Workplace Democratisation

A further example of how the framework for co-operative higher education might be expanded to focus on leadership is through the work of Bernstein (1979/2012). His research on the internal dynamics of workplace democratisation includes a focus on participation and leadership and is based on a number of cases studies of private firms that operate with varying levels of democracy in their governance and management. Across the range of his case studies, he identified three “dimensions of participation” (2012, 47):

  1. The degree of control employees enjoy over a single decision
  2. The issues over which that control is exercised, and
  3. The organisational level at which is is exercised.

Focusing on control, an organisation with minimal democracy in the workplace will operate on the basis of ‘consultation’, through techniques such as an ‘impersonal suggestion box scheme’ or workers given ‘prior notice’ of management’s decisions so that they can voice their views and perhaps stimulate reconsideration. In contrast, an organisation with greater or even full workplace democracy will feature a workers’ council that is superior to the management body, joint power or partnership with managers, and elected management roles and the power for employees to remove people from positions of management. A basic threshold of democratic participation is that workers are able to ‘initiate criticisms and suggestions’ and discuss them face-to-face with managers. Bernstein calls this ‘co-operation or co-influence’.

The range of issues that employees may have democratic control over start from their physical working conditions and personal safety, through to setting salaries, promoting executives, and (in the context of a private firm) division of the profits. Bernstein groups the issues into control over the worker’s own work, control over the organisation’s means, and control over the organisation’s goals.

Finally, the domain or level of participation refers to not only the level at which employees might have representation (e.g. on the Board of Governors), but also the extent to which they can exercise real power at that level. Employee representation at the upper levels of an organisation is more effective (i.e. they wield more democratic power), when all other levels of the organisation are also democratised (i.e. ‘gaps’ are ‘filled in’ with methods of direct and representative democracy), so that the upper level is brought into more contact with the real issues and concerns of workers in the organisation. Achieving democracy at all levels of the organisation means that employees are able to “exert influence at the very points where they have most expertise.” (2012, 54)

The qualities of leadership in democratic organisations are, according to Bernstein, based on a conscious recognition of the power that the person in a position of influence holds and how they choose to use that power, based on a set of values, personal goals and beliefs. The traits that Bernstein identifies (2012, 98) as fostering or facilitating democratisation are:

  • A policy of educating the managed i.e. open access to information (as opposed to secrecy)
  • Confidence in others – hence: willingness to listen and to delegate responsibility (rather than an attitude of mistrust and intense supervision)
  • Governing by merit, explanation, and consent of governed (rather than governing from a formal position of power)
  • Awareness of one’s own fallibility; admits errors to managed (rather than the belief that the leader must set an example to others by appearing infallible and hiding their mistakes)
  • Reciprocity (rather than paternalism); and
  • Egalitarian values (as opposed to a desire to maintain exclusive prerogatives).

Bernstein notes that well-intentioned managers might select one or two of these traits of leadership, but find they conflict with traditional values of managerial privilege. What is needed is recognition that effective democracy requires a “systemic” approach and that this involves a change in the “whole consciousness” of leaders in positions of power.

Likewise, the framework for co-operative higher education should be understood as an open, practical and coherent framework for democratising the governance and management of higher education in a systemic way.


One of the motivations for our current focus on leadership, governance and management, was the recent work on ‘neo-collegiality’ by Bacon (2014), also funded by the LFHE. In this report, Bacon ((Dr Edwin Bacon is a member of our project Steering Group)) makes the case for collegiality understood as “a structured form of collaborative decision-making.” He argues that “the voice of universities’ academic and professional staff ought to be heard with far greater decision-making and decision-influencing force than is currently the case” and consequently focuses on “the formalized structuring of a collegial decision-making process. (2014, 3) This is distinct from a definition of collegiality as a form of behavior since, “it is too easy otherwise for institutions and individuals to commit to or to urge collegial behavior without anything actually changing in terms of decision-making.” The focus therefore, is on establishing structures and processes that enable and protect a renewed form of democratic decision-making that takes advantage of the research-based problem solving skills of staff operating at all levels, accounting for the advantages to organisations when self-managed professionals interact with peers on matters of common purpose, particularly in knowledge-based industries.

The report offers a number of reasons why such changes are needed (2014, 24):

  • Too many staff feel voiceless.
  • Current university management structures and practices are often outdated.
  • Current management literature emphasises the disadvantages, particularly in knowledge-based sectors, of top-down hierarchical structures.
  • Current management literature emphasises the advantages of frontline staff having increased autonomy.
  • The desire for more collegial decision-making is widespread across the UK’s university sector.
  • Collegiality improves decision-making, bringing with it an awareness of the front-line activities and priorities which matter most to students.
  • Neo-collegial decision-making can take many different forms, often enhanced by new technology.

Bacon concludes his report by outlining “a menu of the potential forms that moves to neocollegiality might take.” (20) It is our early assumption that these might be adapted and used to expand the framework we offer above. The menu comprises ten proposed initiatives towards greater collegiality within a university:

  • Concordat on collegiality
  • Reviving existing structures
  • Transparency and collegiality
  • Collegiality on demand
  • Consensus collegiality
  • Temporal variations
  • Subsidiarity
  • Collegial appointments
  • Veto collegiality
  • Shared governance

We leave it to you to read the report and in particular Bacon’s remarks on the forms of collegiality, but should highlight that many of them align with our own research into co-operative higher education (e.g. reviving existing structures; consensus; subsidiarity, shared governance).

Framing leadership for co-operative higher education

Framework for co-operative higher education. Poster design by Sam Randall, student at University of Lincoln.
Framework for co-operative higher education. Poster design by Sam Randall, student at University of Lincoln.

In a recent and related project, we have developed the above illustrated framework for co-operative higher education. In this and future posts we want to situate co-operative leadership, governance and management within the context of the framework.

An abstract and dynamic framework

Our earlier research, funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation, was conducted as action research through a series of five workshops that focused on a set of themes we had identified for discussing co-operative higher education. In our initial analysis of the workshop data, we attempted to abstract and synthesise from it a conceptual framework for co-operative higher education. Our method was both deductive and inductive, applying existing concepts from our earlier related work, as well as identifying new concepts that came out of the workshops, subsequent focus groups and interviews. The framework is therefore not only proposed as the basis of co-operative development but also the result of theory and practice identified throughout our research. We have grouped the concepts into six parts of the framework which, after some deliberation, we arranged into concentric circles to represent outwards movement and contracting tension between the centre and the outer circles.

The framework is held together by the contradictory relationship of labour and property, the most basic categories of political economy. This ‘capital relation’ is a source of dynamic energy and of destructive crises, of wealth and impoverishment, that historically, has been partially contained by the distinction between ‘private and public‘ (i.e. Money and the State), a dichotomy that we find unhelpful and increasingly problematic. We emphasise the concept of the ‘social’ as the dissolution and overcoming of this ‘false dichotomy’.

Trying to move away from this dichotomy (though recognising that it still exists), we establish three primary categories that we refer to as a ‘universal model’. It is universal because each of the categories are deemed applicable to whatever form co-operative higher education might take. There is no ‘blueprint’ but the ‘universal model’ is what distinguishes co-operative higher education from a more general use of the term ‘co-operative’. By co-operative higher education we are not simply referring to ‘cooperative learning’ but instead the model situates the social intellect in an organisational setting that is rooted in the social history of the co-operative movement.

Next, we identify five ‘catalytic principles’, which closely relate to the five previous workshop themes but have been modified to reflect better the breadth of ideas that were discussed. Those principles are put into practice via one of three ‘routes’ to co-operative higher education, which we identified from the literature and that were used and discussed throughout our series of workshops. Finally, we propose three ‘transitional themes’ that would constitute major on-going projects for the organisation, integrated into its sense of mission and purpose and interpreted in ways that are meaningful to the co-operative’s members. They are intended to encompass the desires and hopes of the research participants by focusing on the co-operative production of social knowledge, the building of solidarity through co-operative institutions, and the movement towards a new form of social wealth, beyond the “determinate logic” of value (Postone, 1993, 285).

We have chosen to illustrate our proposed framework for co-operative higher education by adopting the aesthetic and principles of Vorticism, the modernist art movement of the early 20th century that grew out of Cubism and in response to Futurism.  The vortex provides a more compelling illustration of the explosive dynamic energy contained within the capital relation than the structural functionalist ‘base-superstructure’ analogy that is used by traditional Marxism. Vorticism appeals to us, not least because of its use of abstraction, but because of the artists’ attempts to incorporate a sense of movement into their painting and sculpture through the use of angular and contrapuntal lines. This desire for dynamism is not surprising given the period that Vorticism was directly responding to: the social turmoil of the industrial revolution; the fragility of bourgeois subjectivity; and the destruction of the First World War. It must be emphasised that a sense of colour and movement in our illustration is essential to what could otherwise be interpreted as a static framework, and the always immanent contradiction of the capital relation at the centre of the framework is a reminder of the ever-present crisis of capitalism. We recognise that co-operatives have always been a response to and existed within the social world of capitalism, yet are mindful that early co-operators saw their activities as the means towards a post-capitalist form of common social wealth.

Leadership, governance and management

Our current research project, funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, focuses on “co-operative leadership as a viable organisational form of governance and management for Higher Education.” Furthermore, “a significant outcome of the research will be to develop a co-operative leadership tool (CLT) for  Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to audit the extent of co-operative provision in HEIs and to assess if a co-operative leadership model is viable within an institution. The tool will be based on a set of catalytic principles that distinguish co-operative enterprises: ownership, democracy, autonomy, independence and social value, in the context of practicalpragmatic and political possibilities.”

The ‘catalytic principles’ listed in the quote from our project description were earlier, more tentative concepts that were subsumed into the later framework illustrated above. We have not abandoned them, but incorporated them into a more encompassing set of catalytic principles that remain “practical, pragmatic and political” throughout. The ‘co-operative leadership tool’ that we aim to develop is primarily aimed at recognising practices in existing universities and therefore assists with both the ‘conversion’ and ‘dissolution’ routes identified in the framework.

The illustrated framework is intended to complement existing research on co-operatives and higher education and we anticipate it being extended to include other more specific conceptual frameworks and empirical research e.g. Neary and Winn, 2009 (Knowledge); Bacon, 2014; Bernstein, 2012; Novkovic and Miner, 2015 (Democracy); DuGay, 2000 (Bureaucracy); Ridley-Duff, 2015 (Livelihood); Develtere, 1996; Curl, 2010 (Solidarity), etc. Needless to say, each of the co-operative values and principles are either explicitly included in the framework or their mapping can easily be recognised.

In the next two posts (here and here), we discuss examples of existing work by Bacon (2014) and Bernstein (2012) that informs our current research and extends the framework for co-operative higher education in practical ways.