Inside a cooperative university

David Matthews of The Times Higher Education Supplement reports  on the University of Mondragon (Spain), which is fighting to preserve its teaching mission, industry-focused research and mutual governance model.


It is hard to think of a time when academics in the UK have been more dissatisfied with where the academy is going. Their list of gripes is long: from the rise of the student “consumer” to overpaid vice-chancellors, a distant management class, increasing marketisation, a seemingly ever-growing brood of administrators and, perhaps least tangibly, a sense that academia is turning into a competitive rather than comradely affair.

Last year, senior scholars founded the Council for the Defence of British Universities, which set out to fight many of these developments, along with what they believe to be increasing control of universities by government and business. But so far no practical alternatives have emerged. Meanwhile, experiments such as Lincoln’s Social Science Centre, a cooperative organisation offering higher education for free, have taken place only on a very small, relatively informal scale.

At a time when many academics feel remote from their university’s managers and strategic plans, the cooperative model, in which all staff have a stake, has obvious appeal. So, can the University of Mondragon, an established higher education cooperative in the lush green mountains of the Basque Country in northern Spain, offer any answers for academies elsewhere? Founded in 1997 from a collection of co-ops dating back to 1943, the institution now has 9,000 students. The staff have joint ownership and the institution’s culture and its model of governance are radically different from those of modern UK universities.

Times Higher Education went to see how and why they do things differently at Mondragon, and to consider whether some of its practices might appeal to UK scholars looking for a new model for the academy.

Even before arriving in Spain, there is one obvious difference about Mondragon – it does not have a press office to restrict access to the top brass or vet comments by its employees. Instead, THE’s trip was arranged directly through teaching and administrative staff. And on arrival, transport was provided by the vice-chancellor, Jon Altuna, who drove from campus to campus – with the occasional stop-off for tapas and wine.

quote marksMondragon is jointly owned by its academic and administrative staff. To become a fully fledged member, employees have to work there for at least two years, and then pay €12,000 (£10,300), which buys a slice of the university’s capital that can be withdrawn upon retirement.However, it is unlikely that anyone employed by the university expects to earn enough to build a personal art collection or buy membership to an exclusive private members’ club: no one at Mondragon may earn more than three times the salary of the lowest-paid worker.

This is a far cry from the UK, where in 2008 the ratio between the highest- and the lowest-paid workers in higher education was, on average, 15.35:1, according to the 2011 review of fair pay in the public sector led by Will Hutton – a bigger gap than found in any other part of the public sector.

There is one exception at Mondragon, though: the rector, the closest thing the university has to a chief executive, is permitted to take home five times the lowest wage – although even this relative largesse was agreed only after “huge argument”, Altuna notes.

Excluding cleaners and catering staff, who are subcontracted, the lowest-paid staff, such as administrative and maintenance workers, earn €27,421 a year. The highest-paid managers earn just over three times this amount, while the current rector earns about €157,000. “We are not in this project for [personal] profit-making,” Altuna says with a smile.

Although the university’s student population is relatively small, at about 4,000 (it offers 21 undergraduate, 12 master’s and three PhD programmes), another 5,000 people a year undertake professional training at Mondragon. “We want to be one of the main agents in making companies competitive,” Altuna says.

He is referring to the fact that the university is in effect the training and research-and-development arm of a wider network of interlocking cooperatives, known collectively as the Mondragon Corporation.

Discard any quaint images you might have of basket-weaving communes eking out a trade in the Basque hills. The corporation employs more than 80,000 people and had a revenue of €14 billion in 2012. It is the largest cooperative in the world and has 94 production plants outside Spain. Its factories manufacture white goods, industrial components and road bikes, while its construction wing built Bilbao’s swooping silver Guggenheim Museum.

The university has a highly democratic governance structure. Its supreme body is the general assembly, a 30-strong committee of representatives composed of one-third staff, one-third students and one-third outside interested parties, often other co-ops in Mondragon Corporation. It meets annually to decide on the priorities for the coming year and has significant powers: it can, for example, sack members of the senior management team. (It last used this power in 2007 when one manager was dismissed, according to Altuna.)


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