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.
With a week to go until the big announcement about a new university in Hereford, I’ve been digging around in the local press and elsewhere on the internet. I’ve had to, because the published firstname.lastname@example.org address is bouncing all my attempts to sign up to the mailing list!
I am yet to find conclusive evidence that co-operative governance is being considered, explicitly. However, I have found evidence of further co-operative links, in the form of a theory that the Robert Owen Vocational School might be sharing a possible site with NMITE. The trail to this other organization ran cold* (Its website is giving me the 404 this evening) but from what I could glean it is a Free School, which has faced considerable local opposition. The school’s parent organization (the Robert Owen Group) does claim to be a co-operative: http://www.robertowen.org/about-us.html so there is some sort of (tenuous) co-operative connexion through the putative campus location.
‘is being conceived as a not-for-profit institution, with mixed funding, and operating with input from The John Lewis Partnership model. The assets and endowments of the university will be held in trust by The Herefordshire Tertiary Education Trust.’
The Herefordshire Tertiary Education Trust (http://www.hte-t.org/) appears to be the legal vehicle used to get the project to its current stage, which is a registered charity and a company limited by guarantee (as indeed are many co-operatives). (Due to the somewhat antiquated web technology Companies House uses, you have to go there and search for company no. 08799922 yourself.)
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…
Boden, R., Ciancanelli, P., & Wright, S. (2012). Trust Universities? Governance for Post-Capitalist Futures. Journal of Co-operative Studies, 45(2), 16–24.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.