Reimagining education: The case for co-op schools – and a UK university

A session at Co-operative Congress looked at how to deal with the dramatic changes affecting higher education

Is it time for a co-operative university?

At a session at the 2017 Co-operative Congress, Dr Cilla Ross argued that the university as we know it “is in crisis” – and that the establishment of a co-operative university is a logical next step.

Dr Ross believes that although Congress was themed around a ‘reimagining’ of different sectors, in terms of education, ‘remaking’ was more apt.

“We’re rethinking and remaking co-operative education in the UK,” she said.

We have to completely rethink what co-operative education means. What does the co-operative education model need to be in 2017? What does the co-operator look like in 2017? What is the purpose of co-operative education in 2017?”

Dr Ross reminded delegates that the Co-operative College – where she is vice-principal – was founded following the 1919 co-op Congress in Carlisle, which called for ‘A centre for higher education and the cultivation of the co-operative spirit’ to assist ‘in the establishment of a co-operative commonwealth’.

“That’s what the co-op movement wanted then. Today the the university as we know it is in crisis” she said, adding that despite this, “great, creative things have been happening in higher education.”

In 2013 Dan Cook, head of data policy and development at the Higher Education Statistics Agency, published a report for the Co-operative College which demonstrated that there was no legal barrier to the establishment of a Co-operative University in England.

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And in an update last year, he added that the passage of the new Higher Education and Research Bill (Sajid Javid, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2016) through Parliament will actually make it easier as “the government intends to lower barriers to entry to the higher education sector”.

“There is no doubt what is happening is an extraordinary change in higher education,” Dr Ross told delegates.

“This is welcomed by some, while others are concerned about deregulation and the challenges of ensuring quality. But what this environment has enabled in a viable form is the possibility – if we wish it – of a co-operative university in the UK.”

Dr Ross described how there are already such institutions in Tanzania, Kenya (which mainly focus on co-operative agriculture and book-keeping), Brazil and columbia, and stressed that “when we’re talking about co-operative universities, that’s not to suggest one single way is the best, or that we want to compete with what already exists.”

To investigate this potential further, the College set up a Co-operative University Working Group (CUWG) after consulting with different partners from the higher education sector.

The CUWG comprises a group of 10 co-operative stakeholders including academics, educators and practitioners who have been exploring how a federated co-operative university model could work, and how the College might work towards acquiring degree awarding powers as a secondary co-operative.

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As well as looking at likely demand for such an institution, the CUWG is developing a business plan, designing a set of principles and considering other associated outputs. The CUWG intends to present a draft report (including a business plan) to the College’s board of trustees at their 5 October board meeting.

“But these aren’t new ideas,” said Dr Ross.

“If we agree that knowledge is power, the co-operative movement has a long tradition of people thinking creatively to ensure we have a longstanding educational democracy.”

Co-operative Schools

The future of co-operative education is also an issue for Co-operative Schools, said Colin Wilkes of the Schools Co-operative Society.

He described how a reduced role for local authorities, forced academy conversions (“which isolate them from communities”) and mergers into multi academy trusts have raised concerns about accountability.

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“We have picked up on the softening towards forced academisation,” he said, adding that one of the recognised dangers of the academy model is its “focus on a hierarchical approach to education”.

“The real co-operative alternative is to have school stakeholders where those with the greatest interest in the future of the school have the most say,” he said, with these constituencies of partners potentially including parents and carers, staff, learners, community organisations and possibly alumni.

Russell Gill warned against neglecting the co-op ethos

Russell Gill, head of co-operative relations at the Co-operative Group and chair of the the Co-operative Academies Trust, highlighted that multi-academy trusts can benefit many parts of society, while there are some Co-operative Trust Schools that “sadly carry that name in name only”.

“It’s about ethos rather than structures,” he said, adding that the adoption of a model doesn’t guarantee the delivery of high quality teaching or co-operative thinking.

“If we only talk about the governance structure, we miss the point of what schools should be – in particular how the teaching, ethos and values in schools are fed around the co-operative values.

‘We want young people to come out of education thinking that co-operation is a serious option for them. If we don’t, we don’t have the next generation of co-operators – this is important for the health of society and the economy.”

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