Is the worker co-operative form suitable for a university? (Part 1)

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, writes about the notion of the university as a workers’ co-operative.

Were a university run as a worker co-operative, it would likely be characterised by the following definition, approved by the International Co-operative Alliance in 20051.

Worker cooperatives contain the following basic characters:

  1. They have the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, to improve the quality of life of its worker-members, dignify human work, allow workers’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development.
  2. The free and voluntary membership of their members, in order to contribute with their personal work and economic resources, is conditioned by the existence of workplaces.
  3. As a general rule, work shall be carried out by the members. This implies that the majority of the workers in a given worker cooperative enterprise are members and vice versa.
  4. The worker-members’ relation with their cooperative shall be considered as different to that of conventional wage-based labour and to that of autonomous individual work.
  5. Their internal regulation is formally defined by regimes that are democratically agreed upon and accepted by the worker-members.
  6. They shall be autonomous and independent, before the State and third parties, in their labour relations and management, and in the usage and management of the means of production.

Using this declaration, we might re-phrase it in language more suited to higher education. In my conception of a co-operative university, there is no formal distinction between a member who undertakes research, teaching, cleaning, administration, etc. As such, there is no formal distinction between teacher or student either. In such an organisation, scholars would research, teach, study, learn, undertake administration and clean. The division of labour would be democratically governed so that it is radically less divided. I therefore refer to all members as ‘scholars’ through their diverse contribution to the production of knowledge. This was something we discussed at length during the formation of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln.  The intention here is the dissolution of production and consumption and therefore the dissolution of exchange value and simultaneously the dissolution of value mediated by exchange. As ‘scholars’, those individuals in a truly democratic organisation relate to one-another directly.  Abolishing the formal distinction between teacher and student raises a number of questions that I will address elsewhere (e.g. without such an exchange relation, how does the co-operative generate wealth? What is its relationship with other organisations and with the State?)

So, to re-phrase the above definition:

A co-operative university contains the following basic characters:

  1. This university has the objective of creating and maintaining sustainable jobs and generating wealth, to improve the quality of life of its scholars, dignify human work, allow scholars’ democratic self-management and promote community and local development.
  2. The free and voluntary membership of its members, in order to contribute with their personal work and economic resources, is conditioned by the existence of workplaces.
  3. As a general rule, work shall be carried out by the members. This implies that the majority of the scholars in the university are members and vice versa.
  4. The scholar-members’ relation with their university shall be considered as different to that of conventional wage-based labour and to that of autonomous individual work.
  5. Their internal regulation is formally defined by regimes that are democratically agreed upon and accepted by the scholar-members.
  6. They shall be autonomous and independent, before the State and third parties, in their labour relations and management, and in the usage and management of the means of production.

A few notes:

When I use the term, ‘university’, I mean any site, physical or virtual, where scholars (i.e. teachers and students) convene for the purposes of research-based teaching and learning. I anticipate that a co-operative university would, in some ways, redefine what a university might be, and by extension, what we mean by ‘higher education’, too. In defining a ‘co-operative university’, we also have to re-define, or drop altogether, related key terms (e.g. higher education, university, student, teacher, research, knowledge, etc.)

Worker co-operatives are defined in productivist language. This may seem at odds with some people’s understanding of a university, thinking that it primarily exists to ‘educate’ and not to ‘produce’. My own view is that a capitalist university (that is, a university funded by a capitalist state or a university operating in a capitalist market), exists for the production of value in the commodity form of knowledge, and for the self-reproduction of workers and therefore of capital. The university is, therefore, a ‘means of production’. If we are against this tendency, there is a danger that by adopting the worker co-operative form we reinforce the productivist character of the university. However, I think there is much to be gained from drawing on the history and experience of the (worker) co-operative movement, and that it might be seen as a transitional form to a post-capitalist form of social relations.

For a general introduction to worker co-operatives see:

Wikipedia: Worker cooperative

How to set up a Worker’s Co-op (PDF)

The worker co-operative code (PDF)

Worker co-operative case studies

On Marx, socialism and worker co-operatives (and my initial critique), see:

The association of free and equal producers

Notes towards a critique of ‘Labour Managed Firms’

  1. Full statement can be downloaded here []

This post originally appeared here: http://josswinn.org/2014/03/is-the-worker-co-operative-form-suitable-for-a-university-part-1/

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