Co-ops and Universities: Seeking the Elusive Partnership

Part 1: The Case for Partnership

Brett Fairbairn, with Nora Russell

Co-operatives are community-based associations and enterprises accountable to their members and typically competing in markets for goods and services. Based on self-help, autonomy, and ages-old ways of working together, they improve the well-being of their members, foster values such as equity and inclusion, and strengthen communities.

Universities are among the oldest institutions in society, operating under deeply entrenched norms of self-governance and autonomy. They create knowledge for society, foster critical thinking and citizenship, and reproduce leadership and professions from generation to generation.

If a good partnership is one where the partners bring different strengths and characteristics to a common project, then universities and co-operatives have the makings of a great partnership. But partners have to find the right ways of working with each other, and this is more complicated than it might appear.

Why should universities and co-operatives pay attention to each other in the first place? For universities, the study of co-operatives should be part of their mission for two reasons: Co-operatives are important, and they are interesting. There are 8,500 co-operatives in Canada with more than 17 million members.[1] Co-operatives are responsible for the employment of 250 million people worldwide, and in G20 countries make up almost 12 percent of the employed population.[2] Co-operatives are also interesting because they are different — alternative businesses that present unique kinds of governance and participation that shed light on basic questions of human, social, and organizational dynamics, and offer fascinating teaching cases and research problems for faculty and students.

And why should co-ops care? Here are two reasons: history and the future.

Historically, adult-education and extension activities were part of how co-operatives were first created in Britain, Canada, the US, and many other countries. Up to the mid-twentieth century, only a small percentage of people attended colleges or universities, but informal and noncredit education took ideas like co-ops to the broad public. Young people learned about co-ops from parents and co-workers as they shovelled grain together, hauled in fish, or listened to the parish priest. More advanced ideas were spread by lectures in town halls or at co-op picnics, and by short noncredit residential courses.

In today’s world, growing numbers of people are educated in postsecondary institutions, and that is where they develop their ideas about society, business, and how the world works. By 2020, almost two-thirds of all jobs in the US and Canada will require postsecondary education as a prerequisite, the majority of that coming from universities.[3] The proportion of each age cohort who attend is similar. If this large majority of people — those who access postsecondary education — do not learn about co-operatives in their postsecondary education, where will they learn about them? It seems likely that formal education in colleges and universities will have to perform the function that informal co-op education did in the past.

For the future, co-operatives want to inspire young people as members, employees, and leaders. Co-ops want skills, talent, and knowledge to make co-operative enterprises more resilient, more nimble, and more effective in innovating and creating value in a complicated world. Where will co-operatives get the talent they require? Professionals and leaders are formed in colleges and universities. That is largely where the people and knowledge needed for the twenty-first century are created. If co-operatives were to neglect the ideas and graduates found in universities, they would be limiting themselves to a restricted pool of ideas and skills. Engaging with postsecondary education is part of how co-ops can open themselves to the future.

There is reason to think, then, that co-op–postsecondary partnerships may be rewarding for all parties — for co-ops and their members as well as for colleges or universities and their students. But co-operatives and educational institutions both face competing demands for the time, energy, and resources they could invest in partnerships with each other. Their missions may be compatible, but they are not the same. What can viable partnerships look like? Part 2 of this post will examine some possibilities.

Brett Fairbairn

Nora Russell







[1] Parliament of Canada, House of Commons, Special Committee on Co-operatives, Status of Co-operatives in Canada: Report of the Special Committee on Co-operatives, 1st sess., 41st Parliament, September 2012, p. 5.

[2] International Co-operative Alliance, (accessed 6 January 2016).

[3] Center on Education and the Workforce, Georgetown University, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020, (accessed 6 January 2016).