The Co-operative University

By Anne Winther, 16 December 2017

On the 9th November I had the absolute pleasure of attending the UK’s first Co-operative University Conference at the Co-operative College in Manchester. I was expecting a small gathering, so I was blown away by the large loft style conference venue full of approximately 80 delegates from across the UK and Europe; all had the same dream of creating a Co-operative University. Representing the Centre for Human Ecology, I thought I was the only attendee from Scotland, but by chance sat next to the group of students from the Edinburgh Student Housing Co-operative, who own and operate their own student lodgings in a city which has some of the most expensive accommodation in Europe.

There’s an array of adult and higher educational institutions in the UK that are already operating co-operatively outside the traditional university system. It’s not just CHE, but the Free University Brighton, R.E.D. Learning Co-operative, Social Science Centre Lincoln, and Leicester Vaughan College are all examples of co-operative institutions that wish to become co-operative universities. Some already have graduate and post-graduate level courses, but none have acquired the official title of “university” and the ability to award degrees. Obtaining this coveted accreditation is no easy task requiring: evidence of five years quality education; a minimum of £60,000 to pay for the academic and financial scrutiny; and the Privy Council to grant degree awarding powers (N.B. the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 gives a new body — the Office for Students — power to authorise a registered education provider to grant degrees, but this is English, not Scottish legislation. One of the actions arising from the conference is to investigate what this means in practice for a UK-wide federated co-operative university.). This makes the dream of being a “university” out of reach for any individual institution, unless it has a wealthy benefactor.

At the conference, we heard how Mondragon University in Spain operates as a federated co-operative university — a model which offers one of many possibilities for creating the UK’s first Co-operative University. In the afternoon, we broke into workshops to generate ideal models for the University’s governance, finances, accreditation and curricula for the Co-operative University. These ideas are going forward to a new Co-operative Academic Board and CHE is excited to be part of this Co-operative University development.

For me 2017 has been full of synchronicities; one of these was the outcome of the curricula afternoon workshop almost identically mirroring Luke Devlin synopsis of the CHE’s vision for co-operative education:

I see three elements to CHE’s version of co-operative education:

Education AS co-operation. The structure: hybrid co-op. Multi stakeholders. Worker’s co-op for academic/admin roles. Students join as stakeholders taking responsibility for education and ‘learning by doing’: creating possibilities for work opportunities upon ‘graduation’

Education FOR co-operation. Elements of the proposed curriculum contain needed training and education on co-operative values, methods and history. Overview of history of the movement domestically and internationally, overview of models, methods and ways of working.

Education WITH co-operation. The building of each year’s student learning community is an exercise in applied practical educational co-operation, built on educational principles emerging from the generalist democratic intellect. CHE has a recognised history of this unique approach, often called ‘the Scottish school of human ecology’

If you would like a full overview of this approach — including descriptions of what the courses historically looked like in practice and how they fostered a distinctive type of co-operative education — see the two chapters The Challenge of Radical Human Ecology & Teaching Radical Human Ecology in the Academy by Alastair McIntosh in Radical Human Ecology: Intercultural and Indigenous Approaches (Ashgate 2012).


Cook, D. (2013). Realising the Co-operative University. A Consultancy Report for The Cooperative College.

Neary, M. & Winn, J .(2017). Beyond Public and Private: A Framework for Co-operative Higher Education.

QAA (2016). Degree Awarding Powers and University Title in Scotland Guidance and Criteria for Applicants.