Ever since people have been organising to achieve mutual goals, co-operation has existed. With its roots in combatting inequality and exploitation brought on by the industrial revolution throughout Europe in the the 1700 and 1800s, the co-operative has come into its own as a recognized legal corporate form, growing to directly employ 250 million people in 2.6 million co-ops worldwide. The International Co-operative Alliance (ICA) defines a co-op is defined as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”. The emphasis on autonomy and democracy – as well as a focus on members’ needs and not necessarily profits – is what draws many young people to the model once they learn about it.
There are excellent programs in co-operative management within post-secondary institutions across Canada, from Victoria to Halifax. Each offers a slightly different perspective but they all work together to advance the model and train new leaders. That said, they often attract students who are already active in the co-operative space. What is often missing from the landscape is the integration of education about co-operatives into mainstream business schools and classes, so as to expose more young people to the model.
The benefits could flow both ways: the potential of using co-operatives as case studies in business programs could have a natural advantage given the model’s inherent transparency and democratic governance structure. Gleaning information and feedback to develop a robust case study would be made easier by these characteristics. Co-operatives, on the other hand, could benefit from the expertise of those within these institutions and could attract interest in the model.
Is there demand for a shift toward more education on co-operatives? At its most recent annual conference in Toronto in June of this year, the Canadian Association for Studies in Co-operation featured a strategic engagement workshop focused on innovation incubators, curriculum, and experiential learning within post-secondary institutions. Bringing together academics, practitioners, and students, the sessions were an opportunity to forge new relationships, question tired practices, and develop creative strategies. Many representatives from incubators and business schools spoke of a growing student demand to focus on business models that engage meaningfully with social and environmental considerations: co-operatives have done so for over a century.
Sustainable development is at the very core of co-operative enterprises. One of the model’s 7 core principles invokes concern for community: more specifically, it calls co-ops to “work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members”. It should come as no surprise that the ICA has been one of the earliest international bodies to subscribe fully to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. If students are demanding a focus on models that promote socially and environmentally healthy practices, co-ops are a natural fit.
Moving forward, how do we strengthen the relationship between co-operatives and educational institutions to give students more options for innovation? One homegrown avenue for engagement lies in organising training programs within existing Canadian co-operative enterprises, which would support the development of a new generation of co-operative leadership to grow and thrive. Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada commissioned a Needs Assessment for Co-op Specific Training and identified numerous opportunities for more sharing between co‑ops and learning institutions. Suggested avenues for partnerships include shared training and education services that are specific to co-op needs, as well as sharing training curriculum, facilitators, best practices, and materials.
We can also look for inspiration abroad. At Finland’s Tampere University of Applied Sciences, students form co-operatives within their classes to address real-world business challenges. These students bring diverse skills to the table, ranging from media services to software engineering, and do so while being exposed to and learning about co-operative governance. It is easy to see how this experience would benefit both the students and the wider communities in which they live. Many of these students then chose to form consulting co-operatives as their long term employment platform after graduation.
The international motto of the co-operative movement is that co-operative enterprises build a better world. Deeper partnerships with educational institutions can help build this world faster and with students at the forefront.
About the Authors
Paul Cabaj is the Manager of Co-operative Development and Strategic Partnerships for Co-operatives and Mutuals Canada and has been an active developer and advocate for co-operatives in Canada and internationally for 20 years. email@example.com.
Aleksandra Szaflarska is a PhD student studying co-operative governance in conservation land trusts. She is a founding worker owner of Kitchener’s first craft brewery, Together We’re Bitter Co-operative Brewing. firstname.lastname@example.org