Co-ops and Universities: Seeking the Elusive Partnership

Part 4: What Are the Prospects?

Brett Fairbairn, with Nora Russell

Part two of this blog post looked at the three I’s of co-op/university partnerships — the Individual, Incentive, and Institutionalizing approaches. Part three examined the three F’s — Faculty, Fee, or Free. It is tempting to match up the I’s and the F’s to create some IF’s. The individual networking strategy for co-ops can link up with the faculty-position-based approach of particular academics. An incentivizing offer from co-ops can match a fee-for-service mentality on the part of an enterprising professor. And an institutionalized approach by co-ops can provide core funding to support the knowledge-for-free style of engagement where faculty are interested and able to follow this model. I suggest that there are at least three equilibria for co-op–university partnerships:

  • IF (1): Individual networking by co-ops to seek out willing faculty — those faculty commit resources they control as individuals
  • IF (2): Incentive strategy by co-ops — fee-for-service types of activity accepted by those faculty who respond
  • IF (3): Institutionalized commitments by co-ops — “for-free” types of activities by faculty, who can contribute larger blocks of time without fee-for-service types of arrangements

These are, of course, ideal types. There will be variations, including hybrid models. Simple as they are, perhaps these categories can help academics and co-ops to think through their modes of collaboration so they can develop the right strategies for each partner.

And what are the prospects?

Since each combination requires progressively more resources and greater commitment from each side, I predict that they will be decreasingly common. In other words, IF(1)s would outnumber IF(2)s, and IF(3)s would be the most rare. It is unlikely that one model will take over. There will remain a diversity of models reflecting different co-op partners, universities, and faculty members and their preferences in different regions, and they will change over time.

Where partners do not solve alignment issues well, the result will be work of low quality from the perspective of one or both sides. Without conscious and intentional action on both sides, the likely outcome will be a patchwork from region to region, university to university, co-op to co-op, with uneven or mediocre quality of outcomes and dissatisfaction on both sides. So what can co-ops and academics do to improve the number and quality of partnerships?

I have seven suggestions.

  1. People need to be realistic. Neither side can buy or harangue the other into doing what it wants. Co-operatives will not behave as academics tell them to, but as their members and leaders tell them to. And academics will not do what co-ops tell them. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, universities and their expertise cannot be bought.

The average annual research-grant revenue (see table below) in one of Canada’s major universities is $350 million per year; a middling university might receive another $33 million in fundraising donations. These are huge sums of money that likely dwarf what co-ops can afford. Even then, however, they do not buy service. Donations by business people fund scholarships, create centres, and generally build relationships without dictating specific work. But, although co-ops do not have as much money to bring to the table, they do have much else of interest to academics and students: their democratic character, their unique governance, their community basis and societal missions.

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The key is for each partner to have a realistic appraisal of what it has to offer and of what pressures and incentives the other side faces. Starting from there, they can develop a relationship.

  1. The partners need to meet. Academics and co-ops need to make efforts to get to know each other — to visit, to extend invitations, to attend each other’s meetings, to share space in communication materials. No one has unlimited time for this, but fortunately, networks enable people to leverage each other’s contacts.
  2. Co-ops and academics should stress their common values and principles, which include not-for-profit service to communities and to the public. Stressing shared values will reduce the tensions and potential problems in every partnership model.
  3. Partners need to develop history with each other. Within each type of partnership, longer-term or repeated interactions are better than isolated one-offs. Repeats, follow-ups, and spin-offs with known partners serve an important function of deepening trust and legitimacy.
  4. Co-ops and academics should acknowledge that there will be a range of models of sector-university collaboration. Each has its merits and each will help inspire others. A strategic approach will seek a range and balance of different approaches, but it will likely not achieve a standardized or uniform model. Organizations that have significant resources and the ability to make clear commitments (both co-ops and universities) will have greater capacity to undertake the longer-term and more far-reaching kinds of collaborations. It is important that they do so because it sets an example.
  5. Co-ops should not aim to access only specific knowledge or skills but, rather, to achieve systemic change across universities. Canada has more than a hundred universities and colleges and nearly two thousand postsecondary business programs; any institution and any program may be training future co-op leaders. The idea of developing individual partnerships with each of them is daunting. Co-ops should aim, instead, to have a system-wide impact by high-profile partnerships that have wide influence.
  6. Finally, each side will benefit from a sectoral approach that looks beyond narrow organizational interests. Both can ask, what’s in it for us? But asking too narrowly will lead to fragmented and siloed activities that fall short of their potential. There are bigger gains — more knowledge, more skilled people, more interesting ideas — to be achieved in a broader, sectoral scope of interaction.

Partnerships between co-ops and universities have historically been small in scope. Possibly 10 percent of Canadian universities have well-developed co-op partnerships, and likely fewer than 1 percent of faculty are involved.[1] And of two million postsecondary students, the number engaged in co-op–specific experiences is probably more like 0.1 percent. There is, in other words, considerable room for growth.

Co-operatives need universities and colleges to shape the world views, skills, and knowledge of people in ways that are compatible with co-operative missions and values. Universities include many who would gladly have access to the fascinating educational and research opportunities presented by co-operatives. There is a strong basis for mutually beneficial partnerships. And as always, wherever a few leaders who want to make a difference sit down together, there is an opportunity for a new beginning.

[1] The Canadian Association of University Teachers reports 68,000 members, but this includes not only teachers, librarians, and researchers but also “general staff and other academic professionals.” (accessed 7 January 2016).

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Brett Fairbairn

Nora Russell