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.


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