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Coming soon, a university where students could set their own tuition fees

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The Co-operative College is looking into creating a university where students could help set fees and academics’ pay.

What if students helped decide how much they should pay? What if they were involved in determining academic salaries too?

This happens at Mondragon University, a non-profit co-operative in northern Spain, and it is now inspiring plans for a new kind of higher education institution in the UK.

The Co-operative College, a charity with a 100-year pedigree in promoting co-operative values, has formed a working group of teachers, students and others interested in alternative education to look into developing a co-operative university. The group is due to report to the college board next month. The college will hold a conference in Manchester in November to discuss its findings.

Co-operative principles appear to be a long way from the increasingly marketised system of higher education promoted by recent government policy, but the impetus for the new institution comes from changes introduced by April’s Higher Education and Research Act. In an attempt to encourage competition leading to innovation, the act makes it easier for new groups interested in providing degree-level education to gain degree-awarding powers.

At the same time, associates of the college were interested in finding solutions to what they saw as growing dissatisfaction with the university system – experienced academics unable to find permanent contracts, others keen to try innovative ways of teaching but not supported by their institutions, management emphasis on financial rather than pedagogical

Eduardo Ramos Arroyo, who has been drawing up a report for the working group as part of his MBA at UCL Institute of Education, says: “Many people have in mind big corporations, such as Google and Apple entering higher education. But how about something really challenging, like higher education institutions based on co-operative principles?”

The plans could gain impetus from a report to be launched this week by the Higher Education Commission, an independent body made up of leaders from business, education and the three main political parties. It will suggest that, so far, rather than promote innovation, recent higher education policies – particularly changes to funding – have helped entrench the traditional model.

The report will say the funding system presents “serious risks to the diversity of the higher education system” and many “challenger institutions” championed by government, far from challenging the standard three-year degree, aspire to it. Meanwhile, outside the established funding system, interest in new ways to offer higher education is growing.