What can faculty association do?

Higher Education for a Democratic Society (Part II)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014

In attendance at the Future U conference were many people who not only believe in the transformative power of higher education and its importance for democratic life and social justice, but who also assert their right and responsibility to ensure that the university fulfils this function, and who have confidence that it is within their power, largely through collective political and cultural action, to do so. This does not mean that they are always successful; it was clear that there are tensions, and that the ongoing structural transformation of the university into a capitalist enterprise is increasingly difficult to shift here as well. But the fact that many Canadian universities remain public and have functional or partially functional systems of meaningful faculty governance suggests that there is something significant about the faculty association.

Faculty associations, as constituted in Canadian and American universities, are precisely that: associations of faculty members (i.e., academics) which give them collective voice to speak for the well-being of both academic workers and the educational and academic environments of the university. With no single national union, in most universities faculty have their own associations and many of these are united into larger confederated associations. Faculty associations tend to be distinct from affiliate associations and unions of university and educational support workers and students, and in some instances are divided into associations for tenured and untenured (i.e., part-time and contingent) faculty and graduate students; however, at the conference there were stories of some successful strategic alliances between these associations at both institutional and regional levels.

Faculty associations are not necessarily unions, although they serve primarily a similar purpose within individual universities and, in certain regions of Canada, as confederations. Many faculty associations are unionised, a fewer number are not unionised either by choice or due to legal prohibitions on unionisation in particular areas, and some are in the process of debating whether they should unionise or not. I do not yet understand the nuances of the relationship between the faculty association, the unionised faculty association and the union; however:

  • without a ‘national pay scale’ or ‘national bargaining scheme’, faculty associations are instrumental in negotiating policies on pay, working hours and conditions, economic benefits including child care, pensions, and health care at individual institutions and are often the only recognised collective bargaining agents at such; and


  • faculty associations that are not unionised neither fall under the authority of nor have the legal protection of the relevant labour relations code, which means that university administrations may restrict the scope of matters which may be negotiated, and unresolved disputes between a faculty association and a university administration would be resolved through the courts rather than through a labour board.

A fuller discussion of the ‘unionisation debate’ from the perspective of British Columbia can be found here. What is more interesting in a UK context, however, is the somewhat broader notion (even where only notional) of faculty association as a form of professional and political organisation that can, under certain circumstances, enable collective action in matters of university governance itself. It asserts that the faculty members, along with other members of the university community, not only have the right to fair working conditions and wages also the right and the responsibility more generally to meaningfully participate in the economic, political and cultural governance of the institution itself. This means not only contributing to negotiations, deliberation on decision-making committees and representing wider interests on Academic Senates, but participating in steering and shaping the overall regulation, direction and day-to-day running of the university. It also means that members of the university have a duty to respond critically to any educational policy which is harmful to education, students, academics or support workers, particularly when it is created by and imposed from non-academic centres of power. While this rarely looks like direct democracy, it often involves not a little direct action.

An even broader function is described in the mandate of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, which is to ‘maintain and enhance the quality of higher education in Ontario, and to advance the professional and economic interests of teachers, researchers and librarians in Ontario universities’, and to ‘ensure that the views of its member associations are communicated to government policy makers, the public, and those concerned with the quality and accessibility of post-secondary education’.

This confederation of faculty associations seems a union-plus: a professional association for economic, political and cultural empowerment and collective action that works in an integrated way. Collective bargaining over pay and conditions is a central part of this work, but part of a broader range of activities which aim to transform the internal and external conditions in which such bargains are deliberated and struggled for. These include:

  • maintaining a system of internal communications through which all members of the university community can discuss issues of concern, circulate and have access to critical information about decision-making plans and processes within the university administration, present and consider alternative proposals put forward by other members of the community, and learn about significant reports, analysis and events, thus facilitating internal organisation;


  • maintaining a system of external communications through which faculty members can connect with people outside the university community, sharing news and analysis (which may be particularly important if the university’s public relations work does not accurately or adequately represent the voices of students, support workers and faculty members, thus facilitating external organisation and alliances and gaining possibilities to learn about the educational and research needs of local communities; and


  • meeting, disseminating information to and negotiating with a range of bodies beyond the university administration which have an interest or stake in university governance and financing, including government ministers and civil servants, members of political parties, state and non-governmental organisations;


  • providing statistical information and research on trends in higher education ‘for faculty negotiating purposes’ and running or sponsoring workshops towards this end; and


  • and doing a wide range of other stuff, from recognising good work in scholarship and activism, to granting scholarships and organising conferences on critical issues.

No single faculty association does all of this, and Canadian universities has their own politics and particularities because they are relatively autonomous. Nevertheless, the notion of a faculty association that has a broad interest in promoting and educating its members and society as well as struggling for workplace democracy as well as defending workers’ and students employment rights is an interesting one.

This is because the struggle for the university today is not located in only in its consequences; the immediate things that cause us trouble. These must be addressed. But the privatisation and corporatisation of higher education has been taking place for such a long time through a wide range of activities and practices, regulatory and financial operations, policies and recommendations, and campaigns of cultural and intellectual change – some governmental and nebulous, and others contrived. The structural transformation and re-functioning of higher education has advanced as an incremental, cumulative and contested historical project: a general direction of social forces that results from making a ‘determinate choice, seizure of one among other ways of comprehending, organizing and transforming reality’ in a way that ‘defines the range of possibilities open on this way, and precludes alternatives’ (Marcuse 1964, p. 219). Challenges to this, and alternatives, must therefore be just as wide-ranging and comprehensive, and include a range of different kinds of actions and activities. It would be interesting to consider how an organisation such as the American Association of University Professors has responded in this environment, given its historical purpose to ‘advance academic freedom and shared governance, to define fundamental professional values and standards for higher education, and to ensure higher education’s contribution to the common good’.

Within the current conditions and for the foreseeable future, collective bargaining for fair pay and conditions, adequate pensions, the protection and dignity of part-time and casual workers is an essential part of keeping academic labour fair. It could be even stronger if we dedicate equal work on the ground and in practice to the grassroots democratisation of faculty, university-wide and cross-university political and economic governance. There has been some discussion of university governance in the UCU in recent years (see 2009 and 2011), but could be more articulation of academic governance as a professional or political movement that we can actively work to cultivate and expand in everyday practices and through collective education, organisation and action.

For more on collective economic, political and cultural governance of the university, and hings happening in the world of US and Canadian faculty organising, see here.

Building the university to come: strategies, tactics, visions

Universities for a Democratic Society (Part V)
Report from Future U: Creating the Universities We Want
A conference of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations
27–28 February 2014

Building the universities to come

The final session of the Future U conference was led by a panel of students and academic support workers, and framed by OCUFA president Kate Lawson’s argument that because we cannot see into the future or always identify what constitutes a moment of opportunity in crisis, ‘now is always the moment to act’. Decisions to direct university budgets in one way rather than others, to embrace or query the use of a new technology, to lobby, participate or withdraw are examples of important moments. We enter into the university without knowing how we will be transformed through our work here, she pointed out; we conduct research without knowing where it will lead us, yet in both instances we have some orientation. This is true also of our conduct in the everyday.

Some desires were predictable. The universities of the future should make sense to people (as presently, academics are skilled at publicising negative discourses about the institutions but we do a pretty poor job of publicising and celebrating the benefits of post-secondary education). Future U has no contingent faculty and more students and teachers working in socially stable positions, and it recognises and draws strength from diversity and democratic dissensus.

More interesting, however, was the sense of a collective responsibility to bequeath a better legacy of higher education and university life for generations to come. ‘Future U is a dismal place’, said one person, ‘if we are not prepared to fight for what we believe in’ – starting with the ways we think about the university and our duties to constitute it thusly. Or as another put it, how do we respond when people ‘pull goofy shit out of the air and try to impose it on us’?

It was Janice Folk Dawson, President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees 1334, who presented some of the most articulate ideas for how we might do this. Her motto, she said, is that ‘what you permit, you promote’ – reminding me of the great US abolitionist Frederick Douglas’s argument that ‘the limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress’. Her arguments were various, but stressed concerns about building better relations of friendship, solidarity and commitment between students, faculty and academic support workers within the broader university community, in order to protect and promote higher educational possibilities for all.  Her suggestions included:

  • the creation of forums for sustaining conversations about what is happening in the university, for analysing tendencies and decisions, for developing strategies (including alternative policies, budgets, etc. that may be circulated to raise awareness about the contingency of the ones on offer)


  • working on comprehensive campaigns to change regulatory acts, laws and policies that shape the big business of the university, including the organisation of democratic or managerial governance, regulations on student fees and admissions, the corporate or other form of ownership of assets, etc.)


  • reduce or eliminate higher bureaucratic levels within the institutions and replace these with educators and support staff, compensating all fairly for their service to the university project


  • taking a critical position on the ‘false crises’ created and used by governments to justify the withdrawal of financial support for higher education, reduction in pensions, and privatisation


  • fighting for subsidised and socialised childcare for students, academics and non-academic workers (both day care and night care, for those working night shifts)


  • frequent political organisations and party representatives to advocate opposition to cuts in education budgets and to demand the abolition of privatised fees

There is a need for research that can help us to concretise our alternative university projects which are governed by different sets of values (particularly given that many consequential actions are being imposed without any serious analysis at all), and for recognising that taking the university in these new directions may advance in incremental fashion, just as it has been taken away. For Kate Lawson, this project need not be bound by responses to policies. We can reimagine our relationships with all our communities, including through community-based research and expanding public participation in educational policy making. We can deepen the democratic character of relationships with students and reject discourses that frame educational problems as a result of their ‘deficiencies’. We can embrace radical collegiality, recalling that the term ‘colleague’ refers to ‘one chosen along with others as a partner in office’. And all of this, she said, must be done in the spirit of co-operation, solidarity and sustainability; in other words, with a long-term vision.

At the end of our OCUFA sessions, I was asked to share about some of the experimentation already going on around the world – something apparently neglected in North American contexts where I was told the concept of higher education tends to be limited to contexts where young undergraduate students move straight from high school to four-year university degrees. I said:

Despite the overbearing narratives of enclosure, it is in fact difficult to keep up with all the various work that is going on around the world to resist the economisation of universities, to engage in critical forms of higher learning within formal systems, and to create different kinds of higher educational spaces outside the cultural and institutional systems that exist today.

To be able to see much of this work as experimental in a good and serious way, and as real alternatives, it is helpful to be able to take a wide view about what higher education is and can be, and can be for. Some of it looks like the traditional undergraduate model, but much of it challenges this approach, as well as the economic, social and cultural premises upon which it is built.
There have always been ‘alternative’ universities. Since its founding in 1997, Mondragon University (Basque region, Spain), which is the world’s largest ‘co-operative’ university, has been a source of interest for those interested in whether it is possible to have a locally co-operative university within a global capitalist system. I have never been there, and have only read about it. Apparently it looks like many a European or North American university, but is owned by all its workers, who are also members of the co-operative; the highest paid person other than the rector earns no more than three times as much as the lowest. It is formally democratically governed according to co-operative principles. It is not for profit, but neither non-capitalist; the curriculum of the university is woven tightly with the needs of the many surrounding cooperatives in the Basque region, and, according to Sharyyn Kasmir in The Myth of Mondragon (1996), ‘workers do not consider the firms theirs in any meaningful way’. This, according to Joss Winn, is a problem, and he cites agrees with her that ‘we must be sceptical of models that make business forms rather than people the agents of change’ (Kasmir 1996, p. 196). Nevertheless, the spectre of a ‘co-operative university’ has begun to generate new lines of research exploring the viability of co-operation as a counter-capitalist and post-capitalist form.

Creating experimental universities has been more common in Brazil, within a highly unequal and rapidly expanding higher education system, where Tristan McCowan has identified a range of different models attempting to address problems of access and justice, which are not the Humboldtian or the entrepreneurial or the civic, including the federal universities of Amazonian Integration, Latin American Integration, and Luso-African-Brazilian Integration, and the Federal University of the Southern Frontier. These models, while emphasising co-operation and community involvement, differ from, for example, the Uniterra in Mexico, which was created from a need to escape higher education in order to learn; inspired by anarchist and liberatarian educators, by the Zapatista struggle and schools; by a ‘radical reaction against schools’ in the barrios and villages in Chiapas and Oaxaca.

Once this sort of window is opened onto alternatives, we can fly far away from the world of national university systems and league tables and managerialism, and the horizon of alternatives becomes more vivid. There is a new project, Enlivened Learning, which explores many alternatives across the world – not alternatives to existing systems or institutions of higher education that still look like hegemonic higher education, but activities that challenge us to redefine the very idea of higher education itself. There are also several pieces of research being done to document and map the detailed processes of the many more experimental spaces of alternative higher education around the world, some emerging from the recent occupationist movements, some with longer term roots in community and adult education, some radically democratic projects.

This more generous framing allows us to ask what higher education really is for. Once we remove the meaning of the concept from the structures that give it shape – even if we only methodologically bracket them in our minds to allow space for that imagination of something genuinely other, emergent – then we have to dream, and we have to choose: to judge, to discern…as implied by the original meaning of the word krisis. If we could work and study in any university we want, what would it be like? What would it do? Who would it be for? Who would it be by? What is the difference between popular and higher education, and does it matter? How can we maintain the best knowledge and experiences of traditional universities? How would it relate to other institutions? How would it respond to, fight against, inequality and oppression? How would learning happen? How would we understand knowledge? Who would validate it? Could this sort of model work for all subjects; what about the sciences? What about technology? How would students and teachers be defined, if at all? What relationship to the traditions from which it emerged? To others’ traditions? How would we deal with all the reproductions that would inevitably emerge? How would people live? These kinds of questions are real. They are the kinds of questions you get to ask and answer in varying degrees of liberty when you try to make something different.

These are the kinds of questions we are asking now in an experimental project in Lincoln, the small city where I live in England. It is called the Social Science Centre, and it is a three-year-old higher education co-operative that was born out of anger about the increased student tuition fees and which has since then transformed into something very different. A number of its members have been, and remain, academic social scientists; we still work for the university, not only to preserve these positions but because we believe (albeit to different and shifting degrees) that there is still work to be done and work possible to do. Many other members are not academics, but everyone in the Centre assumes the title and role of scholar. It is not perfect, and it is not large, and it is not not compromised within the system, but it is good, and it is collective, and it offers opportunities not to compromise. Above all, it is a space for learning how much work it takes to create something real, and how to work co-operatively (indeed, this term’s public course is precisely about radical co-operative movements, organisation, principles and education, as part of a reflexive kind of action research). It is building a different kind of intellectual and social community within a place, and creates space to learn as we might do in the university (without the institutionalised insistence on discipline and form) as well as to practice how higher education could be different.

All of this reminded me of a beautiful dialogue between Ira Shor and Paulo Freire, published as ‘The fears and risks of transformation’ (1987). Although primarily about the politics of teaching in compulsory education, it is relevant for those striving towards emancipatory education in the contemporary university as well, for they have to do with the experience of ‘dreaming inside history’.

Ira: Fear comes from the dream you have about the society you want to make and unmake through teaching and other politics.

Paulo: Yes! Fear exists in you precisely because you have the dream. If your dream was to preserve the status quo, what should you fear then? […] Fear comes from your political dream, and if you deny the fear you deny your dream.
What I like more and more about this piece is that it does not end here, in some sort of uncritically stupid and macho heroics, but explores the importance of analysis, critique, strategy and courage in educational politics.

Freire: […] In some moments…you discover that today historically it is not possible to do a certain kind of action because the repression should come easily on you. Then, it is as if your fear is more or less domesticated by your clarity. You know that in that moment it is impossible to walk one kilometre. So, you walk 800 meters! And you wait for tomorrow to walk more, when another 200 meters can be walked. Of course, one of the serious questions is how to learn the position where the limit is. You don’t find that in books! […]

Ira: The same applies to educational politics. Teachers learn the limits for doing liberatory education by doing it. It’s the same for any act of political transformation. By attempting transformation, we learn how to do it and also the limits within which we act. When we learn limits, real limits in our classrooms or in other arenas of society, we also gain some concrete knowledge on how much or even how little can be accomplished right now. Then this concrete feedback on our attempts protects us from wild fantasies of fear that could immobilize us, or which could drive us into ultra-militance if we fail to recognize our limits or it we feel we have to deny our fear and act heroic. If we read our reality well, we don’t imagine repression, don’t project our future punishment for daring opposition, but rather test the actual circumstances of our politics and design our interventions within these limits. […]

Maybe this sounds like a tactic of accommodation. But I think it is much closer to a strategy for what Ernst Bloch called ‘educated hope’ and ‘real possibility’; much closer to a strategy of dialectical materialist and pragmatically utopian transformation. As long, as Shor remarked in the dialogue, ‘the goal of opposition is not to get fired, but to make long opposition…’, then we need not just ‘resistance’ to the capitalist colonization of learning but long opposition and recreation; a project including but far exceeding the people of the university in movements of embodied and insisted critique, opposition, dreaming-within-history and reconstruction. Unless, of course, the aim is to refuse work or to exit the university, which then requires a slightly different conversation. For either route, we need critical care to address the human damage that we are never permitted to speak aloud; as Richard Hall describes it, the bleeding of our souls.

Life is far too short and too precious to waste it on this shit, and there are more possibilities to venture towards than we can possibly imagine from where we presently stand. There is no justification for abstracting one irretrievable second of vital energy into the checking of a box on a meaningless form, and there is violence when we consent to this illogic in order to contribute to our own and others’ subjugation and diminishment. This is why we encounter the paradoxical problem of needing not only to find escape routes from these machineries of hopelessness, but work to sap their power and dismantle them as well; to use the knowledge, liberties, resources and relations of creativity and solidarity and courage at our co-operative disposal to organise our universities, schools, economies and forms of political life in radically democratic ways. This cannot happen within the universities themselves, but as the richness of work at this conference demonstrated, there are here plenty of ways such work can contribute to a broader historical project. And I suspect that in the future we and the generations to come will need these knowledges and experiences even more.

On the birth of Argos Aotearoa

So pleased to announce the publication of Issue No. 1 of Argos Aotearoa, a new journal out of New Zealand whose special issue The University Beside Itself has published my first co-writing project with my dad, Mark Amsler: ‘Imagining Unthinkable Spaces’. Early conversations on the importance of intergenerational analyses of neoliberalisation…

‘Argos aims to circulate writing about topical matters of public and political import that is local, critical and accessible. We believe critical intellectual conversation should be heard here in Aotearoa-New Zealand, not simply published for credit in international fora for more limited and specialised audiences. Of particular interest to us is writing that grounds its concern with the public or political good of place-making in theory or philosophy.’

I don’t know that this isn’t for a certain audience, although perhaps one not so narrowly specialised. But it opens many ways in to critical thought: the defense of thinking and speaking that cares about where it lives, putting the criteria of ruling knowledge in their place, daring to experiment with different forms of reading and inviting others freely, celebrating and militating for a joy of learning where ‘the life-blood of the Spirit is a margin for mistakes, not formatted, not unexplored but gifted’ (Anne Jones 2014).

On co-operation and radical democracy in/for education

It has been nearly impossible to keep pace with Significant Things Happening in education in recent weeks. This may be due to my inability to filter the floods of information and analysis which are now continuously created in our hyper-reflexive ‘attention economy’ of public writing. Or due to a stuckness in negotiating the dissonance between feeling overwhelmed by critique and simultaneously sensing that the praxis to which it points often just cannot yet exist in embodied resistance within our institutions. Or perhaps it reflects the experience of ‘uninterrupted disturbance’ which characterises the permanent counterrevolution of managerial restructuring and governmental policy making in schools and universities. ‘All new-formed [relations] become antiquated before they can ossify’…but it does not feel that we therefore even have the possibility of ‘facing with sober senses’ the real conditions of our lives and relations with one another. Instead, endless reformation, the pseudo-creative but ultimately adaptive and conformist reinvention of the self and of the horizons of possibility, has become a precondition for the intelligibility of the everyday world itself. The irony is that the more we try to make a sensible world within the parameters of this irrational logic, the more impoverished and impaired our sociological and radical imaginations become. We need new ways of making sense, and doing right.

It is seductive to think that we all just need digests of Andrew McGettigan’s digests on the politics of higher education policy and of new work on the politics of educational debt and indenture. But what we really need is time and space and courage and faith to respond to this analysis, to throw ourselves into the project of democratising education at the highest and most intimate levels, to understand and test the limits and living political contradictions of our own knowledge and actions, to orient ourselves morally and politically away and farther away from discourses and practices and habits and systems and acts of power that depoliticise, dedemocratise, dehumanise, and generally foreclose possibilities for people to make autonomous and alternative futures. In education and everywhere. We have so much knowledge in public, but so little public knowledge. So much knowledge in common, and not yet sufficient common knowledge about how to transgress the limits of tolerance that are now bursting at their seams.

I wonder if it is possible to say that we need a new kind of enlightenment; illuminations of possibilities that we presently cannot see from amidst the debris of this storm. Hannah Arendt once described darkness as a political category; a name for the social formation which not only suppresses particular freedoms but eradicates the possibility of possibility itself by obliterating – sometimes silently – the forces and conditions that make new happenings possible. She measured the darkness of a time not by its levels of observable and felt violence, but by the degree to which injustice, inhumanity, and even barbaric violations of life occur in public view, with public knowledge, without public recourse, and with diminished or eviscerated possibilities for collective dialogue, learning and action. According to Arendt, the strength of totalitarianism lay in its capacity to destroy rather than simply to dominate the horizons of possibility by first closing and then foreclosing all space in which people might think and act and become and transform together. The darkest situations, therefore, are those in which the very desire for such possibilities becomes nonsensical; where, as Arendt described it with the words of the poet Bertolt Brecht, ‘there is only wrong and no outrage’.

The present times and spaces of aggravated neoliberalism have been described as ‘dark’, but they also seem to be cracked by a curiously strong presence of outrage and despair – some virtual, but quite a lot on the street and some in the classroom as well. It would be tempting to thus conclude that the situation is worse than we thought; that in fact there is wrong and outrage, but that the latter is no longer a force for autonomous or revolutionary action. But it more likely seems there is a missing link between the articulation-in-practice of the No and finding voices with which to speak it, and the articulation-in-practice of the many Yeses that so many people are groping and striving towards. There is a not-yet-knowing-how to break cynical and comfortable habits and relations of ‘disaffected content’, and a not-yet consciousness of the extent to which we are neoliberalism. It is therefore in the spaces of prefigurative creation between critique and possibility that I think some of the most important work in education is now being done.

As Arendt also argued in Men in Dark Times (1968), we must keep our minds and hearts and ways of being receptive to the politics of possibility in order to make sense of the new forms we cannot predict it will take. ‘Even in the darkest of times’, she wrote, ‘we have the right to expect some illumination’, and it

‘may well come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given them on earth…’

Just as it is difficult to keep on top of changes in educational policy and politics (unless one does so for a living), it is also difficult to keep a fair perspective on the volume of ‘uncertain, flickering, and weak light’ that is presently illuminating alternatives in education in a multitude of ways today. From the growth of new student, student–worker and student–community movements to the rising levels of academic and popular critique of neoliberal educational policy and practice; from highly organised projects in popular higher education to slow-burning interest in radical and alternative and transformative models for teaching and learning, things are not what they were three years ago, when the languages of crisis and death were much more common. Today, while we still find ourselves speaking through discourses of death and despair, it is increasingly in less wounded and more messianic registers in which references to the loss or abandonment of this cultural and economic and institutional form of the school and the university mark the possibility of new beginnings rather than the end of hope. There are things happening just this side of the future as well.

What does unsettle me about the newest educational movements and politicisations, however, is the lack of attention to questions around the creation of new institutional (or anti-institutional) forms, and to the embodied materiality of prefigurative political activities. Or more so, the lack of attention to creating new forms of educational work, and new ways of organising learning throughout social life, which are radically politically democratic and radically economically democratic. Issue-focused and theoretically articulated struggles against particular violations or against entire organisational logics are absolutely necessary. But these must be part of a broader political and intellectual project (‘project’, from Latin: to ‘throw out/ahead’) – a revolutionary historical project to reclaim education as and for democracy. A project in which we, educators currently occupying the hegemonic institutions, learn to struggle and to resist, and in which all those in resistance make a long-term commitment to building new institutions. Whether these will be ‘in the shell of the old’ or elsewhere remains a question.

But what remains a fact is that at the moment, most people live at least partly within and rely upon these institutions, and are trying to make them work and to keep the vampires out for complex reasons that cannot be reduced to ‘disaffected consent’. And what also remains a fact is that when examined micro-politically, or rather from the vantage of the richness of everyday life, these institutions are simultaneously neoliberalising but creaking and cracking with repressed and disoriented and not-yet possibility. With teachers who despise what the class war is doing to our common children but who do not allow themselves to believe in alternatives because the fear of failure is too immense, and children who have a better-than-you’d-guess understanding of things like justice and courage and how they can enjoy learning. Filled with so many people who are happy to get along so long as they can, but who are also looking just as hard for a different sort of light, listening for a different tone. And it has to be on a wavelength we can actually see and frequencies we can hear if it is to take any breath at all. Lots of people know that the change needed is radical. How to really get from here to there? How do we learn the courage and the hope?

The cultural theorist and critical educator Raymond Williams once said that ‘it is in making hope practical, rather than despair convincing, that we must resume and change and extend our campaigns’. Much as I love the sentiment, I think that it cannot be a guide for action. Hope, in the form of what Ernst Bloch called ‘real possibility’, is rarely practical. It is more likely to be impractical (or regarded as such within an established order of things), unconvincing (within the dominant horizons of intelligibility) and inconvenient (in relation to the priorities that clutter our existing to-do lists) and it requires an awful lot more support and courage than we are used to mustering. Therefore, the task of enabling and facilitating radical democratisation in and beyond our educational institutions, as well as in our everyday relations to thinking and to one another, cannot be to make hope practical. It is to make despair untenable whilst making it possible to engage in practices of hope and transformation which may be impractical, to cultivate ‘negative capabilities’ and to effect an ontological reframing of the value of practicality itself. It is to attend to the difficult questions of self-care and care for others in this way of being, to the care and security of the young and the old, and coming to understand how anyone in particular might experience and contribute to this project, differently, according to their own emotional and material and relational affordances. ‘From each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs.’ What would it be like to organise not just educational work but the labour of a whole social politics and ethics of learning in a way that blurs the boundaries between theoretical and practical activity, re-integrates learning needs with desire, orients energy towards holistic development, and enables ‘all the springs of co-operative wealth [to] flow more abundantly’?

It is this question that motivated me to join the Social Science Centre in Lincoln (UK) in 2011, a small higher education co-operative which was established as an act of resistance to the privatization and corporatization of the university, and as a space for experimentation and creative work in the self-organisation of cultural labour, co-operative and critical pedagogies, curriculum and anti-curriculum design, and new forms of popular higher education. It is also this question that makes me more immediately interested in some energies which have been stirring recently across the UK and in various places around the world about the possibilities of co-operative education, co-operative schools (as an alternative to private academies in situations where actually public education appears to be off the table), the creation of a co-operative university, and the strengths and limits of the radical tendencies within the (now well-neoliberalized) co-operative movement in general.

Co-operativism has long been a powerful and ubiquitous movement. But can the concepts, histories, actually-existing experiences, and languages of co-operative education offer either a guiding light towards a movement for educational democracy proper – particularly where these are understood as forms of material and economic self-governance and democracy as well as political and cultural ones – or a doorway into more coherent conversations about a range of social forms? Does co-operativism as a belief system and social form, with its concern for institution-building and mutual aid alongside its concern with educating democratic process, offer a potential point of articulation? Do the understandings of co-operation now circulating mean similar things to all those affected? We have yet to explore the relationship or dissonance between these (e.g. the labour-oriented concepts) and other discourses of co-operation in education, particularly those inspired by the work of John Dewey and other theorists of co-operative learning and democracy. And what should we be careful not to lose in projects articulated around ‘co-operation’? Co-operation is, after all, just one of many forms that a radically democratic life might take, one kind of activity that might be productive, and it can often appear undemocratic through the lens of dissensus. To what extent can we push back and forward, in any concrete situation, through co-operative practices and forms of organisation within bureaucratic, capital-driven institutions? With whom should we be willing to co-operate? Would embracing co-operativism, let’s say for the university, mean that we would abandon the fight for communal, socialised and public education, or on the contrary radicalise and reimagine it? How do we activate the radical, prefigurative and transformative energies of co-operative experiments, and to make such work possible for people living in the widest range of conditions, when the temptation will be ever to make them ‘practical’ and ‘intelligible’ within our present capitalocentric logics? What is the relationship between co-operation, co-operativism, and radical economic, political, cultural, social and cognitive democracy? Is co-operativism, as a potentially Sisyphean project within our present conditions, the politics we need for liberation and living today?

Fortunately, it seems that there may now be more, and more visible, public spaces forming to cultivate common inquiries into and experimental work around these questions.

Click here to join the ‘Creating Co-operative Universities’ mailing list.

Read reports on recent gatherings:

Co-operative Education against the Crisis

Realising the Co-operative University

And read some good musings by Richard Hall, and here.

And visit Joss Winn and Richard Hall’s workshop on ‘Forming a Co-operative University’ and Mike Neary’s session on ‘The university and the city: the Social Science Centre and forming the urban revolution’ at Discourse, Power, Resistance 14 in April 2014.