Lack of Awareness a Barrier for Co-op Education on Campus

By Kenzie Love

Among the obstacles the co-operative movement faces, education — or a lack thereof – is often cited as a key factor, with co-operators pointing to neglect of the model in many business schools’ curricula. As Simon Berge of the University of Winnipeg observes, “most business schools currently present the neoliberal capitalist model for business operations.” This model argues that everyone is a rational, self-centred human being only interested in increasing their personal gains, and as Berge further notes, “this belief translates to business operations in the form of increasing shareholder value as the key driver of a business.”

That the prevalence of the capitalist system within postsecondary education can be held partly responsible for capitalism’s dominance within society at large is a reasonable argument. It may be that lack of exposure to the co-op model is as much of or more of a factor in its inability to reach a critical mass than lack of interest. This was the case for Julia Vincent, a University of Winnipeg student who became interested in co-ops as an alternative to the traditional capitalist model she was studying.

“I was really starting to look for more ethical forms of business, explicitly ethical forms of business,” she says, “and cooperatives showed me that ethical market, to kind of come in and be like, okay so we actually have people who care.”

Francisca Idigbe, another University of Winnipeg student, was similarly inspired by the co-op management course she took. 

“It was particularly the values that the co-op movement had, the values and the principles and the work, the way they were governed,” she says. “It seemed like an anti-capitalist way in terms of the care and the empowerment that they had for their members and the people who work with them.”

Vincent and Idigbe both hope to remain involved in the co-op movement after completing their studies. But they are among the relatively few students enrolled in a cooperative-centric program in Canada, examples of which remain rare, as opposed to merely taking the odd co-op course. Erin Hancock, Program Manager for Co-operative Management Education at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, believes that unless students receive an education that emphasizes co-ops’ distinctiveness from traditional businesses, they risk falling into the trap of operating a co-op like a traditional business. The Saint Mary’s program, therefore, teaches that the co-op principles must inform every aspect of a co-op’s operations.

“I think the biggest thing that our students learn is the co-operative model and what that means, being member-centric in particular, should show up in everything. It should show up in the boardroom, it should show up in how you do your hiring, it should show up in marketing, it should show up in how you interact with your members, where you allocate resources.”

This kind of comprehensive education, unfortunately, isn’t available to the majority of students in Canada. But in its absence, some students are taking matters into their own hands, learning about co-ops and attempting to establish them on their own initiative. Mikayla Eastman, a student at the University of Calgary, came to U of C with little prior knowledge of co-ops, but has since joined Students for Direct Action, a group which is trying to set up a food co-op on campus. She’s found the co-op model isn’t well understood, either by the University’s administration or most students, but she believes it has untapped potential at a time when students face many challenges and seemingly have little power to address them. The co-op model, she believes, has the ability to change this with its emphasis on the greater good instead of individual success.

“I think that the significance and the foundational idea of community both in the goals of co-ops and the way that they are structured is so important,” she says, “and kind of counter to everything else that’s happening in society. I feel that so many people feel very isolated, the pandemic has especially made that so. And organizing has really struggled in this kind of age of individualism, and so bringing activism and organizing back onto the community level where it’s by and for the community is really powerful.”

What changes are necessary for the co-op model to present a viable alternative to capitalism on campuses may not be entirely clear, but it’s more evident that those who’ve been exposed to it want to continue spreading the message. Idigbe, for instance, wants to work in promoting co-ops after graduation, because she believes that a large portion of society is still uneducated about them.

“I would love to help co ops get their message out there,” she says, “and let people know ‘hey this is what a co op is, this is what we do, this is how we can help you, and this is why you should join us.’”

If you are interested in studying cooperatives, you might want to check out one or more of the following programs:

Online Co-operative Management Education, from a Masters’ degree to short courses to webinars:  International Centre for Co-operative Management, Saint Mary’s University.

Online training on co-operative development, offered by the CoopZone Co-op Developers’ Network:  CoopZone, see Training Program.

Online course on starting a platform co-operative:  Platform Co-ops Now!  (Also see other article in this newsletter.)

Courses in co-operative management offered by the Business Chair of Co-operative Enterprises, University of Winnipeg.  

Given the time of year of this writing (August 20th), application deadlines may be imminent for the upcoming session.