2019 Q&A: Cilla Ross on education

Principal and chief executive of the Co-operative College

 How was 2019 for the College? 

 This has been a year of consolidation for the College, of challenges, but also one of future positioning. In November, we celebrated our Centenary Conference, giving us a unique opportunity to not only welcome and engage with colleagues and friends from across the world, but also to take stock of where we currently sit in the world of co-operation and education. 

There is much work to do, but reflection, piloting and delivery throughout 2019 is enabling us to talk increasingly confidently about our overall learning offer. Our new five-year strategy, launched as part of
the Centenary Conference, pledges to disrupt education in truly co-operative ways across all aspects of our work, globally!   

This year has also seen us successfully grow our portfolio of charitable work, especially with young people, as well as the rebuilding of strong training relationships with, for example, workers’ co-operatives. 

These activities sit alongside ongoing, radical thinking on co-operative higher education. Globally it has also been an excellent year for us too, with pioneering European and international capacity-building initiatives successfully continuing, and a growing number of international visits taking place. 

We’ve also worked hard to engage with our members, offering them a series of free, interactive webinars across a whole range of diverse topics that they can watch on demand via our YouTube channel.

Above all, 2019 has seen a deepening commitment from us to working innovatively with all our partners from across both the co-operative and other social movements, adopting a decent work and social, economic and cognitive justice lens, in all that we do. Only by doing this can we really demonstrate the co-operative advantage. 

Finally, 2019 has also seen our previous CEO and principal Simon Parkinson move to the WEA and we wish him well in his new role. We’re sure that he would share the sentiments of what a brilliant year it’s been for us, and we look forward to working closely with the WEA and other partners as we further our mission to develop co-operative education that can truly transform communities and change lives for the better.

What were the main highlights for your sector?

 In many ways this has been an exciting year for the education sector, though colleagues across adult, further and higher education continue to suffer precarity and diminishing terms and conditions.

Public funding has also been cut; however, co-op education is enjoying something of a renaissance. In part, this is because people are concluding that mainstream education no longer serves the needs
of the modern world.

We’re seeing people that are choosing to co-operative (or collaborate) in a new system of co-operative education that they can shape and participate in. One that’s powerful, effective and more democratic in its teaching, learning and research styles.

While it’s true that the co-operative model remains elusive in the curricula of most university business schools, ideas around co-operation and its potential are taking root in many areas of education.  

A significant highlight has been a revisiting of the role of adult education (that is education for people from 18 years upwards) in resetting and rebuilding challenged communities, empowering individuals and offering alternative models of work and society. 

We’ve played a significant part in this new focus by co-designing the project to revisit the 1919 Ministry of Reconstruction Report, (a landmark publication that captured the huge role of the co-operative movement at that time) sitting on the Centenary Commission to ensure that co-operative education, the co-operative movement and the co-operative model, is central to any conclusion. 

This includes offering responses and solutions to the big issues facing us all, from automation and the climate crisis, to social justice. More can be found online at centenarycommission.org

Next year the College plans to open its Co-operative University. Can you tell us more about this and your other upcoming projects? 

Our ambition remains to achieve new degree awarding powers by the end of 2020 so that we can offer (and co-construct) a range of co-operative higher education programmes. The ambition is for these to meet the needs of the existing and emerging co-operative movement, plus all those interested in alternative, practical futures. 

We continue to build this initiative through a federated model and are looking at working ever closer with partners and likeminded educators such as Mondragon University, in the coming year. 

All of our learning opportunities, of all lengths and levels, will offer optional accreditation and we will take a fresh look at how we measure quality and relevance. We will continue to strengthen our training offer and its appeal to a diverse audience such as co-operative councils, whilst our projects, such as Youth Co-operative Action, will continue to roll out across the UK.  

Internationally we are looking forward to exploring future working with the British Council and continuing our training across the European Union and throughout Africa where we currently run projects in Rwanda and Zambia.

Finally, we have committed to a brand new Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) project, with an appointment of the College’s first Visiting Fellow joining is from the University of Liverpool. 

What are the main challenges going forward? 

 I write this in-between ferrying people to my local polling station on the day of the UK 2019 election. Education is after all crucial in any functioning democracy and core to the values and principles of the co-operative movement. 

One thing is clear, change and disruption will continue and inequality will deepen until sustainable and radical policies and practices reverse it. As ever, it is education that will play a key part in this process, contributing in the collaboration to build a different, more co-operative world.  

For the College there are two main challenges. How do we work to support colleagues and partners to position co-operation as an effective model and way of being ‘into’ the mainstream, as a viable contribution and response to some of the great challenges we are facing? 

Secondly, how do we encourage a recasting of the role and potential of co-operative education, ‘’what it is and what it can be”? 

Yes, education is about employability and skills development, but is also about learning to be a great citizen, a collaborator, a critical thinker and a values driven human being. 

The Pioneers understood this, which is why we continue to draw upon so many of their ideas as we seek to build a new co-operative social movement for the future. In challenging economic times, we will need to influence and persuade that this wider vision of co-operative education is relevant for the entire UK and global co-operative movement. In what will be our 101st year, we look forward to embarking on such an adventure, working and co-producing to reach this ambition.

It’s a challenge, and one we’ll tackle head on!