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.


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