Why co-operative education needs a rethink

Dr Cilla Ross from the Co-operative College calls for lifelong learning a new model to challenge mainstream education

Co-operative education has always been about learning to do co-operation (running a successful co-op) and learning to be a co-operator (values-based approaches to living co-operation) – but this is the tip of a learning iceberg in terms of the challenges and opportunities now being faced.

The places and spaces of co-operation (and co-operative activity) have radically expanded – but the traditional co-operative sector has shrunk. Co-operation as a model, with its associated educational thinking, has come out of the traditional consumer retail sector and is now reaching across all sectors. It has the potential to reach into every community.

But if we believe in co-operation, we must make it relevant and fit for purpose. There is a need, in the words of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, to ‘educate the imagination’. All education needs to be rethought in the light of the transformations currently under way. Co-operative education and research needs to be agile and at the cutting edge of change.

The notion of lifelong learning is gaining currency. But the type of lifewide ‘critical’ education necessary to negotiate today’s challenges – posed by the transformations occurring through ‘austerity’ policy, automation, precarity and other phenomena – has been marginalised. So now is the time to work with and co-operatively co-produce a new educational paradigm which challenges the existing mainstream model of education.

Co-operative education must constantly check if it is fit for purpose and we are doing just that.

Today, even in mainstream, neo-liberal focused education, student-centred, ‘authentic’ and distributed approaches intersect with the notion of learner as co-producer. Learning through peer collaboration (which sits very closely alongside learning for co-operation) is probably the dominant learning model within mainstream education.

This raises some big questions.

Do today’s co-operators value, need or require a specific ‘dedicated’ co-operative education? If yes, then we need to work with open education, the commons, flipped learning, networked approaches and so on – and re-acknowledge the learning through association model so popular in 19th century co-operative circles. Everyone else is rethinking learning – so must the co-operative movement.

One of the ways the Co-operative College is doing this is through exploring the idea of a Co-operative University.

The existing model of public higher education is a precarious place to work, subject to marketisation and responsible for racking up huge students debts. The current dispute reveals the worsening terms and conditions of academic colleagues.

Ironically, the next step in the privatisation of higher education – the  2017 Higher Education and Research Act – gives the co-operative movement and associated alternative educators an opportunity to develop a challenger to the conventional university model. When we consider the salaries of vice chancellors and the lack of accountability in so many universities, it is not difficult to imagine (and aspire to) a university model with greater transparency.

A co-operative university offers us an opportunity to develop innovative, agile and high quality programmes for existing and emerging co-operators (and others). This means that from co-operative community education to co-operative higher apprenticeships and postgraduate programmes in co-operative international development, we put co-operation, its associated pedagogy and alternative ownership modelling based on critical, reflective practice, at the heart of our education