris Olds explore how globalization is transforming university operations, getting into the details of the different logics, models and mechanisms through which universities get entangled in the globalization project:

It is important to engage with this thinking, because a transnational co-operative university will require organizing logics, models and mechanisms of its own, and these may not be rooted in the legal frameworks we are currently familiar with in our home contexts.

When I presented at the IoE on my report into ‘Realising the Co-operative University’ I covered the necessary and sufficient definition of the conditions needed to create a formally co-operative university in England. To recap: as a minimum, to be a co-operative, the organization has to be owned by the members and adhere to the ICA Co-operative Identity Statement – so far so easy (though it does raise interesting governance questions). To be a university, the organisation has to have at least 4 years track record of delivering degree-level courses and more than 1,000 students to be able to apply for university title. There are a host of other attached requirements, but these are the big ones. Some might see these restrictions as good for preserving the quality of the organisation, while others might view it as too restrictive. If you take the latter view, then Susan and Kris’s MOOC moves the debate forward from the decline of the public university, to an examination of the new possibilities for higher education that globalization is constructing.

Co-operation is an historically and fundamentally internationalist movement, as well as being a human capacity found everywhere. This MOOC is essential study for those interested in establishing co-operative universities.