On 9 November, the Co-operative College hosted a conference on ‘Making the Co-operative University’, “with the intention of exploring its role in supporting and co-ordinating a federated model of co-operative higher education”, according to Joss Winn, a key player in co-op HE and a founding member of the Lincoln Social Science Centre (SSC) co-operative.
Following the conference and an “historic” decision to pursue the creation of a co-operative university (HE Marketisation, 16 October 2017), Winn said the Co-operative College intended to meet with the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) “to understand the current regulatory landscape” following the 2017 Higher Education and Research Act, and to see what concrete steps must be taken to make this plan a reality.
The Higher Education and Research Act makes it easier for “alternative providers” – i.e. for-profit universities and colleges – to enter the still largely publicly-subsidised higher education sector.
While potentially extremely destructive, the reforms in principle also allow for the creation of co-operatively owned and governed alternative providers, as long as such institutions meet the radically de-regulated criteria for access to the student loan system – a source of funding crucial for the survival of such an offering.
“If the key requirements of demonstrably good governance, a good quality education, and a sustainable financial model remain the basic threshold for gaining degree awarding powers (DAPs),” Winn said, “then there is no reason why [a co-operative university], operating on 180 year-old, values-based principles of social organisation, couldn’t meet those requirements in ways that challenge the existing system.”
However, others were not so enthusiastic. “I found a day that should have been inspiring somewhat odd,” wrote Richard Hall, also a member of the SSC and long-time collaborator with Winn. “It had a revivalist feeling, yet a revival of co-operativism situated inside a pragmatically-accepted view of the market and profit.”
“I found myself questioning why we are building an alternative model of the higher education institution, rooted in an outdated model of educational practice and governed in a way that perpetuates that outdated model,” he added. “I found myself questioning whether this was a real alternative.”
“The reality that the new Office for Students can only drive a market agenda, rooted in strengthening the forces of production of knowledge, rather than democratising the relations of production of knowledge, acts as a brake on the alternative positions that any co-operative university can develop.”