Mutuo, the leading co-operative think tank, published the Hunt Review at the end of 2014. It is a wide-ranging document that seeks to advise the government (or perhaps a future government) on practical actions that could be taken to support the growth of mutuals.
The Education sector is tackled as a part of the public sector, where Hunt notes that:
“Mutuality offers a way of harnessing and expressing the public interest, whilst maintaining the independence of businesses. Government can act to bring these bodies closer to the people that they serve.”
(Hunt, 2014. p.33)
Drawing on the extraordinary success and rapid growth of the Co-operative Schools movement, Hunt recommends expansion:
“Taking Co-operative and mutual models to other parts of the education sector”
(Hunt, 2014. p.34)
This can only mean the FE and HE sectors. There is, of course, only a small amount of work on what this might look like in HE. For all that they are educational institutions, Universities are vastly more complex than schools, and as independently incorporated bodies, are unlikely to rush into a new business model without careful consideration (whereas forced academization arguably played a significant role in the rapid growth of the co-operative schools movement). However, the development of a benefits-led case to support experiments in co-operative higher education could bear fruit.
Hunt also recommends a review of “the power of the private sector in the examination system and explore the potential of a school/college owned mutual alternative “. This might be a fertile area for a mutual experiment in higher education, especially given the groundwork that Michael Gove put in with drawing the Russell Group into A-level reform – there may be a greater appetite for this sort of work if Universities feel they are overseeing something that has broad backing from the schools sector, rather than being implicated in a top-down government drive to change exams.
Many of the other recommended provisions in the report are tangential to education, but would have a fundamental impact on a university converting to co-operative status. These include establishing a level playing field with other corporate forms, tax incentives, improved government support for mutuals, collection of data to support evidence-based policy relating to mutuals, legally-binding protection from asset-stripping and demutualisation, and crucially, new capital instruments for raising funds. All of which, if implemented, could make mutualisation a more attractive prospect for universities.