Expensive food? Expensive housing? How co-operatives are making student life more affordable

The cost of living has been on the rise for a while – and for students feeling the pinch, co-operatives are providing cheaper options for accommodation, food and...

The cost of living has been on the rise for a while – and for students feeling the pinch, co-operatives are providing cheaper options for accommodation, food and transport. To help, the Co-operative Education Trust Scotland and Co-operative News have launched a new Student’s Guide to Starting a Co-operative.

Students have often been at the forefront of social change, and today is no different. Many students feel they have a lot to be angry about. The cost of attending university has increased dramatically. Despite a time for young people to live independently, a student’s life is often determined by other people – lecturers and landlords, student loans and supermarkets. And on leaving university, prospects for debt-laden graduates have rarely been worse.

The anger among students has manifested itself in various ways, most visibly in the occupation of university buildings across the UK. Inspired by the Occupy movement, direct action has focused on taking control back from the various authorities that dictate the life of the student and the future of the graduate.

In tandem, there has been a growing interest in co-operatives among students. As Sean Farmelo, a student activist in Birmingham and the founder of the new UK-wide network Students for Co-operation, says: “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.”

Co-operatives offer an alternative for students, allowing them to take control of the big things in their lives. “This seldom-experienced feeling of ownership and empowerment,” says Sean, “is truly at the core of why co-operatives are seeing such support in recent times from students.”

For many students, the big issues are getting hold of cheaper good quality food, control of accommodation and housing, and affordable furniture or transport. Not surprisingly, this is where students are choosing to start co-operatives.

To date, the strongest area of growth has been food co-operatives. There are at least 40 student food co-operatives in universities across the UK, ranging from smaller buying groups to a long-standing shop in Leeds student union.

The growth of food co-operatives was supported in the last three years by the student campaign organisation People and Planet, which received financial help to promote student food co-operatives – ‘scoops’ as it called them. Though this funding has now ceased, Students for Co-operation is using the resources developed to continue to promote and support new food co-operatives.

There are a number of recycling and reuse co-operatives renovating old bikes or furniture in order to provide students with affordable essentials for accommodation or transport. Shrub – the swap and reuse hub – in Edinburgh is a co-operative where students exchange and repair essentials like furniture or clothes.

As with many student co-operatives, Shrub is more than just a money-saving venture. “We want to encourage students to be involved and decide how the place will be run” says Francesco Benvenuti, an ecology student at Edinburgh University and director of Shrub. “And it allows us to engage more with people, changing the culture of consumption.”

The most ambitious area where interest in co-operation is emerging among students is around housing. Following their success in the United States, a number of student-run housing co-operatives have been launched, which aim to enable students to own and manage their accommodation for themselves, rather than being at the mercy of landlords and agencies.

Whilst there is no student housing co-operative yet owning accommodation, a number are in the early stages of start up, with housing co-operatives in Sheffield, Edinburgh and Birmingham registered and searching either for capital or appropriate accommodation.

Student co-operatives face challenges like other co-operatives of course – they need to be well-governed and sustainable businesses. And they face the additional issue that students are by their nature transient – likely to be there only a few years at the most – meaning that student co-operatives need to think quickly about succession planning. And students have a lot of distractions, so encouraging them to participate in the governance of a co-operative is not always easy.

Despite these challenges, though, those involved give a strong sense of optimism. Sean Farmelo says that, “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 for the co-operative movement.”

Chris Tomlinson, who founded the worker co-operative Birmingham Bike Foundry with friends on leaving university, says that co-operatives are a way for students and young people to help bring about social change and take control of their lives.

“We started our co-op with a vision of a post-capitalist society in our minds” he says. “And for me that’s the ultimate aim of worker control and democracy. When I talk to students now I find them much more highly politicised than when I was at uni, and I think that worker co-ops are a natural way to direct some of their insight and energy.”

• Read the student’s guide to starting a co-operative: www.thenews.coop/studentguide

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