Co-op Education Conference 2018: Q&A with Dr Cilla Ross

Why should people come to the conference? And what are the main themes this year?

The Co-operative Education Conference is focusing on two strands this year: ‘Learning for new co-operative times’ and ‘The Co-operative University’. Organised by the Co-operative College, the conference takes place at Federation in Manchester on 1-2 May. Here College vice-principal, Dr Cilla Ross speaks about the event, and the role co-operative education has in an ever-changing future.

Why should people come to the conference? Who is it for?

The Co-operative Education Conference is an opportunity to discuss new ideas around not just co-operative education, but co-op policy and the co-op world. Yes it’s for people associated with co-ops, but we need to push the boundaries of what that means. This conference is for those in education, those in the traditional movement or emerging co-ops and anyone with a general interest in co-operation and the social solidarity economy. We’re thinking about the big ideas.

At the heart of the conference are two strands: learning for the new co-operative times and the co-operative university, which is getting a lot of support (for example from the Labour Party) and gaining momentum.

As we approach our centenary year in 2019, the College is looking wider. We’re looking to create great teaching, learning and research – but what does this mean and who is this for? The conference will be unafraid of asking this.

What is the biggest challenge for co-ops in the 21st century?

Co-operatives have an absolutely massive role to play in light of technological change, and the changing nature of work and working life.

Interestingly, Labour’s recent discussion about the doubling of the co-op sector implies a new, growing co-operative workforce. The fundamentalist notions of what work is changing: what role do co-operatives play? Yes, we’re seeing technological changes, but we also need to look at what we’re experiencing in terms of liberation and what it means for identity.

One thing we’ve been looking at is the union co-op model, thinking about how co-ops can challenge precarity, and I’ll be hosting follow up workshops bringing unions and co-ops together.

So a challenge is what skills we need for the future. Do we need to be more agile and creative, do we need more useful non-work life?

Can you tell us more about the Co-operative University?

he College is facilitating the Co-operative University Working Group (CUWG) whose aim is to explore various models of co-operative higher education, including a co-operative university, as a result of the UK Higher Education Research Act 2017.

The Act gives us an extraordinary opportunity to think about the co-op model.

My background is in alternative adult higher education and there are many emerging education groups that have diverse interests about education. The idea of a co-op university has been well received. No one wants to be in the level of debt current universities model necessitates. So we need to think creatively.

The CUWG has had meetings with Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), and has been conceptualising what a co-op university could look like – from community courses to accredited university qualifications. It’s brilliantly messy!

There’s a chance to look differently at the federated model, at pedagogy, economic models, ownership, and organisational structure.

There’s no reason we can’t have a co-operative university – we can meet the quality assurance – but the big issue is money. This year, for example, we need to bring in expertise to look at the specialist regulatory framework. So as a movement, one of the next steps is to look at more creative ways of raising money – will it be a co-op? Will people get a divi?

What does co-operator of today look like?

A co-operator can look like anyone and everyone. Every single person has the potential to be in a co-op if they wish. Yes we need to work with people already in the movement, but it’s about other people as well – we need to work with whoever we can. This is essential for survival. The more we can open things up, the better.

  • Join the debate on what the future of co-operation should look like at the 2018 Co-operative Education and Research Conference, 1-2 May at Federation in Manchester. For more information and to book your place, visit

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