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.

How do you get from open-access journals to a co-operative university in three easy steps?

How do you get from open-access journals to a co-operative university in three easy steps? Could co-operative academic publishing be a back-door route to the Co-operative University?

Before Christmas I had a chat with Professor Harvey Goldstein about co-operative activities in Higher Education. Harvey is (among many, many other things) a section editor for an open access academic journal (Longitudinal and Life Course Studies) run on open-source software. We discussed the factors bearing upon the wider spread of this model.

Others have written about the Finch Report, and the debate on green- and gold-access. I won’t reprise those arguments here. Instead, I will ask if turbulence in the academic publishing sector in the wake of the Finch Report could lead to potential opportunities for co-operators?

Academic publishing is dominated by a few companies such as Pearson, Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell Taylor & Francis. However, a wide variety of specialist and University presses continue to operate sustainably in niche markets. As Gusterson notes not all academics are happy with the status quo, where the most labour-intensive writing of all (the peer-reviewed type) pays nothing and costs their institutions a considerable amount of money to subscribe to, thus limiting access to what they have produced.

Academics and Universities share a pecuniary interest in developing a model of academic publishing that is more financially efficient for both producers and consumers. Given that the principal producers and consumers are academics and the tab for their production and consumption is being picked-up by their employers the universities, the existence of the publishers as ‘middle-men’ seems somewhat perverse.

Forward-thinking academics like Harvey are already developing alternatives to mainstream academic publishing, under their own steam, and often with the backing of professional associations. Their efforts are resulting in low-cost access to the latest research. It is not difficult to envisage how important debates might shift over into open access journals, leaving commercial counterparts trailing in the impact factor rankings.

Here, we have a recipe for some significant change, (and perhaps for formal co-operation) in Higher Education:

  • Academics are both producers and consumers – they are able to exercise both labour and consumer power in the choice of where to publish, and what to read.
  • The networks required in order for joint decisions to be made across an academic discipline already exist in the form of the ‘invisible college’ of learned societies, conferences and other disciplinary structures.
  • There is a clear potential for shifting the financial advantage to academics and universities, and away from publishers.
  • All the technology needed to automate the submission and review processes already exists in the public domain, meaning that there are minimal start-up costs or ongoing administrative requirements.

Despite the laudable decision to keep subscription fees minimal or free, I can’t help reflecting that Harvey’s Journal’s business model involves doing everything on a shoestring, there is a lot of free time involved, no free lunches, and it depends on the continuing support of universities. This is noble work, but is it viable in the longer-term? The failure to capture the full economic costs of publishing may limit this sort of venture in the long term. One does not have to be a ‘fat cat’ to expect to be paid for one’s work. The ability to pay for the full costs of production, and to generate a surplus for investment in worthwhile activities would offer open-access journals a more sustainable future. This could be achieved by academics, Learned Societies and Universities co-operating to exercise greater control over the business of academic publishing.

Universities, learned societies and academics hold all the cards. Co-operation might offer them an opportunity. Universities (or individual academics) could obtain a modest income for the time spent in writing and reviewing, learned societies could agree to keep access policies and fees egalitarian in return, but still high enough to ensure sustainable finance for their work.

Academics would benefit from:

  • Explicit recognition from their employers of their work in academic publishing and peer reviewing – paid work, not just good citizenship
  • Wider or open access to their published work
  • Well-funded learned societies

Universities gain from:

  • Lower or no-cost subscription to journals
  • A modest income stream for academic time spent on journal work

Learned Societies gain from:

  • A stable source of income from their work in publishing
  • Disciplinary communities gain/maintain substantial control of journals

In addition, society at large could gain from more egalitarian publishing practices in line with the best open-access journals. What’s not to like?

All that’s needed is a business model that balances the interests of the parties, and ensures their continued co-operation. I am not close enough to the industry to propose this detail, but at the very least some management costs ought to be able to be stripped-out from the publishers’ existing models. A co-operative structure would seem ideal to balance the needs of the different stakeholders, preventing profiteering from any party, and aiming towards a balance of the parties’ interests.

The Finch Report recognises that the landscape of academic publishing is shifting. The time is opportune for old business models of academic publishing to be challenged, and for new models to take root. What needs to happen next?

  1. A disciplinary community decides to follow this path and to take control of the process under the auspices of an existing recognised organisation (probably a learned society).
  2. Capital is raised from an organisation willing to see this business model develop. This could be any of the parties already mentioned, or a well-meaning third-party, such as the JISC, HEFCE, or even a benefactor like the Co-operative Group.
  3. The business plan and Rules are developed, and the journal is marketed.

If a venture such as this were to succeed, it would 1) prove that financially sustainable academic organisations can be operated on a co-operative basis. Other aspects of higher education would seem more obvious avenues for further experimentation. Before we know it, we could be working for a co-operative university sector.

Gusterson, H. (2012, September 23). Want to Change Academic Publishing? Just Say No. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Mailing list

Have you ever wanted to start a co-operative university but didn’t know how? Perhaps you are interested in developing co-operative practices at your own university, or you want to research into co-operation in higher education. Me too.

Luckily for you there is now a whole community that feels the same way.

To get a piece of the action, join the mailing list at:

The list was set up by Joss Winn, following the successful Co-operative Education Against the Crises Conference in Manchester, July 2013.


Where are all the Co-operative Universities?

During work on my report into the feasibility of establishing a co-operative university in England, I stumbled across a number of co-operative institutions. I discovered a variety of higher education institutions that are organised co-operatively; departments of co-operative studies within larger institutions; and some standalone non-university organisations that study and promote co-operative education. Undertaking such a mapping exercise is one of the recommendations (13.1) of my report on co-operative higher education. I will keep this post updated with the details of all and any such organisations I find. A catalogue of examples of cooperative educational practices is necessary in order to build confidence in the project to establish a cooperative HEI.

Time for a Co-operative University – event 13/12/2013 London

Reposted from the Co-operative College:

A free seminar on the potential for co-operative approaches in higher education will take place on Thursday 12 December in Room 804 of the Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL, from 5.30pm-7.30pm.

Recent years have seen the dramatic growth of ‘co-operative schools’, which have adopted and adapted co-operative values and principles in working with key stakeholder groups such as learners, staff, parents and community. Co-operative and mutual models have also been developed across other areas of civil society including health, leisure and care. Given the dramatic transformation of higher education in recent years, the potential for universities to be remodelled along co-operative lines is being assessed. This approach offers a new take on debates over privatisation, marketisation and the defence of the ‘public university’. Our three speakers will examine these contested claims and outline ideas for a co-operative university, drawing upon historical and international perspectives.

Speakers at the seminar will include:

  • Professor Stephen Yeo (formerly of Ruskin College): The Co-operative University: Problems and Opportunities, some experience and ideas
  • Mervyn Wilson (Principal and Chief Executive, Co-operative College): From Schools to Universities – Co-operative Solutions?
  • Dan Cook (University of Bristol): Realising the Co-operative University?

Higher Education (HE) has become a massive global industry. On one hand HE now attracts significant public and private investment and the interest of policymakers in expanding the benefits it offers. On the other hand, casualisation of the workforce, spiralling fees and managerialism threaten to undermine traditional vocational and educational values. The co-operative movement’s commitment to education is a deep and long-standing one, yet co-operatives have only a minimal formal presence in the higher education sector. What are the factors acting as barriers and enablers to increasing co-operative presence in the Higher Education Sector? Focusing on the UK, Dan will examine the legal, financial and cultural factors that bear on co-operative presence in the Higher Education Sector. Dan will also explore some of the implications of his investigations for an increased co-operative presence in UK Higher Education, and indicate the future direction for inquiry.

For more information please see flier below. To reserve a place contact Tom Woodin at

Time for a Co-operative University event flyer 2013-12-13