Is there progress toward cooperative aspirations for HE in Iraqi Kurdistan?

I became aware of the cooperative movement in the Rojava and Bakur provinces of Kurdistan through Twitter, when @cooprojavabakur followed me (thanks!) I am no expert on Kurdish culture, but there appears to be a thriving economic and cultural cooperative movement there. For more information, see: which is a project of the Institute for Solidarity Economics. There you will find a wealth of information about the economic model that is developing in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan.

I could not anything about the impact of the cooperative economic model on Higher Education until a few days ago, when I stumbled across a phrase that was drawn from the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research website. The Ministry has a “Vision” (Ala’Aldeen, 2009) for the future development of HE, which can be found here: The first priority of the Ministry speaks directly to a cooperative vision for higher education:

“1- Reforming the management structure of Universities, and introduce a modern democratic system where the staff’s ownership of their institution and students rights of quality education are protected.”

Crucially, this primary goal is aligned with the Ministry’s aims of increasing the independence and autonomy of institutions. Another concern the Ministry has is that the quality of higher education is not as high as they would like. It is fitting therefore that they have identified that the way to achieve this includes introducing stronger processes of quality assurance based on student and staff evaluations, and linking the achievement of key performance indicators to pay and promotion. There is also a role for strong independent audit. There appears to be a lot to like about the approach that the Ministry has prescribed.

What is the effectiveness of the Ministry’s prescription? I could not find documentation of the Ministry’s website that indicates how progress is being monitored toward its stated aims, despite the role they assign to audit, no audit reports appear on the Ministry’s website.

In one MA dissertation study (Pallander, 2013) criticism is levelled at the Ministry for perpetuating Saddam-era bureaucratic and hierarchical control:

“change must start within the government structure and administration moving towards minimizing bureaucracy and hierarchy, such that other areas become decentralized and make progress” (Pallander, 2013, 110)

Perhaps, in the last three years, progress has been made towards developing autonomous universities, but if so information is hard to find. In order to demonstrate progress, and to address the criticisms levelled by Pallander, the Ministry should be encouraged to publish its audit methodology and to regularly report on audit findings, alongside an annual report on progress towards the goals stated in the Vision.


Ala’Aldeen, D. A. A. (2009). A Vision to the Future of Higher Education in Kurdistan. Retrieved 12 November 2016, from
Palander, N. (2013, July 10). Higher Education Policy-building in Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Perceptions of University Representatives (Thesis). Retrieved from


Cooperative Party weighs-in on the Higher Education and Research Bill

The Co-operative Party (which is funded by the co-operative movement and affiliated to the Labour Party) has made a public statement about the HE and Research Bill.

In the article, the opportunity created by the forthcoming Higher Education and Research Bill is to move beyond a narrow consumerist vision for the university, and towards a pluralist, internationalist and radically independent cooperative form of the university. It envisages a university based in notions of the commons, rather than on a statist ‘publicly-owned’ university.

Co-operation has always sought to reconcile good ethics and good business. This new legislation provides advantageous financial and regulatory conditions in which to establish a substantial cooperative presence in the HE sector, whether through conversion of existing institutions to a cooperative form, or through the founding of a large or small new institution.

While new HE cooperatives in the UK have tended to opt for a low cost base, the HE and Research Bill creates the conditions for new ‘challenger’ institutions to award degrees and obtain government-backed student finance from the outset. The Bill even establishes a new cooperative form of student finance to allow for Sharia-compliant equivalents to a student loan, meaning that a university could be (technically) cooperatively financed.

The for-profit private sector has been establishing a foothold in the HE sector for some years. Now really is a good time to start planning for a future for cooperative higher education in England.


NMITE – something new in HE governance

I am fortunate to have been sent a copy of the role description for the founding President and CEO of NMITE – the New Model Institute for Technology and Engineering. It offers a lot more detail about the proposed governance structures at this new university foundation in Hereford. It is not a co-operative, but neither does it conform to the traditional forms of governance associated with other universities in the UK. It is something new in patterns of higher education governance.

Staff contracts and rewards

There appears to be some considerable ambition to be different in the way staff are contracted to work at NMITE. Claiming to have learned from Olin College in the US (one of the partner/mentor organizations) and having tested the idea among prospective staff, the following is proposed:

Our institutional reward system will be based in concept on the John Lewis Partnership model (a retired senior John Lewis director is working with us) – a model that has so successfully been used at John Lewis and elsewhere to focus the culture and actions of employees on delivering consistently high quality service. NMITE will measure employee and operating success on the quality of  teaching and the employment success of graduates.  The performance system will be specifically designed to reward high quality teachers with further resources to support their teaching and broaden the impact of the educational experience they are providing students.  We believe this will result in the acquisition of inspirational tutors and other academic staff.


There will be no tenure, all employees will be retained under standard commercial contracts of employment

This sounds like a teaching-focussed contracting system, just as John Lewis’ contracting system aims to employ staff talented at customer service. However, just because it is a bit like John Lewis, there is not necessarily anything co-operative about it. Indeed, John Lewis is not a co-operative, but is owned by a beneficial trust for employees. Of course, John Lewis is a profit-making firm, but the NMITE is intended to be a not-for profit, so while the contracting may be similar, governance is not: but some reworking of the John Lewis model was inevitable to fit NMITE’s charitable purpose and charitable form.

Corporate form and internal decision-making

Rebecca Boden, Penelope Ciancanelli and Susan Wright (2012) have put forward the concept of a Trust University as a possible co-operative structure for universities. In the Boden et al model, the institution would be owned by an irrevocable beneficial Trust. NMITE’s proposal is something entirely novel, as far as I am aware. The proposal is for a top-level charitable trust with responsibility for fundraising and ethos. A second charitable trust, a subsidiary of the first, will be the responsible entity for policy, operations, quality and motivation. The President/CEO will serve on both, but it is not clear where responsibility for audit, ultimate accountability, etc, will lie. There will be an elected Employee Council with what appears to be an independent Chair (at least, it is a separate role to that of the President/CEO) with a seat on the (subsidiary) Trust Board, and a formal advisory role to the President/CEO. This appears to be more like classic German-style employee relations than a co-operative to me, but who knows what such a body could achieve in a university? There is a lot to like about this proposal that makes your average pre-92 Senate look rather wimpy by comparison, but at the same time, it is plain that the employee council is subordinate to the executive and Board, which is more like the set-up in a post-92 Higher Education Corporation or a private institution. The latitude available to the Employee Council would depend on whether the Chair of that body turns out to be the Provost (head of academics) role, or someone independent.

I can’t see any details of student representation, and if there is none, then that would be a retrograde step (if technically legitimate, as the Committee of University Chairs’ code makes clear in its paragraph 7.6) but perhaps this will be rectified in due course. There will also be an Advisory Council, similar to Court in a pre-92 English university, but smaller, to represent the interests of the wider community.

NMITE governance

Well-known co-operative consultancy Baxendale are listed among the consultants supporting the project, which accounts for the statements regarding the John Lewis group.

There are no other obvious manifestations of cooperativism, but there is plenty for cooperators to like in the curriculum, with a focus on developing the whole individual, and to inculcate a care for society and the environment in their professional practice. There is also clear potential for this new organization to experiment with cooperative governance in a higher education setting, if that is the choice of the future President/CEO. Co-operative-minded engineers might be advised to investigate this job further…


Boden, R., Ciancanelli, P., & Wright, S. (2012). Trust Universities? Governance for Post-Capitalist Futures. Journal of Co-operative Studies, 45(2), 16–24.
Committee of University Chairs. (2014, December). The Higher Education Code of Governance. Committee of University Chairs. Retrieved from

Ideas for enabling mutual growth – the Hunt review

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.


Hunt, P. (2014). The Hunt Review An independent review of the contribution that mutuals can make to growth, prosperity and fairness (p. 39). London: Mutuo. Retrieved from

Hereford University – new model co-operative university?

An article appeared in the Times Higher Education this week, about proposals for a new university in Hereford. George Osborne has been tweeting about it and the University of Bristol is apparently involved in the project, as is Sir John Hood. From a co-operative university-watcher’s viewpoint, the most exciting part of the announcement was that the university “is being conceived as a not-for-profit institution, with mixed funding, and operating with input from The John Lewis Partnership model” (Morgan, 2015).

Could we be witnessing the birth of the first mutual Higher Education Institution in England? Possibly. While the John Lewis Partnership model stretches the definition of an employee-owned firm somewhat (being a non-revocable trust for the benefit of staff) if you do consider it to be a version of the co-operative business model (I do) then it is one of the UK’s most prominent examples. Boden, Ciancanelli and Wright (2012) explicitly consider that the John Lewis model ‘offers promise for university reform’ (Boden et al, 2012, p.20). ‘Drawing on this model …’ Boden et al. (2012, p. 21) ‘… propose reform of university ownership via the creation of Trust Universities’. While I have doubts about any mutual model of the university that does not explicitly consider students as members, there is no doubting the attractiveness of Trust Universities as a reassertion of academic governance of academic institutions. The involvement of the John Lewis Partnership makes this prospect a tantalizing possibility.

There are not many details available about the putative university, which styles itself the ‘new model institute for technology and engineering. Its website remains enigmatically silent, but the countdown at the bottom of the page indicates all will be revealed in two weeks time…

Logo from the new Hereford University website - codenamed NMITE
Watch this space for the new Hereford University – codenamed NMITE


Boden, R., Ciancanelli, P., & Wright, S. (2012). Trust Universities? Governance for Post-Capitalist Futures. Journal of Co-operative Studies, 45(2), 16–24.
Morgan, J. (2015, February 14). Former Oxford v-c “senior adviser” to new Hereford university. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from
NMITE. (2015, February 18). New Model Institute. Retrieved February 17, 2015, from
Osborne, G. (2015, February 10). On #education will support development of major new uni in Hereford. Asked Greg Clark to examine how to do this, working with @BristolUni [microblog]. Retrieved from

All together now: towards cooperatives

My work was mentioned today in the Times Higher Education in an article with the above title. Find it at:

In my opinion the next piece of work necessary to extend the co-operative university idea is the development of a blueprint or plan for conversion of an existing university to co-operative status. A small matter that I shall get around to when I have time!

A future for co-operative higher education in Wales

Welsh flag
Enter the Dragon? Wales offers the possibility of a Higher Education re-affirmed as a social good.

The Welsh Government is currently considering a new Higher Education Bill. For those swept along by the tide of marketization in HE in England, it may be surprising to note that Wales intends to limit the spread of for-profit HE by insisting that HE provides are charities. As Greg Walker notes, this bold move may offer clues to how a future Labour administration in Westminster might regulate HE in England. If you think Wales is operating as an outlier, it is worth recalling that Denmark, Sweden and Finland do not have tuition fees, and Germany has just repealed them – hardly evidence of market fundamentalism being valued in Europe’s most advanced economies.

Although not a specific aim of the Bill (to the best of my knowledge) the scope would not preclude a HEI that was registered as a Society for the Benefit of the Community (or ‘Bencom’ -i.e. a co-op with charitable status – see the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Act 2010) from operating in Wales.

This legislation will hopefully induce some reflection on the nature of HEIs’ charitable role. Where a HEI’s mission is explicitly bound to the needs of an area and a range of local stakeholders, the Bencom organizational formulation might offer a superior vehicle for binding a wide range of members in to the institutional mission.

With a cross-party group on co-operatives and mutuals already in place, and a will to reform and empower local government, is this piece of legislation going to enable a radical experiment in co-operative higher education with the backing of the state?

Support for the current funding settlement in HE in England is diminishing rapidly. Wales offers the tantalizing alternative possibility of positioning HE as a public and social good, once again.

Re-imaginging the Future of Higher Education: exploring the co-operative university

On Thursday 19th June I had the great pleasure of sharing a platform with eminent Professors Rebecca Boden and Mike Neary at an SRHE eventRe-imaginging the Future of Higher Education: exploring the co-operative university“, curated by the wise and excellent Dr Lisa Lucas and supported by the excellent Richard Budd at the University of Bristol. A lively audience of around 30 people made it an energetic event that could have continued for some time if schedules had permitted.

Rebecca began by contrasting Capitalism and Co-operation and exploring the mission of Universities as socially useful organizations. Asking the audience to hold first one ear, then the other, she told us we now held the principal capital of the university in our hands! Rebecca proceeded to explore this theme by considering fields of study as sites of resistance to the financialization of universities, and considering co-operation as the basis for a renewed contract between universities and society, and also as a way of reducing expenditure, lowering fees and improving working life for academics.

Mike proceeded to explain the work that he and others have undertaken at the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, and the connections this has with ‘Student as Producer‘ the official Learning and Teaching Strategy at the University of Lincoln. Mike drew on the work of Joss Winn to explore the nature of labour in the university, and identified the co-operative university as a potent institution with which to re-think the nature of work and labour, and to experiment with new organizing principles for societies badly in need of alternatives to ‘necro-neoliberalism’.

I then followed-up my MBA Consultancy Report ‘Realizing the Cooperative University’ (which identified the cooperatization of English Higher Education Institutions as a realizable opportunity) by considering the cooperative advantage that might be offered to the principal stakeholders in Higher Education. Calling the session ‘Who pays for what in the cooperative university – edging towards a business plan’ was designed to be provocative. I asked the audience to consider what advantage cooperation might offer each stakeholder group, and to consider what implications this might have for a business plan. I explicitly considered the route to the co-operative university as being the cooperatization of an existing university, a route which would implement the university in something recognisably similar to its current form, but with the impetus to co-operative evolution and transformation firmly embedded. I explored the role of the Rochdale Pioneers as businesspeople as well as radicals, foregrounding their use of commerce as a vehicle for tackling injustice and strengthening social bonds. In doing so I drew on Ron Barnett‘s work on the ‘Ecological University’

I hope I made the case for claiming management as an integrative function that can bring about a peerless cooperative higher education, delivered by the kind of ruggedly independent and free academic institutions we need.

My slides are here:


My notes for the event are here:

Who pays for what in the Coopuni notes

Myners misses a trick

Education is the only long-term route to health for the Co-operative Group

The Myners report into the Co-operative Group has made front-page news. Its adoption represents a fundamental change to the way the organization is run. The report says a lot about governance, but largely dismisses the role of education. Myners’ proposals are reasonable, but he has missed a trick in not making education more central to his analysis and proposals. Education is the best (and possibly the only) long-term route to success in a large and complex co-operative business.

Myners’ message: managing complexity demands outside experience

Myners’ report offers a vision of re-invigorated governance where outside experience is crucial for Governing Board membership. Myners also proposes a revised national membership structure. Myners is long on the details of what went wrong, and looks at governance issues in admirable depth, but ultimately provides a sticking-plaster solution that aims at improving business performance while containing democratic interference.

The problem with his vision goes to the heart of co-operative values: his solution is one to make the business work more strategically and efficiently (great!), but he tacitly positions democracy as a burden on the organization. Myners describes observing discussions at Group Board level where reference to co-operative values was used as a way of obfuscating, and ultimately confusing issues. This is a shame: values ought to enlighten and improve the business, not be used as blockers. This type of behaviour is all topsy-turvy.  But so is governance reform without a systematic review of education for governance.

Myners’ attempt to fix the groups woes might be successful in business terms, and might work reasonably quickly. This would rather miss the point of the concerns raised within the movement. Myners’ proposals do make the Co-op Group more like a conventional business. They also multiply the external and capitalist influences on its running. By minimising rather than directly addressing this issue, Myners does not provide a longer-term answer for how the Co-op Group can source individuals with both the business experience and co-operative values it seeks.

For the average member, as much as for the Group Board, a solution to the current financial situation by raising member capital such as proposed by David Thompson seems distant because we have little evidence (to my knowledge) that most members see themselves as anything more than loyalty-card holders. The Co-op Group has failed to articulate its relevance and purpose to many of its own members, and clearly does not see this sort of solution as feasible. A co-operative that does not rely on its members to solve its problems is by definition not acting in their mutual interests. This is not only a business in trouble: we are witnessing a failure of education that has led to a failure of governance.

Brutal reading

Myners largely dismisses existing educational programmes for preparing members for Group Board roles, saying they are not up to the task. He is probably right – for a role of this nature, experience counts, and the training, while good, is not likely equivalent to the kinds of instructional programmes the co-operative movement offered in its heyday in the mid-20th Century, nor is it adequate to the demands of these roles. To quote at some length from p.57 of Myners’ report:

‘training alone will not equip an otherwise inexperienced person with the skills required to serve effectively on the board of the Group’

‘key competencies required for the Group Board to discharge its responsibilities … can be acquired only through direct, senior-level experience in comparably large and complex organisations’

 ‘It is extremely unfortunate that TCG members, particularly those who have devoted time and effort to fulfilling the various eligibility requirements for the Group Board, have been misled to believe that a series of very basic educational programmes would make them fit for Group Board roles. Even the world-renowned Harvard Business School would not make such a claim to its highly-capable MBA students’

‘In engaging with elected members over the past several months, the Review team has had to make clear to a number of individuals that the specified skills and any associated training that they had been told would qualify them for the Group Board were in fact far from sufficient. It is notable that other businesses have typically not sought to appoint current or former elected members of the Group Board to their own commercial boards, a fact indicative of the wider lack of experience and competence on the Group Board.’

Myners drives his point home clearly, and this will have been uncomfortable for some. I think, though, that it is a shame that Myners has missed the opportunity to explore in more depth the kind of educational deficiencies – and solutions – that will have to be brought to bear if the group is to thrive, and remain co-operative, in the longer term.

Myners’ limited engagement with education

Myners’ proposals limit the investment in education to a training budget for the new National Membership Council and a proper induction for the Group Board. The word ‘education’ is mentioned five times throughout the report, and although the proposal he makes around a protected education budget for the new National Membership Council is welcome, this appears to be an accommodation for the benefit of the representatives, rather than an investment in the future of the organization. While Myners also offers a few examples of education processes that have worked well, tucked away on page 109 in Appendix 2, overall he makes little of it.

I think Myners has missed a trick here. By situating the problem as one of governance, rather than an underlying educational deficiency, Myners does not admit the possibility of there being an appropriately co-operative response to these issues, and lacks the imagination to ‘fix’ the governance problem in any way other than simply changing the governance set-up to something more plc-like. By looking at the deficiencies in education in more detail, and making proposals to remedy them, Myners would offer a complementary and long-term solution that puts the power to improve the group’s fortunes back in the hands of co-operators.

This is not to say that the current Governance arrangements are optimal, nor that Myners’ proposals are unacceptable, but rather that Myners has only gone skin-deep, despite the thorough approach he has taken. What is needed is a cultural change that enables the group to operate in a businesslike fashion, and since ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast‘, the only way to go about making this change is the slow way – by persuading the organisation to change. This is a classic problem of education and development, which will not be fixed quickly with a governance change.

Any board members drawn from other businesses are likely to have had careers in capitalist enterprises, and to have trained through a capitalist lens. By fixing governance to allow capitalist corporate norms to dominate, without making a corresponding investment in the Co-operative Group’s educational capacity to develop the leadership it needs, Myners proposals may erode co-operative behaviour in the longer term.

Myners’ proposals do not place education at the heart of co-operation, as it should be. But this ought to come as no surprise – the elected representatives do not seem to have identified the educational deficit, and the Co-operative Group (some would say the whole movement) has come dangerously close to forgetting the importance of education, the Fifth Principle of co-operation. The Co-operative movement invests very little in research into itself, and so to a large extent Myners can be excused: there is very little co-operative scholarship for him to draw on. This state of affairs is a deep shame: if the pundits; if the elected representatives who oppose Myners; are unable to articulate the co-operative alternative, why should Myners be any more clear-sighted?

What Myners could have said about education

In diagnosing the deficiencies of the current educational programmes that supposedly provide preparation for Group Board membership, Myners could have gone further. He might have identified what would make an appropriate preparation, including the kinds of attributes necessary for an effective scrutiny role, and asked the question ‘How could the Co-operative Group adequately prepare members for Group Board membership?’ By drawing this out in some detail, he might make plain that a business education (including an MBA, other further study perhaps for a DBA, combined with exemplars of the kind of appropriate practical work experience, and so on) is necessary for these roles, and thereby indicate the sort of people that might be suited to them. Democracy need not mean amateurism, and it is entirely appropriate for a large organisation to make such proscriptions if it needs to. If the Co-operative Movement has a good idea of the kinds of attributes it requires at Group Board level, co-operators would be able to choose to prepare themselves for those duties, even if the road is a long one.

A gap analysis might reveal that not only is the current governance structure not delivering suitably-skilled individuals, but that the Co-operative Movement in its entirety, is failing to develop such individuals. Co-operation lacks the educational and development infrastructure to supply appropriately-skilled individuals. There is no Co-operative Business School or Law School, there is no Co-operative University. Co-operatives are insufficiently studied in UK Universities. Myners does not offer any thinking about the educational deficit in the movement, nor does he see it as part of a solution to the Group’s woes. Perhaps the road that needs to be travelled is just too long and costly to conceive of. Nevertheless, the long-term health of co-operation demands a massive improvement in educational resources and capabilities, and this must start immediately.

Lessons from history

Robert Owen founded an Institution for the Formation of Character at New Lanark. The Rochdale Pioneers famously dedicated the room above their first shop as a reading room. It is worth considering that the Pioneers managed to achieve a business success without all the advantages of other traders, but that early investment in education showed they were not complacent. The early history of the movement shows a constant investment in education, not only Schools and FE-level, but in some small ways in HE, too. This appetite for education was not sustained through the 20th Century. In fact it was effectively handed over to the state (blame Sidney and Beatrice Webb) and this seems to have resulted in the Co-operative movement losing sight of the importance of education as a key component of co-operative identity. There are no longer reading rooms in Co-op stores. The Co-op College has not been supported to expand to its true potential as a Co-operative University. The State, and our public universities are not as co-operative as they might have been. This state of affairs is not irreversible.

Eating the elephant

Co-operators want the co-operative alternative to be a genuine one, and Myners offers a bitter pill.

There is a co-operative alternative, but it is a long-term change, not a quick fix. The alternative is a significant and sustained engagement with higher education, to normalise the study of co-operatives and the practices of co-operation across tertiary education, much as is happening in primary and secondary phases through the co-operative schools movement. This requires a commitment to a new educational manifesto for co-operation, a national action plan along with a commitment to invest to meet that plan.

The co-operative difference could be identified, discussed, written about, and widely understood as part of educational programmes and research projects across the land.

Business schools could be researching and teaching co-operation, and if they find it to be effective, help make it a new orthodoxy that spreads the benefits of commerce and industry to all.

Law schools could help corporate lawyers become more open-minded about the range of corporate forms available to businesses.

Schools of Education could be training teachers to teach using co-operative pedagogies, and to form co-operative characteristics in their students.

Co-operative universities could be taking the best of our collaborative instincts, and using them to drive a mutual economy that secures the best for students, businesses and society.

There’s nothing inherently difficult or expensive about any of this: a national co-operative education board, a national plan, programmes of teaching/workplace learning and research works identified, and some funding to ensure that the Co-op Group is able to collaborate and draw out funding from elsewhere – public research funds and universities themselves.

Given the interest that private business is showing in the UK university sector, and the returns currently available, the Co-op Group might even consider investing in a university of its own.

But that’s another story…

Robert Owen’s lessons for the co-operative university

I visited the Robert Owen Museum in Newtown last week, where I had a guided tour from Co-operator of the Year Pat Brandwood who explained all about Robert Owen’s influence not only on the Co-operative movement, but on a wide range of social justice issues from religious tolerance to womens’ rights. Owen was the polymath of free-thinking whose efforts and funds underpinned the growth of many social movements in the 19th Century.

I had known about the Rochdale Pioneers making a reading room above their first shop back in the early days of their trading, but I was also struck by how educational ideas were mixed into Robert Owen’s thinking and actions.

The schoolroom at New Lanark
The schoolroom at New Lanark

In this picture, we can see children engaged in dance and colourful pictures of animals on the wall. This sort of schooling has little in common with the serried rows of desks we associate with schooling from Victorian times through to the post-war period, and shows the kind of free-thinking individual Robert Owen was.

Medal inscribed: 'The knowledge that the character of man is formed for and not by him, can alone produce universal charity and love.'
Medal inscribed: ‘The knowledge that the character of man is formed for and not by him, can alone produce universal charity and love.’

If you really want to get a lump in your throat, and feel your eyes welling-up, try this Robert Owen quotation for size:

‘The knowledge that the character of man is formed for and not by him, can alone produce universal charity and love.’

It is as powerful an evocation of the power of education as I have ever heard, and it places education at the centre of human enterprise. Could co-operation help us re-think Higher Education in the 21st Century? Should universities be considering the formation of character as a more central part of their purpose? In aspiring to high ideals for their students, can universities help construct the kind of capabilities and values in students that we need for a peaceful and ecologically-responsible world? Could the university really be configured as an institution of universal charity and love?

In fact we should be asking the opposite question: do universities have a future if they do not? Could we come to see degree classifications, graduate employability measures and even NSS scores as rough proxy outcome measures for the formation of character? Are universities in the business of creating the market for our best conception of what makes well-rounded and responsible individuals, or simply for serving the labour markets we currently have in place?

Perhaps, perhaps.

One thing I know for certain, is that a co-operative university would have an answer to these questions front and centre in its education strategy.

 All images reproduced from the Robert Owen Museum website and Copyright © 2008 Robert Owen Museum