2012 is the UN International Year of Co-operatives, and the culminating event, a conference called Co-operatives United was held in Manchester in homage to its heritage as the original home of co-ops, nearby Rochdale. A group of People & Planet members travelled up from Birmingham on a coach with Midlands Co-operative Members, to take part in a session on student co-operatives across the world. What is a co-operative?
The talk was hosted by Richard Bickle, an all round co-operative guru, who has been helping Birmingham P&Pers with the scoop they have been setting up. It went through the history of student co-operatives, what position they are in currently, and ended with Q&A on how students can work with unions, co-operative development agencies and People & Planet to help student co-ops flourish across the UK, and around the world.
The talk on student co-operatives covered North America, with Tom Pierson from North American Students of Co-operation (NASCO), student learning in co-ops, different models from different colleges, the very advanced and integrated Quebecios model, where up to 90% of university services – even book shops and stationery shops – are multi-stakeholder co-operatives. He made reference to a number of famous student co-ops, including the Berkeley Student Co-op – which has well over 1000 housing members, and more who are involved in the dining co-op.
A talk by Graeme Wise from the NUS on the history of students’ unions, and particularly on co-operation within them. he talked about SUs coming about as groups of societies working together co-operatively, and they different to trade unions as it was all about trying to create a sustainable, equitable economy within the student community. Now SUs are controlled by a university/HE block grant, and their status as a charity (which came about in the 90s). Graeme talked about how SUs were working to lose their own services to external private suppliers when they had previously been working co-operatively to raise the student voice. This has meant SUs have been restricted in what they’ve been able to achieve with a significantly higher level of autonomy, particularly financially – the block grant is always being threatened to be cut by their respective learning institutions..
The talk by Tom Wragg covered, P&P’s role in student co-ops nationally – the SCOOP campaign, and then how we have been acting on it locally, and where it has opened doors for new people to be involved. He and Sean also talked about the Green Bike Project at the University of Birmingham, and working with university staff and other stakeholders to create these spaces in universities. Working with universities is all about finding the right people to speak to, and it’s vital people link their campaigns and ideas together, and remembering that your universities, colleges and schools can gain a lot from allowing students to start a new co-operative – even if you’ve been causing them a lot of hassle over the last year(s). Tom Wragg followed on from the North American experiences to make a comparison between co-op cultures both in North America and the UK, and highlighted our deficiencies, where we could expand, and the benefits it could bring the student community – affordability, experiences, life skills, quality, ethical and sustainable.
Sean’s talk covered the ways in which fledgling cooperatives can exploit the current climate in both HE institutions and SU’s where both parties are scrambling to promote and support things that increase their brand image or improve their ‘student experience’. He talked about the way in which the Green Bike Project, a maintenance repair co-op has support from a normally hostile university and the ways in which People and Planet groups across the country should manipulate their universities short-term desires for brand image boosts to get funding for long term projects like co-operative cafes, bikes shop or food stalls. Projects like these if done in a proper democratic and open manner could end up being the glue that holds our evermore marketised universities together and provide spaces in which students and staff can get together on equal terms. Sean also talked about a housing co-operative scheme that is evolving in Birmingham and suggested that SU’s should work with P&P, NUS and also NASCO with their prior experience to bring about a stable student housing cooperative template that can be replicated in ‘studentvilles’ across the country to break the bubble of landlord extortion that normally occurs.
In the Q&A we talked about CLTs, new builds, and sustainable building for long-term efficiency gains, low costs and low maintenance. We talked about how co-operatives can provide real ethical investments, as long as those investors do not try to influence the functioning of co-ops after they are set up.
We then talked with David Rodgers (President of the Housing Sector at the International Co-operative Alliance, a federation of national co-operative federations) about how he started in housing co-ops in the early 1970s when he was president of an SU, and how he’d been part of a co-operative development agency (called CDS) in London, which now provides co-operative housing services for thousands of people in London and the rest of the UK. The Sanford Housing Co-op has 130 rooms, and is a very successful example of a new-build in London, SE14. There are two other co-operative housing services co-ops in England, one based in the West Midlands and one in the North-West. If people know of any others in the rest of the UK, please leave a comment! Housing co-ops offer an incredible place to invest in environmentally sustainable building practices, such as LILAC in Leeds.
With Tom Pierson from NASCO, we talked about dining co-op models and the various ways in which we could have two tiered memberships for board and dining. this could mean co-ops could act as a social glue in universities. He also talked about how the ownership of land and property could be controlled by co-operative members and not influenced by conflicting parties, due to their ownership of the properties/liabilities.
Tom Wragg & Sean Farmelo – Birmingham P&P
Cross posted from the People and Planet Grass Roots Blog