Co-operative Higher Education and the post-pandemic university

Malcolm Noble and Cilla Ross


The core function of emancipatory education is to make visible the oppressive structures of society in order that they can be disrupted and set aside. The corona crisis, indistinguishable from the crises of late stage capitalism, makes obscuration impossible. The pandemic has made visible outrageous structural inequalities. The origins of the novel coronavirus lie in the destructive exploitation of nature in pursuit of endless growth on a planet of finite resources. We have seen too an inverse correlation between the ability of governments to respond to the virus and the extent to which they are in thrall to market economics; the US and UK seem to have been least effective. 

Despite class inequalities sharpening in lockdown for many workers, it became clear that the pandemic would constitute a valuable site of pedagogy: whether we liked it or not, many of us would work at home or have time to reflect on life. Even those not immediately interested in Higher Education (HE) could not fail to see the power inequalities of the managerial university. As practitioners and researchers of Co-operative Higher Education (CHE), we experienced less despair than most, because we saw the possibility to reclaim the university and rebuild better HE. A number of us have been working for some time on anti-capitalist models, with scholarly and practical discussions as well as setting up new Higher Education Co-operatives (HECs). After this time of acute strain for HE, a reckoning for those paid enormous salaries to run universities is certainly due, but we must also discuss alternatives. In this piece, we explore the potential of CHE to build post-pandemic universities which do not recreate the unequal power relations of the managerial university.

For the last 40 years UK universities have become increasingly marketized in how they compete internally, with each other for central funding, and for the loans of students. Organised through new public managers and in thrall to the commodification of every aspect of scholarly practice and process, they are driven by performativity and a commitment to profit.  

Different aspects of exploitation became visible from late Spring 2020. Large numbers of staff on temporary or insecure contracts were laid off, allowing vice chancellors to claim they had somehow ‘saved’ universities. Was there a strong rentier inflexion to the decision to have students return to campuses in September, at least for classroom subjects? It seemed that mortgages for shiny campuses have to be serviced, just as returns on investments on student accommodation blocks must be made. In many universities, exorbitant charges were made to deliver microwavable ready meals to students in enforced isolation due to corona. Most recently, when students in Manchester protested against egregious rent demands from the university the Vice Chancellor refused to meet with them. 

The extent to which students are rendered passive revenue streams in the managerial university became undeniable. In the current COVID crisis complaints from students and staff unions make it clear that well-paid non-academic managers have failed to listen to scientific advice or even to ask what those working and learning in universities want, with miserable, deadly consequences. It seems unnecessary to expound further here the catalogue of exploitation

If we were to characterise in one metaphor the neoliberal university, we might use the idea of ‘mining’ rather than ‘farming’: rather than sustainable, considered, cultivated practices for the long term, those teaching, researching, learning, and otherwise working, are exploited (mined) for short-term goals. With horizons stretching only as far as the next REF or TEF submission, few managers stop to ask if teaching and research loads are sustainable over anything other than this timeframe. Growing numbers of staff are employed on non-sustainable zero-hours contracts or even through agencies to entirely preclude any kind of employment rights. We say nothing of the dominant narrow paradigm of graduate employability which continues its inexorable march towards an unknowable skills and capabilities future. 

Confined to homes, many have been reflecting on what a university is and what purposes it serves. On one hand, the astounding medical discoveries promising vaccination in the shortest imaginable timeframe prove the vital necessity of STEM; on the other, the problems of false and disinformation and challenges to populism in the UK and US, have made quite clear the need for those disciplines which furnish learners with sharpened critical thinking. Problematizing the university is not a new idea, and much groundwork has been laid by the flourishing field of critical university studies, with growing volumes of critique published since the term was coined in 2012

CHE has emerged in the UK in response to the problems and opportunities of marketized governance of HE.: Tthe managerial university made it necessary to look for practicable, scalable models; the regulatory regime designed by the neoliberal agenda which makes it easier to establish for-profit providers, also opens the door to radical alternatives. Drawing on an established international tradition, particularly Mondragon University in Spain, a co-operative university project seeks to take advantage of access to Degree Awarding Powers to establish a federated co-operative university. A growing handful of HECs, such as Leicester Vaughan College, respond to local needs and demands, and is working towards offering degrees to small groups of students, employment staff with flat pay structures, and offering clear ownership and accountability by members. We have documented many of the groups involved in this project elsewhere

The co-operative movement, one of the earliest comprehensive alternatives to capitalism, has always held education close to its core, with ambitions towards higher learning and a co-operative university in evidence from the mid-nineteenth-century. What is more, contemporary co-operation rests on globally recognized values and principles, which are acknowledged by over one billion co-operative members worldwide. It is these values and principles that constitute a golden thread which enables us to conceptualise the making of co-operative universities as alternative anti-capitalist approaches to HE, with a particular post-pandemic relevance. 

Values are the ethical underpinning of co-operation, but it is in their practical application that the value lies. Democratic Member Control (DMC), for example, means members control their co-operatives, set policies, and make decisions. This participation draws on multiple knowledges and experiences to develop structures and practices which are mutually beneficial to local communities as well as communities of scholars. Co-operative governance therefore prevents the kind of unequal power relations and lack of accountability found in managerial universities, because elected representatives are held to account by the membership, in a way no vice chancellor ever has been.

The principle of concern for community, combined with the values of self-help, self-responsibility, and the ethical values of honesty, openness, social responsibility and caring for other, ensure that a co-operative university is a civic one. This powerful combination arises because co-operatives emerge from and are rooted in their communities with success based on their ability to support co-operators and co-operatives to develop in sustainable ways. A post-pandemic co-operative type university, connected to its community and committed to decent work, openness and honesty, offers an alternative to the precarious academic or exploited student. 

CHE also goes beyond the internationally agreed principles and values of co-operation, and uses a powerful combination of pedagogies which we have conceptualized as a bundle. The key difference is that in CHE, and as ‘living’ co-operators, students are intrinsically active rather than passive and are thus powerful agents of their own making. As they ‘co-operate’ they become co-operators and activists, organizers, and co-designers of their learning and living spaces. As learners they co-create new knowledge through designing participatory and transdisciplinary curricula and practices. By living in student housing co-operatives, they negate the landlordism of the neoliberal university while at the same time deepening collective and co-operative identity, and saving considerable sums; student housing co-operatives are a thriving and growing alternative to for-profit landlords. All of this points to the kind of lifewide learning identified by Jackson.If the primary objective of the post-pandemic university agenda is sustainability, then co-operative thinking offers a rich seam in this regard. In particular the movement works towards degrowth, re-usability, and communing, which poses an alternative to competitive zero-sum league tables. Co-operation is committed to building sustainable work futures in sharp contrast to the neoliberal university. Yet sustainability in the co-operative model does not mean being risk-averse or failing to imagine futures: quite the reverse, as co-operation offers a way to push against capitalist realism. The continuous remaking of knowledge through co-operative practices allows disruption to be explored, mined and embraced for positive social transformation rather than negative chaos.


Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Malcolm Noble is a practitioner and researcher of Co-operative Higher Education, with interests in both institutional formations and classroom pedagogies. In 2017 he helped found Leicester Vaughan College, where he works to develop degree programmes and is an active member of the project to establish a Co-operative University in the UK. 

Cilla Ross is the Principal of the Co-operative College, UK, and works in higher, community, and adult education. Cilla is currently exploring a Co-operative University, a Union Co-op, and is associated with the Greater Manchester Co-operative Commission. She is also exploring new ways of thinking about co-operative learning for livelihoods and decent work. Cilla was a Commissioner on the Centenary Commission on Adult Education in 2019 and has recently been appointed to an Honorary Professorship in Co-operative Education at the University of Nottingham, UK.

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