Higher Education in the Social Economy

This is naked thinking on systemic higher education reform aimed at moving higher education from the capitalist to the social economy.  It discusses use of the existing co-operative service/business model as a plausible global strategic response to the crisis in higher education, with some notes on integrating elements of the professional service/business model.

I hold certain views about the higher education circumstance as backdrop for this reasoning:
1)      The current offending system is composed of a triad of functionaries (institutional service providers/government funding/union labour representation);
2)      No (desirable) new or reallocated money is available to this paradigm;
5)      The service provided by academics is authoritative;
6)      Academic labour holds a unique place in the economy;
7)      Higher education is a public good that should be provided in the social (not capitalist) economy; and
8)      Technology in education will eventually replace the service provided by academics (education and research), as it is now doing with the institutions that employ them (universities and colleges). 

I take a biological (not blueprint) approach to the suggestion that the co-operative model (perhaps in conjunction with the professional) be used as an alternative to the triad, acknowledging that a myriad of regional and global influences factor into its actual implementation.

This diagram illustrates the arrangement I have in mind:

Existing Infrastructure and Lessons for Strategy
During the 1920s in the province of Nova Scotia, Canada, where I was born and largely educated, there was initiated a Catholic socialism movement by two remarkable individuals, Fathers Moses Coady and Jimmy Thomkins.  The effort was referred to as the, Antigonish Movement, that among other notable accomplishments helped found the Coady International Institute at St. Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

During the 1940s across the Atlantic in the Basque region of Spain a co-operative movement was begun by another Catholic cleric with roots in a town devastated by fascism.  The Mondragon co-operative movement started by, Don Jose Maria Arizmendiarrieta, is now one of the largest co-operative federations in the world and includes its own accredited university, Mondragon University.

The list goes on.  These and other examples of co-operative organization for the provision of manufacture, retail, education, banking, healthcare, and other services is reason to believe the same can be done for higher education and research on a grand scale.

There is a network of established co-operatives that have achieved up and down stream as well as horizontal diversification on an institutional, regional, national and global scale.

Among other lessons culled from these success stories, for one co-operative to succeed there needs to be a support network of specialized co-ops, including two important satellites: education and finance.  Where these sectors have been developed and well integrated within and without a federated co-operative such movements tend to succeed.

Along with other requirements for a successful co-operative movement, I would add the following, access to supportive legal counsel and advocacy.  An institution such as the Peoples’ College of Law in, California, might make an excellent co-operative member.  They are a fringe college with official recognition and a solid social benefit philosophy.

Both Mondragon University and the Peoples’ College of Law stand to gain.  If the PCL were affiliated in some way under the MU co-operative umbrella (as part of the Mondragon Co-operative Corporation) then Los Angels based PCL can get a foothold in an accredited university (albeit not for law) while the college brings its unaccredited but recognized degree granting status in law.  There are other grounds for mutual benefit and optimism for such an affiliation: international education ties for both co-ops; cultural and language similarities; access to co-operative funds to expand the PCL and MU, including their influence; and shared principles.

This is an example of the type of federation that would be potent backing for a global co-operative movement in higher education.

Co-operative Principles and Education
Education has always been a necessary feature of co-ops, explicitly built into the Rochdale Principles.   But it has normally been in aid of making co-operatives more widely understood or successful in operations.  The idea is to reach beyond this and expand higher education as a global co-operative movement.

The Mondragon University exception is rooted in decades of vocational, child, worker and adult education programs that prove at least as successful and innovative as public and private versions.  There exist educational exceptions in the US as well where 90 or so secondary teacher cooperative schools have demonstrated the success of teacher owned and operated schools.

Much of the historical credit and technical/strategic support required for such a movement is already available in stellar examples such as Mondragon or Lega in Italy and others around the world, but also in shaken though still deeply rooted examples such as the Antigonish Movement.

There is respect and understanding for co-operative ventures in education upon which to build, as Mondragon University demonstrates.

MU is accredited with a very small but actual Humanities Faculty (education and media/communication) and along with other mega-federations has a strong co-operative banking system that is active in student and institutional financial aid.  Couple this with advocacy from a law school like the PCL and its socially oriented alumni and more elbow room can be made for higher education in the social economy.

As should be clear to every academic our labour is unlike that typically found in co-operative movements (including educational) - and so is our civic responsibility.  Academic labour is in an important sense distinguished by its authority and place in the economy.  Whether it is the manufacture of prefab factories, the sale of retail goods or improvement in grain yield, academics generate and disseminate the knowledge required for success and innovation in these and other sectors of society.  The relationship is basic and solemn.

Pioneers of the co-operative model during the Industrial Revolution made it clear that control of our labour is control of our economy, but also that control of our economy is control of our labour.

Higher education is arguably the master control, with perhaps the most valuable of labour providing the most valuable of services.  Control of this basic economic and social resource must be placed squarely in the social economy, in the hands of academics.  One way to achieve this is to move the resource to the social economy under the protection and direction of the co-operative model.

Notes on Modification
There might be a need or desire to introduce certain key characteristics of the professional model to higher education run as a co-operative.

The salient reasons that independently recommend introduction of the professional model as an organizational and financial alternative to the triad are the same that recommend its use within a co-operative higher education model. 

Consider one reason.

Mondragon University is a remarkable institution with unique operations and reasonable tuition (which is never a bar to attendance thanks to credit union resources), but it is an institution.  It is a means of facilitating higher education on par with the universities and colleges of the triad.  Including its high cost and limited access, we are now painfully aware this model has significant deficiencies that indicate it cannot (and should not) be sustained.

The professional model is a way to lower and better control higher education costs while increasing access to academics - along with response to other deficiencies of the triad - from within a co-operative of the social economy.

Co-ops contain businesses that range in organization from factory operations to cottage industry, and with services in scope from banks to insurance.  The notion of an independent professional academic in private higher education practice should not be barred.  In fact there exist co-operative practices within the legal and medical professional community.

Such an original application of the professional model to academic labour owning and operating medium to large scale practices under co-operative principles is possible and I think preferable to the the capitalist based triad model that now dominates the world scene.


  1. Fascinating. As an outsider to your field, I would, however, like to understand more about the "professional model", which seems only introduced toward the end of the piece. That is to say, how does that differ from the current system in which most academics in today's economy are essentially independent contractors to more than one university?

    1. Hello Arik,

      Thank you for the comment. I suggest the following posts:

      1) http://bit.ly/1iWdCEU - A 35 page doc on the entire model.
      2) http://bit.ly/1mXUBCb - A blog post on how universities and colleges could be vendors for us in academics practice (not our employers)
      3) http://bit.ly/1t52kEn - Article at The Evolllution.com on how academics could indeed be professional contractors/vendors for universities and colleges.

      I do see we are "essentially independent contractors" (much like attorneys or physicians were before formal professionalization), but there things stand out as distinct for me:

      1) Actual "independent contractors" - instead of those that are merely "essentially" like them - are entrepreneurs with their own real businesses in place and adjuncts are not.
      2) Adjuncts want to secure (and are doing so in larger numbers everywhere in the US and Canada) union represented employment positions (contracts) with institutions, so even if the "independent contractor" descriptor was accurate it is quickly fading.
      3) Adjunct academics do not sell their service directly to students (their main client), nor do students seek directly from academics their services, but rather the two are brought together through the institution intermediaries/facilitators - which I claim are unnecessary and detrimental. (See http://bit.ly/1r8UrvT).

      I hope the posts and this short list of differences helps make things from my point of view a little clearer. I also hope we can continue this dialogue or that you know others who might like to join the conversation.


  2. Hi, Shawn:
    Excellent material. I am very interested. I've skimmed the materials as best I can in a short period of time. I suppose that I am still somewhat confused about the differences between the Professional Model and the Co-operative Model. When I originally read your piece, it seemed as if the Co-op model incorporated the makings of the Professional Model; but I see you are suggesting a hybrid between the two, which suggests that the Professional Model is substantially different.

    As a committed union activist, I don't know if I see the triad the same way you do. In my view, the current model - as it has played out in the last four decades in the US at least - has largely excluded the labor unions, yielding more of a dyad than a triad. At least in private institutions, unions have been shoved aside and are only now coming back into the picture. Within public institutions alone, have unions had a substantial role. With that said, I think that the model you suggest is not entirely in opposition to some level of unionization, or guild-construction. Just my thoughts. For the moment, I will passionately continue to seek the unionization of all higher ed faculty everywhere, but am open to and interested in your model as an ideal to work toward, while those of us who have been dispossessed and disempowered seek to fill our bellies.

    I'd be delighted to keep the conversation going so that we can try to salvage our profession.

    1. Hi Arik,

      The connection between the co-operative and professional models is subtle - and both can stand on their own. Incidentally, Rebecca Schuman (of @pankisseskafka) is serious about starting a co-operative university with me. How about you?

      An example of a co-operative higher education model that does not include elements of the professional model is the University of Mondragon. This is an institution that employs academics, administrators, professional and support staff on a campus with facilities, equipment, etc. - just like UCLA or Stanford - but some of those people are co-operatively employed. In this sense co-operative employment at such an institution introduces a fuller, stronger form of "shared governance" than that found now in the institutional model - one vote, one person is the operative moto of co-operatives, but not UCLA or Stanford. This is owner/operator employ, not labour for sale employ.

      An example of a professional higher education model does not exist, though I work to introduce it. Restricting discussion to me, I would be licensed by my Professional Society of Academics to practice higher education in philosophy independently of any institution that employed me, paid salary/benefits to me, supplied me with office/lecture space, etc. As a licensed independent practitioner I would arrange for all of this on my own as countless individuals have done in the professions for over a century. I believe higher education can be and should be offered on this model.

      Combining the two it looks something like this: If a group of independent practitioners decide they want to form a firm/partnership (or if you like a university or department of philosophy) I recommend that they do so with each private academic practice as the the basic unit but held together by co-operative principles - so one vote, one practice. The co-operative university or department might want to pool support services or facilities but ultimately the individual practice can stand on its own. Certainly each practice would be an equal owner of the university or department - which is one important way in which this is not simply the reproduction of existing institutions like UCLA or Stanford.

      As to unionization I think that it is a partial and ultimately losing proposition - both of which are a consequence of the fact that unions require employers and in this case unsustainable institutions, which will not be improved by unionization but rather will increase costs and is at any rate tangential to the problem of access to higher education faced by both academics and students.

      This brings me to the charge of partiality. Because unionization assumes the continuance of these institutions it does nothing to address the fact that many qualified individuals who want to exercise their right to earn a living as an academic cannot do so solely because universities and colleges cannot accommodate them. They cannot afford to hire or supply them with space and support staff, period. So many sit on the outside without even the hope of union represented employment. So unionization is of necessity protection for a portion (a fraction) of the academics that would like to provide their expertise to the public, because the current institutional model provides limited access to academics (and students to academics).

      As to unionization being a losing proposition consider that technology is replacing/reducing the labour component of nearly all services and academia is no exception. If institutions are allowed to remain the fulcrum of higher education service - as opposed to the independent professional academic practice - then even fewer academics will have access to institutional employ or the right to earn a living as an academic. The introduction of MOOCs but the start. There is nothing that unionization can do to stop this, as evinced by its impotence in all other service and manufacturing sectors.

      So if the aim is to salvage our profession, the I believe unionization is a short-term, partial.


  3. Great blog to understand about the higher education and how it plays an important role in social economy with excellent collection of information.
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