The start of any social movement can be a long and arduous process of similar thoughts and ideas being fermented in a decentralised manner across a wide spectrum of people.
In the 1930s during the depths of the Great Depression, students in American universities began forming, by necessity, housing co-operative ventures which cut rent-seeking landlords out of the equation. The U.S co-op movement put students in control of their living situations, allowing them to create the first coed dormitories and the first mixed race university accommodation in the U.S. Co-operatives such as Berkeley Student Co-operative in California have been the breeding ground for popular struggles such as the civil rights movements.
Britain, the birthplace of the co-operative movement, is a country in which the agenda currently pedalled by media and government is individualistic, capitalist and one of austerity. Students are facing this both in their educational institutions with rising tuition fees, and curriculums tailored by corporate giants.
Expression and control is limited also by the poor-quality rented accommodation they live in, the extortionately priced utilities they use and the food they buy. The lull in the student movement after the fee hikes has finished and it is back with a new, more nuanced agenda; one of worker solidarity and democracy.
The new wave of student support for the co-operative movement stems from the same fundamental ideas – increased democratic control, better living and working conditions and a desire for socially responsible businesses. Over the past few years I have seen three new student co-operatives incorporate and many more informal groups and campaigns begin. From a bike maintenance co-op in Birmingham which I was involved in setting up, to a re-use hub in Edinburgh or the food co-op in Warwick, students are beginning to see their collective buying power and social activity as something that can make a positive difference in their university communities.
Additionally 2013 has seen the formation of a national co-operative: Students For Co-operation. It seeks to pool collective resources so that student co-operatives themselves can help develop and create even more co-operatives.
Students For Co-operation is hosting its founding conference in Birmingham in February. The conference is being supported by the Phone Co-operative and will have in-depth sessions on starting co-operatives, liberation, consensus, lobbying and even a co-operative bicycle tour of South Birmingham along with a visit to local eco homes.
Sessions will be participatory and will be led by experienced campaigners and co-op members from a variety of co-operative organisations from the co-operative movement. This will be one of the first chances for this emerging network of co-ops to really get to know each other and realise the collective strength of the organisations they have been developing.
Co-operatives are good for students not just because they give access to more affordable housing, food or transport but because they create spaces in which students can experiment with ideas.
In Birmingham our bicycle co-op benefits the university community by providing cheap access to costly tools and parts and recycling abandoned bicycles, but on top of that we have also begun crafting an active cycling community and a space or hub of activity that students are truly able to call their own.
This seldom-experienced feeling of ownership and empowerment is, I believe, truly at the core of why co-operatives are seeing such support in recent times from students.
This generation of students are increasingly in debt and it is clear that the strong backing and national media attention received by housing co-op campaigns such as Birmingham Student Housing Co-operative after their launch, is because people see these co-ops a way to alleviate the crushingly poor conditions in the student rental market. Rents for what is typically low quality accommodation have been increasing rapidly and now stand at an average of above £69 per week outside of London and far more inside.
The housing co-op model being crafted by a number of groups who are currently looking to purchases houses in different cities will create long-standing co-ops which are competitively priced with standard rental properties but where any surplus generated is funnelled back into improving or expanding the properties owned by the co-op instead of being removed from the house in the form of profit.
The recent wave of student co-ops have been in three main areas – collective food buying, recycling workshops and housing. We are yet to see a successful housing co-operative up and running with progression occurring in many cities simultaneously. However, it seems it is only a matter of time until one is functioning.
As a more solid understanding of the co-operative movement is built up by student groups, a natural progression that I hope to see over the next few years is the development of student worker co-ops in areas typical of student employment such as catering, tutoring and bars.
Students are becoming ever more reliant on part time jobs while studying due to increased fees and associated costs. However, the industries that they are generally employed in are notorious for zero hour contracts, low pay and poor working conditions. Workers co-ops would go a long way to eradication some of these issues and would help shapepeople’s perception of what workers deserve from the job market before they formally enter it after graduation.
With over seven million students in university or college education, the development of Students For Co-operation and student co-operative groups across the country are exciting signs of the new directions and demographics the co-operative movement can include after a tumultuous few years.
Or go straight to STEP ONE: the idea