Mike Neary, Chair of the Co-operative University's Interim Academic Board, gives us his thoughts on why now is the right time to progress the Co-operative University from a long held dream to realisation.

The idea to set up a Co-operative University in the UK goes back to the late 19th century, but it was never realised. Creating a Co-operative University now has been given impetus by three main factors: new government legislation, new forms of co-operatives in which the interests of workers can be reconciled to the interests of consumers and other stakeholders, and calls by academics and students for more democratic governance in higher education. 

New Government Legislation

The government brought into law in 2017 the Higher Education and Research Act. This new legislation offers an historically unique opportunity for the introduction of co-operative governance and leadership in higher education. The Government is encouraging ‘challenger institutions’ to offer new forms of university provision. This legislation provides the space in which the co-operative university can be developed. The group working on the Co-operative University project have submitted paperwork to the Office for Students, a newly constituted body by the Higher Education and Research Act legislation, and hope to be granted degree awarding powers in the academic year 2019 - 2020.

New Forms of Co-operatives

The co-operative movement has developed a model for co-operation that is appropriate for the Co-operative University, known as a multi-stakeholder or social or  solidarity cooperatives. The multi-stakeholder model is compatible with traditional collegial structures. Unlike single-member models of worker or consumer co-operatives the multi-stakeholder model recognises that both workers and consumers, as well as other supporting individuals and organisations, might each wish to share the responsibility of owning and running a co-operative.

The multi-stakeholder co-operative model is relatively new as a form of corporate governance; most universities were created before it was introduced into the UK in 2009, but it is now a credible model of governance. The multi-stakeholder model of co-operative governance has been formally supported by Co-ops UK since 2012 and internationally endorsed by the co-operative movement in 2011. This model helps overcome the unnecessary antagonism between the interests of academics and students and external organisations. 

Calls for Democratic Governance by Students and Academics

There are calls for greater democratic accountability by university staff and students in the face of increasing higher education redundancies, university senior managers on exorbitant salaries, academic strikes to protect pensions and demands from students following the student occupation movement 2010- 2011.

A review of the websites of student occupations that have taken place since 2010 found that students were seeing the issues they were protesting against as a matter of a ‘democratic deficit’ in higher education. Increasingly, among the list of demands issuing from the student occupation of university spaces, was a demand for greater student participation in the formal running and governance of their institutions.

This could take the form of elected staff-student councils to be responsible for all managerial decisions of their institution. It was widely recognised by academic staff that the University College Union strike in 2018 against proposed negative changes to pensions and other staff benefits opened up the space to consider all aspects of university governance and management.

Further reading on the establishment of the Co-operative University is available across a number of publications including:
Mike Neary and Joss Winn (2019) The Co-operative University Now!
Tom Woodin and Linda Shaw (eds.) Co-operative Learning for a Co-operative World: Education, Social Change and the Co-operative College. Trentham Books.

Find out more about the Co-operative University and see where our plans are up to via the button below.

Co-operative University