The aim of this research is to explore the possibility of establishing co-operative leadership as a viable organisational form of governance and management for Higher Education. Co-operative leadership is already well established in business enterprises in the UK and around the world (Ridley-Duff and Bull 2016), and has recently been adopted as the organising principle by over 800 schools in the United Kingdom (Wilson 2014). The co-operative movement is a global phenomenon with one billion members, supported by national and international organisations working to establish co-operative enterprises and the promotion of cooperative education. The research is financed by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s small development projects fund.

Higher education in the UK is characterised by a mode of governance based on Vice-Chancellors operating as Chief Executives supported by Senior Management teams.  Recent research from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education on Neo-collegiality in the managerial university (Bacon 2014) shows that hierarchical models of governance alienate and de-motivate staff, failing to take advantage of research-based problem solving skills of staff operating at all levels,  not accounting for the advantages to organisations when self-managed professionals interact with peers on matters of common purpose, particularly in knowledge-based industries.

The co-operative leadership model for higher education supports the ambition for more active engagement in decision-making to facilitate the best use of academics’ professional capacities, but framed around a more radical model for leadership, governance and management. Members of the co-operative university would not only be involved directly in decision-making and peer-based processes that make best use of their collective skills, but have equal voting rights as well as collective ownership of the assets and liabilities of the co-operative (Cook 2013). This more radical model builds on work done recently as part of a project funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation to establish some general parameters around which a framework for co-operative higher education could be established (Neary and Winn 2015). One of the key issues emerging from this research is the significance of co-operative leadership – the focus of this research project.


The research will done by Mike Neary and  Joss Winn  both of whom have experience of running research projects funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, the Higher Education Academy and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). Mike Neary was the Dean of Teaching and Learning at the University of Lincoln, 2007-2014, giving him relevant experience of senior leadership in the sector. Mike and Joss are founder members of the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, a co-operative for higher education.

The research will be carried out using a case study method.

The case-study sites proposed are: a co-operative school in England; a large co-operative commercial enterprise in the UK; a retail partnership trust and a co-operative university in Spain. The researcher(s) will spend one week on site doing participant observation, semi-structured interviews and group conversations, taking field notes and photographs, recording interviews, as well as documentary analysis.

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.


Online – establish a strong online presence across a range of different platforms, including website, Twitter and Facebook.

Speaking – disseminate findings as speakers at national and international events on co-operative higher education.

Print media – write journalistic articles in national and higher education press.

Labour Movement – further develop links between the University and College Union, the  Trade Union movement and the Co-operative College to explore the possibility of setting up a worker-cooperative for further and higher education.


Contribute published material to an under-researched area of leadership in HE  to inform policy and strategy to develop co-operative forms of higher education.

Create a Co-operative Leadership Tool (CLT) to classify the organisational form of HEIs in terms of their co-operative values and politics, based on catalytic principles that distinguish co-operative enterprises.

Establish a new area for consultancy and capacity building through leadership development programmes supported by the CLT with practical guides and other materials. Given the global nature of the co-operative movement these areas for development work have strong international potential.

TIME FRAME  March 2016 –  February 2017

March – April

Milestones – Establish a steering group with individuals from case-study sites, the Co-operative College, academics who work on co-operative provision, a member of a student co-operative and a senior leader at Lincoln. Employ a research assistant, arrange access to case study institutions, gain ethics approval.

April – July

Milestones – Carry out case study visits. Develop prototype of Co-operative Leadership Tool (CLT)

August – December

 Milestones- Pilot-test CLT in three HEIs, as well as focus groups x 2 and interviews x 3 with key individuals in pilot institutions at the end of the test period.

January – February

Write up report and academic publication. Consolidate CLT as usable developmental device.


Bacon, E. (2014) Neo-Collegiality: restoring academic engagement in the managerial university. London, Leadership Foundation.

Neary, M. and Winn, J. (2015) ‘Beyond private and public: a model for co-operative higher education’. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy.  Perspectives for the new university. Volume 2: 114 – 119.

Wilson, M. (2014) ‘Learning Together: perspectives in cooperative higher education’ (keynote address), Co-operative College, Manchester.

Ridley-Duff, R. and Bull, M. (2016) Understanding Social Enterprise, London: Sage.

Cook, D. (2013) ‘Realising the Cooperative University’,   A consultancy report for the Co-operative College.

Yeo, S. (1988) New Views of Co-operation. London: Routledge.