Is the worker co-operative a suitable form for the university? (Part 2)

In a guest post on the CPPE blog, Joss Winn, senior lecturer in the Centre for Educational Research and Development at the University of Lincoln, follows up on his post from last week on the university as a workers’ co-operative.

“A co-operative is an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” (ICA identity statement)

In my earlier notes, I listed six basic characteristics of worker co-operatives, as approved by the ICA in 2005. I then began to discuss them in terms of a ‘co-operative university’. The basis for these six characteristics are the co-operative movement’s 1995 statement of its identity, values and principles.1

In summary, the values and principles are as follows:2


  1. Self-help
  2. Self-responsibility
  3. Democracy
  4. Equality
  5. Equity
  6. Solidarity


  1. Voluntary and Open Membership
  2. Democratic Member Control
  3. Member Economic Participation
  4. Autonomy and Independence
  5. Education, Training and Information
  6. Co-operation among Co-operatives
  7. Concern for Community

The ‘World Declaration on Worker Co-operatives‘ (2005) states that “Worker cooperatives are committed to being governed by the above mentioned Statement on the Cooperative Identity.” The values are the basis for the principles; the principles are the basis for action. I encourage you to read the identity statement in full. It is the result of international effort over 150 years to collectively identify the co-operative movement and provide a set of guidelines for its members to aspire to. In his report for the Co-operative College, ‘Realising the Co-operative University‘, Dan Cook states that “Co-operative principles are academic principles. There is arguably a close alignment between co-operative principles and mainstream academic values.” (paragraphs 3.2 – 3.11)

An academic commons

Co-operatives UK’s model constitution for worker co-operatives, includes the following option on ‘common ownership’. It’s also worth noting that common ownership is compulsory for co-operatives who wish to be funded by Radical Routes.3

“The Co-operative is a common ownership enterprise. If on the winding up or dissolution of the Co-operative any of its assets remain to be disposed of after its liabilities are satisfied, these assets shall not be distributed among the Members, but shall be transferred to some other common ownership co-operative(s), or to Co-operatives UK (or any body that succeeds to its function). If such residual assets cannot be distributed in this manner they shall be transferred to some other organisation(s) whose purpose is to promote and support the co-operative movement and common ownership enterprises. This rule may only be amended by Extraordinary Resolution.”

This is a significant point of constitutional clarification. If a university were constituted on this basis, its scholar-members would collectively ‘own’ the means of knowledge production. However, such co-operatives are not private nor are they public in the way a joint stock company is, despite joint-stock companies representing “the abolition of capital as private property within the confines of the capitalist mode of production itself.”

In Capital Vol.3, Marx argues:

‘”In stock companies the function is divorced from capital ownership, hence also labour is entirely divorced from ownership of means of production and surplus-labour. This result of the ultimate development of capitalist production is a necessary transitional phase towards the reconversion of capital into the property of producers, although no longer as the private property of the individual producers, but rather as the property of associated producers, as outright social property. On the other hand, the stock company is a transition toward the conversion of all functions in the reproduction process which still remain linked with capitalist property, into mere functions of associated producers, into social functions.” (Capital, Vol.3 Ch. 27)

What is different about common ownership to joint stock ownership (neither of which are private forms of ownership) is that common ownership socialises ownership of the means of production among its workers. It is held in trust for future generations of co-operatives. Whereas the joint stock company is “private production unchecked by private ownership”, a workers’ co-operative is social or collective production governed by social or common ownership. Common ownership of the means of knowledge production among scholar-members is also therefore a significant step towards a form of academic labour that is not alienated from its product.

“the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.” (Marx, Capital Vol. 3 Ch. 27)4

In his talk on Marx’s alternative to capitalism, Peter Hudis (around 37 mins in) summarises what Marx deems necessary to eliminate the conditions of alienating value production i.e. freely associated, non-alienated labour.

  1. Extend democracy into the economic sphere, into the workplace.
  2. Workers’ co-operatives. Direct ownership stake and control of the workplace.
  3. Eliminate the social division of labour between ownership and non-ownership. Workers have a direct stake in the outcome of labour.
  4. In control of the workplace, workers would make work less alienating, less harmful.
  5. Co-ordination between co-operatives is needed, nationally and internationally. Democratically elected planning authority, subject to recall.


Depending on the size of the co-operative, governance might be structured in different ways.  The Social Science Centre is intentionally small, an experiment that is intended to be replicated rather than scaled up. Mondragon limits the size of its worker co-operatives to 500 members. If the ‘co-operative university’ is to be constituted and governed as a worker co-op, it is likely to be smaller than existing universities. A variation on ‘self-managing work teams’ (see illustration) seems appropriate to a university and reflective of the semi-autonomous quasi-firm characteristics of many research groups that already exist. Committee structures could reflect this form of governance, too, rather than a hierarchy of committees as is currently the case.

Governance and management structures

Click to enlarge. Image taken from ‘The worker co-operative code’.


The educational mission of the co-operative university is to be determined by its scholar-members. However, based on the history of education in the co-operative movement, we can identify certain themes and practices in the overall curriculum that would effect all its members.

Facer et al (2011) propose three “broad and interwoven currents of aspiration and activity which characterise the emergence of co-operative education from its roots in the 19th century”:

  1. Teaching about co-operation – making visible the alternatives and challenging the social and economic status quo.
  2. Training for co-operation – building co-operative institutions and skills as economic and social resources.
  3. Learning through co-operation – developing co-operative identities, dispositions and habits

Undertaking these activities would, in effect, act as a means of counteracting the uses of higher education for capitalist valorisation, potentially forming a rigorous basis for resistance to capital. It could also act as a way of embedding historical and political subjectivity within the curriculum which would help ensure that the co-operative remains critically self-reflexive. Ironically, one of the criticisms of Mondragon is that workers “do not consider the firms theirs in any meaningful way.” Kasmir (1996) argues that one of the lessons we can learn from Mondragon is that of the “importance of politics, the necessary role of organization, and the continuing value of syndicates and unions for transforming the workplace.” (p.199-200) Scholar-members of a worker co-operative university must regularly question how their mutual work can be reproduced as a critical, social project. “If workplace democracy is to be genuine, it seems that it must be premised on activism.” (Kasmir, 1996, 199)

Three routes to co-operation

I propose three routes to developing a ‘co-operative university’ (or more accurately, an organisational form for ‘co-operative higher education’):

  1. Conversion – systematically convert the values, principles and legal form of an existing university to that of a formally constituted co-operative.
  2. Dissolution – dissolve the ‘neoliberal university’ into a co-operative university by creating co-operatives inside the existing university form. e.g. constitute research groups on co-operative values and principles; design, specify and validate modules and degree programmes so that they embed co-operative values and principles; if necessary, outsource services to an increasing number of co-operative providers; establish the terms of reference for new committees on co-operative values and principles. Continue until the university is effectively transformed into a co-operative organisation from the inside out.
  3. Creation – build a co-operative university from scratch in the  same way that a new co-operative enterprise might be established.

Dan Cook has done important preliminary work with his report for the Co-operative College. It begins to address a number of issues relevant to each of these three approaches but with a greater emphasis on conversion of existing institutions. His report is based on the assumption that a “Co-operative University would necessarily meet the legal definitions of a co-operative and a university, simultaneously.” Route three above does not assume this. It recognises that a ‘university’ in the UK is a legal title, but one which has meaning apart from legislation. Historically, a ‘university’ has simply been a body of scholars who convene to undertake research-based teaching and learning i.e. ‘higher education’. The creation route therefore might entail the creation of a co-operative for higher education which does not carry the legal title of ‘university’ in the UK. A legislated university requires a community of scholars. A community of scholars does not require a legislated university. In that case, our question becomes, ‘Is the worker co-operative form suitable for higher education?’

If Co-operatives UK, or the International Co-operative Alliance agreed to support the creation of such co-operatives for higher education, it could do so based on the principles of ‘democratic member control’ and the ‘autonomy and independence’ of a community of worker-scholars. It would not award government recognised degrees, but it could provide an education at the same level and confer awards that carry meaning, currency and weight beyond the institution.

From each according to their capacity…

In a worker co-operative for higher education (i.e. a ‘university’), we might call workers, ‘scholars’. This does not mean that they are not workers, that they do not work, but is meant to signify (and dignify) the kind of work undertaken by the members of the co-operative. It is also intended to be general enough so as to be inclusive of all types of necessary contribution to the co-operative: teachers are scholars; students are scholars; administrators are scholars; cleaners are scholars; technicians are scholars; caterers are scholars. However, whether these distinct and divided responsibilities remain in a worker co-operative university is to presume the content of the organisation before agreeing its form. To refer to all members as scholars and all scholars as members is one way in which equity among members is constituted.

Whereas in a capitalist university, there is a great diversity of roles and their respective contractual responsibilities (e.g. Senior Lecturer, Professor, Administrator, Undergraduate Student, IT Officer, Finance Officer, etc.), such a division of labour in the institution ensures that the diversity of work within any given role is limited. In a worker co-operative university, as I am conceiving it, there is a singular role of ‘scholar’ but a greater diversity of work and significantly less division of labour. Labour is not divided but is instead communal and direct. According to the individual’s capacity, the teacher is also a student, an administrator, a cleaner, and so on. The most capable members will make the most diverse and therefore enriching contribution to the university. This is not to suggest that the most capable scholars should be ‘over-worked’, burdened with menial work, or that everyone does everything. With a greater number of members partaking in  undesirable but necessary work than is ordinarily the case, ‘light work’ would be made of such tasks and it is expected that more time would be available for enjoyable, satisfying and less alienating work. Also, a co-operative university need not do everything that a modern university aims to do.

This brings me to a point which I will elaborate on at a later date: the organisational form should be an expression of the pedagogical relationship between teacher-student-scholar-members i.e. ‘scholars’. The pedagogical relationship is a social relationship which, if appropriate, is given expression through a co-operative constitution. Kasmir (1996) makes this point in her reflections on the ‘myth of Mondragon’, arguing that we must “be skeptical of models that make business forms rather than people the agents of social change.” (p. 196).

The relationship between teacher and student (i.e. scholars) is one of the core principles of Student as Producer, which I will return to soon.

“The idea of student as producer encourages the development of collaborative relations between student and academic for the production of knowledge. However, if this idea is to connect to the project of refashioning in fundamental ways the nature of the university, then further attention needs to be paid to the framework by which the student as producer contributes towards mass intellectuality. This requires academics and students to do more than simply redesign their curricula, but go further and redesign the organizing principle, (i.e. private property and wage labour), through which academic knowledge is currently being produced.” (Neary & Winn, 2009, 137)

Related reading

  • On co-operative values and principles, I can recommend two chapters by the principle author of the ICA Statement, Ian MacPherson:
  • “Speech Introducing the Co-operative Identity Statement to the 1995 Manchester Conference of the ICA”. This is published in MacPherson’s One Path to Co-operative Studies, on pp. 201-17.
  • “The International Co-operative Movement Today: the Impact of the 1995 Co-operative Identity Statement of the ICA”, which can be found on pages 255-273 of the same book.
  • On the history of co-operative education in general, I found the following interesting and useful:
  • Tom Woodin (2011) “Cooperative education in the nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries: context, identity and learning
  • Facer, K. Thorpe, J and Shaw, L (2011) Co-operative Education and Schools: An old idea for new times? The BERA Conference, September 6th 2011, London, UK
  • All of the above texts have formed part of this term’s Social Science Centre course, ‘Co-operation and Education’.
  • Peter Hudis’ PhD thesis (in particular pp.256-264) provides a good discussion on joint stock vs. common ownership in the context of Marx’s writing on worker co-operatives.
  • Articles relating to Student as Producer can be found here, under ‘articles’.
  • I am also maintaining a bibliography specifically about co-operative higher education.
  1. The 2005 Declaration is intended to “define at world level some basic characters and internal operational rules that are exclusive to this type of cooperatives, which have specific goals and purposes that differ from cooperatives belonging to other categories.” []
  2. We discussed the ICA ‘Statement of Identity, Values and Principles’ at the Social Science Centre. Notes from the classes are here and here. []
  3. see page 57-58 of ‘How to set up a Workers’ Coop‘. []
  4. I have discussed this idea elsewhere. []

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