In certain circles, there is the perception that the transformation to the ideal of the student as consumer is complete and that therefore the student activist and a radical student movement is a thing of the past. Although there was the anti-fees flashpoint in 2010, the argument goes, now the modern student is more concerned with getting their money’s worth from the education they directly pay for, than they are about changing the world.
Over the last four years there have been countless examples of campaigns and projects that prove this thesis wrong. This series of articles seeks to explore these, what they have achieved and what they mean for the student movement and the Higher Education sector as a whole
by Chris Jarvis
Co-ops have had a bad name recently. In the wake of the scandals surrounding the Co-Operative bank and the colourful antics of its former chairman Paul Flowers, positive column inches about the co-operative model have been difficult to find.
In spite of this, co-operatives are, in fact, blooming – perhaps not in the shape of massive, bloated organisations such as the Co-operative Group, but instead in projects run by students across the country. From food to bikes to houses, over the last few years, groups of students have been coming together to build projects that are based on mutual benefit for all participants. Their shape may vary, but fundamentally they are all based on the same principles, that through working collaboratively, it is possible to build more affordable, sustainable and fulfilling lifestyles.
In 2014, students at the University of Birmingham launched a housing co-op, soon followed by the mammoth 100 bed housing co-op in Edinburgh. Both these projects offer affordable, decentralised and alternative models for housing which leave their residents free from the worst manifestations imbalance of power that many students suffer in the traditional private sector tenant-landlord relationship. Students at Universities elsewhere, including here in Norwich, are generating plans to follow suit.
Large scale schemes such as the Birmingham and Edinburgh housing co-ops are the pinnacle of the co-operative movement on campuses, but there are a number of smaller initiatives which are rooted in equally collectivist ideals. Most often, this takes the form of the co-operative purchase and sale of food. Every week on countless campuses, students pull out market stalls and sell organic vegetables, Fairtrade tins of beans and gluten free pasta, often at cost-price. Buying ethically sourced produce from local farms and co-operative wholesalers, these co-ops provide a cheap alternative to supermarkets and expensive specialist stores.
Student run co-operatives have been springing up everywhere, and their number is growing so quickly that a national organisation has been set up to co-ordinate between them. Students for Co-operation, a ‘democratic federation of student co-ops across the UK, organising for social change’ is building a network through which co-operatives can communicate, share ideas and successes and build the movement.
The reason the development of student run co-operatives is noteworthy and important is because it flies in the face of what is deemed the orthodoxy of prevailing economic and societal paradigms.
“Selling organic couscous from behind a trestle table in a badly lit student union foyer might not seem to be the height of dissent from the system, but at their core, co-ops offer an alternative model of organising economic exchange and communities.”
Students participating in the establishment of co-operative projects are, whether consciously or not, rejecting those pervasive notions of individualism that have become deep rooted in the psyche of much of our everyday lives. Through their radical, grassroots democracy, their insistence on collaboration rather than competition and their provision of group led solutions to social ills, such as hunger, poverty, poor housing, environmental degradation and climate change, student co-operatives are re-invigorating age old principles of community. Let’s hope they continue to grow and grow and grow.