A hundred years of education: How the Co-operative College built for the future

Dr Cilla Ross, vice principal of the College, looks over its history – and looks to the next 100 years

It is a century since the Co-operative College opened its doors, but its roots lie deep in the decision by the Rochdale Pioneers to pledge a percentage of Toad Lane’s profits to education.

Throughout the 19th century, as co-operation grew into a powerful social movement, adult education about co-operatives was delivered in reading rooms, above shops, at the heart of communities. The focus was on two things. Firstly, to equip co-operators with the skills to run successful enterprises, democratically and values-based. The second was to encourage co-operative identity,  the co-operative spirit and an ‘enthusiasm for the application of co-operative principles’.

By the 20th century, the conviction had grown that ‘co-operative education could only be provided in a college owned by the co-operative movement, staffed by co-operative teachers, and controlled by a co-operative committee’. In 1919 the College was opened as a means to meet the need of co-operators and working class adults, and as a testament to peace following the slaughter of so many co-operators in the First World War.

The curricula were widespread and eclectic. For example, between 1919 and 1939, residential accredited courses were not only in co-operative book keeping and management but in history; economics; citizenship; sociology; ethics; education; public speaking; and propaganda. While courses were run for board members and co-operative managers and leaders they were also held for employees and members in the guise of, for example, Pioneer Courses in Social Subjects; Employees’ Training Courses; and Women’s Issues and Concerns.

The correspondence and face-to-face courses focused on the needs of both UK-based co-operators and the global co-operative movement. Following the foundation of Stanford Hall, large numbers of international co-operators participated in the College’s long and short programmes, some of which were accredited by local universities as well as the College itself.

The return to Holyoake House in 2001 coincided with significant changes in the funding and focus of adult and further education; the emergence of new learning technologies and the changing fortunes of the co-operative sector more widely. Much education and training was taken in house by the various co-operative societies – and universities began to widen participation to reach a critical mass of students. Adult education budgets were slashed and the orientation of much education became  narrowly focused upon skills and employability.

The College continues its strong educational, training and research work nationally and internationally, serving the global movement. However, new opportunities are appearing as the College pushes boundaries and expands its delivery to emerging as well as existing co-operatives and to the wider social solidarity economy.

This means reflecting on the scope and possibilities of the co-operative idea and the education that is needed to support it to grow. It also means the College can be proactive, finding new places and spaces of possible co-operation.

As we move into the next 100 years and a possible Co-operative University, the College can draw upon its own distinctiveness as it delivers values-informed and democratic educational approaches. The College is also aware that it continues to have an international responsibility to deliver education which is active, participatory, critical and interdisciplinary rather than competitive, collective and research informed.

In these difficult times when co-operatives can offer real prospects for poverty alleviation and equality, co-operative values based education will continue to play an important part in democratic practice. Co-operative education needs to be fit for purpose but it must be bold in offering a vision of a different type of world.