Towards a Cooperative University: A Manifesto of Ideas and Influence

The UCU branch at Queen Margaret University are in dispute with their employer over plans to cut 40 full time equivalent jobs – up to 10% of the university’s workforce – and the refusal to rule out compulsory redundancies.  In the recent ballot 64% of those voting backed strike action and strike days are now planned for February.  The branch believe that the university have not fully explored options other than redundancies and have prepared this manifesto to stimulate debate around a different future for the university:

Towards a Cooperative University: A Manifesto of Ideas and Influence

Higher Education is facing a crisis, and this is being felt acutely at Queen Margaret University. University and College Union (UCU), the biggest union representing academic and professional support staff at the university, is currently in dispute with our employers over cuts and job losses.

The crisis is not just caused by QMU Management or Governing Body. Higher Education has been persistently underfunded in Scotland for ten years or more, through successive cuts to the budget from the Scottish Government. Warnings, especially for smaller institutions, came from Audit Scotland’s 2016 report. UCU believes that the Government is right to stick to its ‘no fees’ policy, but without adequate funding, this alone will not stop commercialisation. At the same time, we recognise that the funding shortage is not the only cause of the crisis.

There is a serious problem of governance in higher education. As with many public services, universities have been infected by the corrupting influence of marketisation, privatisation and ‘new public management’. This was recognised by the von Prondzynski commission in 2012. The 2016 Higher Education Governance Act made some improvements, but already, before it is fully implemented, this is clearly inadequate to prevent the crisis. New ideas are needed and this ‘manifesto of ideas and influence’ is a contribution.

The ideas in this manifesto do not represent UCU policy, nor should they be interpreted as an alternative to an adequately funded education sector, from cradle to grave. They reflect proposals from UCU members at QMU to Management in an attempt to avoid redundancies and staffing cuts. They include short term union demands that could prevent the cuts and job losses, and longer term ideas that the union wishes to discuss and test in the pursuit of alternatives to the failed austerity and marketisation. We hope they will be relevant to others with an interest in a sustainable future for higher education in Scotland.

That is why we have borrowed QMU’s strapline and called this a ‘Manifesto of Ideas and Influence’. UCU at QMU believe that, if Governors and Senior Management were true to this strapline, they would join with the staff and their union representatives in building the alternative, not cutting staff.

QMU is a wonderful institution. It is small, intimate, open, vibrant and relevant to the real world. It is in many ways a great place to work and a great place to study. It has provided high quality graduates to the NHS and other public services, and has been at the cutting edge of innovation, from speech science to mad studies, gastronomy to public sociology, from local communities to global conflict zones. Its international partnerships in Nepal, Singapore, India, Egypt and Greece support a shared sense of community. Students regularly report how they value the relationship with teaching staff and the opportunity to develop a learning community. Staff routinely report that their work is valued by students and their colleagues. Until recently, unions have enjoyed constructive relations with Senior Management. However, recent developments, and the logic of misplaced corporate governance, have pitted Court and Management against the university, its staff and their representatives. QMU is a good institution, but its size and public commitment makes is vulnerable to the damage caused by commercialisation.

The University’s roots and history lie in the innovations of the nineteenth century women’s movement who believed in the idea (at the time considered to be dangerously radical) that women of all classes are entitled to education. Our founders demanded women’s education but also made it happen by establishing the educational institution which became QMU. We need to believe in radical ideas for the future: in our demands and in our practice. UCU believes that the best of QMU can thrive, if faith is put in the staff who make the university work. The failed experiments with austerity, commercialisation and managerialism must be rejected in favour of a Cooperative University.

Ideas: alternatives for a cooperative university

These proposals include ideas that have been suggested by UCU members and deserve to be explored and debated. They are not UCU policy and are among several options for a more sustainable and democratic university. We introduce them for debate and for encouraging other proposals. We invite senior management to join the unions in working on these ideas together, in order to develop viable alternatives for the future of the university. The important thing to emphasise is that there are alternatives, and we should all be part of creating them. We welcome wider discussion in the sector on these ideas.

The people who do the work of the university are the staff – who teach students, conduct research, outreach to communities and provide professional services and support. University staff generally know how to do their jobs and are well supported when we have a collegiate atmosphere, without too much management interference. Good managers recognise this and are accountable to those they lead. However, the marketisation of the university demands ever increasing managerial activities, to predict and provide for markets, commercialise research, prepare tenders, respond to spurious league table results and implement top-down performance management. Serious problems are caused when decisions about the future of courses are made and imposed by senior managers watching market trends and short term budgets, who treat knowledge as ‘commercially sensitive’ and academic colleagues in other institutions as ‘competitors’. The choice of courses suffers, the teaching suffers and research also suffers from top-down competition.

The university trade unions are a fertile place where academics, professionals and support staff meet together from different disciplines and with diverse skills, but with the common objective of making the university work in the interests of those who make the university work. What’s good for students is what is good for staff, and likely to be good for the public services and community organisations with whom the university collaborates. QMU rightly prides itself on the quality of its teaching, which it is ideally placed to develop through cooperation, not through competition. Staff, students and civil society together can develop a cooperative pedagogy and a socially relevant curriculum.

The premise must be to build on the strengths of our staff, not cut them. We need open and transparent debates about the future of divisions and programmes, in which those with the expertise can develop the courses of the future. This is best done in partnership with students, public services, community groups, sectors and workplaces identified by the staff who work in these areas. At the same time, this needs to be supported by staff with expertise in quality assurance to speed up the process from concept to delivery whilst minimising bureaucracy, and by teams resourced to provide the marketing and promotion.

The university should direct its best resources – its staff – to the core activities of delivering and supporting education and research, and away from futile and damaging managerialism. QMU could withdraw from the NSS and the farce of competitive league tables based on spurious data, and replace it with cooperative assessments of quality through community engagement. We could abandon top down performance management and replace it with collegiate professional development. Managers could be elected and accountable to those that they manage. Performance in education and research is best enhanced collegially. Court needs to reflect the interests of the community and in particular, those who can better benefit from higher education: community organisations, advocacy groups, trade unions representing the staff of major employers such as the NHS, in addition to campus trade unions and student representatives. The governance reforms of the 2016 Act are inadequate to the task, but much can be improved without more legislation through openness, transparency and deliberative recruitment of Court members to reflect the community.

A cooperative university is beneficial for all staff: academic, professional, technical and support. By contrast, in the past 10 years, QMU has outsourced catering, cleaning, maintenance and security to private, for-profit companies. The staff who were transferred into these private companies, and subsequent recruits, have seen their terms and conditions deteriorate and determined by remote, finance driven managers over which trade unions have little leverage. Lower job security and working conditions has led to a significant increase in turnover of staff. Morale is low, instances of bullying are high and so are those of sickness. Sickness and maternity entitlement is lower than it was in house. Despite this, QMU is proposing to outsource more of its campus services. The privatisation of the university must stop. Services brought back in house or local non-profit organisations would lead to a much more efficiently run university with secure, motivated employees.

During the dispute over the 2018-19 cuts at QMU, unions proposed selling part of the campus to a cooperative, owned by the community, which would have an interest in the use of the campus and its services for social benefit. Community stakeholders might include staff, unions, students, local people, community organisations and local businesses. Shares could be owned by many people in the community for the benefit of the community. Rejecting the idea, management claimed that it would jeopardise the university’s income stream from its campus, and compared the idea with Private Finance Initiative (PFI), the failed experiment with attracting private investment capital into public infrastructure. UCU opposes PFI and other forms of ownership by private investors. A campus is a place of learning, not a financial investment! Cooperative (or beneficial) owners would not expect a financial return but rather a social benefit and could negotiate appropriate access to its facilities, including library, internet cafe, teaching rooms, services, and lectures. Community accountability would be built into the structure of the university, rather than treated as the largesse of corporate responsibility.

If this had been taken up when first mooted it could have injected some short term funding into the university and stopped the cuts, avoided job losses, and enabled staff efforts to focus on growth. However, the value of cooperative ownership is far greater than a short term injection of cash, it enables the university to become a genuinely civic body, owned and used for social benefit by the community. In the Basque-Spanish city of Mondragón the local university is cooperatively owned by its staff and students. (Wright, S., Greenwood, D. and Boden, R. 2011 ‘Report on a field visit to Mondragon University: a cooperative experience/experiment’ Learning and Teaching: The International Journal of Higher Education in the Social Sciences (LATISS) Vol. 4 No 3: 38-56.) Whilst Mondragón, in the epicentre of cooperatives in Europe, is not a model that can simply be transferred to Scotland, we need to find ways of cooperative ownership for QMU and this could have implications for the Scottish university sector.

There are many alternative models for how the university can become more cooperative – in which staff, students and the local community – all who have stake in the university’s future, have a genuine stake in the decisions about its strategy, a share in its ownership. (Wright, S. and Greenwood, D.J. 2017 Universities run for, by and with the faculty, students and staff: Alternatives to the neoliberal destruction of higher education. LATISS Vol 10 No 1 42-65) Some scholars have called this a ‘Trust University’, a university based on trust, not on competition. (Boden, R., Ciancanelli, P. and Wright, S. 2012 Trust universities? Governance for post-capitalist futures. Journal of Co-operative Studies 45 No 2: 16-24.) This could be valuable in itself, the university would be better run, it would tackle the kind of managerialism and unaccountability of managers and of Court members to those who have a stake in the decisions that they make; it could constrain senior management pay and link it to a multiple of the lowest paid staff. It would enable us to transfer our IT to free and open source software, use some seminar rooms for public debates and find other ways to take the university beyond its borders. Significant research and innovation in this area already exists (See, for example, the special issue of LATISS Vol 10 Issue 1, Spring 2017): QMU can draw on this expertise to develop models appropriate to the context and beneficiaries of our university.

An exploration of such models could be an inspiration and a stepping stone in the struggle against austerity, privatisation and for democracy and social justice. . The Scottish government who were elected on an anti-austerity, pro-education and pro-NHS platform, has an opportunity and a responsibility to provide political support as well as adequate funds to protect and promote a higher education sector that is cooperative, democratic and sustainable.

Another university is possible

QMU is a good place to study and work, but this is threatened by the crisis in higher education governance. This can change: QMU can be a cooperative university, not commercial or managerial or conflictual. If Senior Management and Court are willing to share that goal, UCU will play its part in working with them in moving towards it.

This is a manifesto of ideas and influence. It is not a ‘solution’ to the crisis of higher education, but contains proposals which could make the university more robust in a hostile economic climate. It would reduce the risk of compulsory redundancies from fluctuations in the market for education. It is a cry that a ’solution’ based on austerity and commercialisation is a false solution. Some decisions must be taken urgently in order to protect the staff who will deliver the change. Another university is possible, in which the interests of higher education are the common interests of its staff and students, communities and wider public, together aspiring to a revival of the Scottish tradition of an accessible, independent and public-orientated university in pursuit of the democratic intellect.

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