The Social Science Centre: a radical new model for higher education

A co-operative education centre is opening in England, with no fees and no formal distinction between students and staff. A radical alternative to the Coalition's marketisation of higher education, the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, is set to open in the next academic year.

A co-operative education centre is opening in England, with no fees and no formal distinction between students and staff. A radical alternative to the Coalition's marketisation of higher education, the Social Science Centre, Lincoln, is set to open in the next academic year. OurKingdom talks to Mike Neary about the new centre.

What is the Social Science Centre? 

The Social Science Centre (SSC) is a Lincoln based not-for-profit, co-operative model of higher education, managed by its members - academics, students, administrators, educators, activists - on the basis of democratic, non-hierarchical principles. We are planning to get our first students at the start of the next academic year, October 2012. The Centre is currently based in the middle of the city, in premises owned by the local county council.


A predecessor in the radical education tradition

When was the Centre established?

We began thinking about setting something up in the summer of 2010. The real catalyst for me was the decision by the Tory-led Coalition government, following recommendations in the Browne Report, to withdraw the teaching grant from the arts, humanities and the social sciences. As you know, the money now follows the students. If students think that social sciences, the arts and humanities are worthwhile activities, then they will be funded. If not, there will be no social science, arts or humanities in English universities.  This removal of public funding from these subject areas is a fundamental assault on the critical and radical traditions of academic activity, and an act of vandalism against ‘the idea of the University’ as a progressive sociological and political project.

Who’s involved?

There were just a few of us in the beginning: academics, university administrators and students, working in and around the East Midlands area. The group has grown rapidly so that it now includes almost 30 members and more than 80 subscribers to the mailing list from around the UK and elsewhere. And we haven’t done any publicity yet. I am just about to send out invitations to a long list of academics around the world, asking if they would like to get involved. 

The Centre does not have any formal links with the University of Lincoln or with any other university. Each of us has our own reasons for being a part of the Centre. We all share progressive political values, based on the principles of social justice and democracy, but the key issue is what we do rather than what we say we believe in.

How are you funded?

No-one is getting paid. No fees are required. We are all volunteers. Members can make donations, based on their monthly income or in any form of ad hoc payments. At the moment, we only have about £400 in the bank - the co-op of course - but we are raising more. For now, we are going to use the money for research projects and for summer schools and setting up a journal. Part of the centre’s work will be to find alternative forms of social wealth not based on monetary values.

Have you signed up any students?

Part of the project is to dissolve the distinction between student and teacher; we are all student-teachers. We are all members of the centre. However, we will still have students who want to come out of the centre with an award that is equivalent to a university degree. Each SSC student will receive a certificate in higher education, with an extensive written transcript detailing their academic and intellectual achievements. An important principle will be that courses will be designed and delivered by students and teachers and both students and academics will be involved in the assessment of student work.

But we are not going to advertise for students until we have set up a clear framework for how and what we are going to teach. We are working on all this at the moment, and will have something more concrete in the next couple of months. We are planning on signing up about twenty students in the first year and currently there are prospective students working with us as an equal part of the group to devise a framework. 

Aren't you just contributing to David Cameron's Big Society?

I am well aware of the argument that by working for free we are undermining the public university and contributing to the Big Society agenda. I can only respond to this from my own perspective.

Firstly, I am continuing, at the same time, to fight for what is worth keeping from the current higher education system by actively supporting student occupations, joining marches and protesting in various other ways as a member of the Education Activist Network. Secondly, I believe it is imperative that we set up, as a matter of urgency, an alternative system of HE for students who do not want to take on the vast amount of debt, as a mortgage on the rest of their lives. Thirdly, faced with this emergency it is vital that academics create sites of intellectual activity which are not susceptible to the political whims of the current political and economic process. 

Fourthly, I am not for the Big Society; rather, I am against the totalising society of Capital. This, for me, is not a project to maintain the current situation, but is a way of building a new social system grounded in the production of knowledge and the distribution of resources, based on ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’. And, finally, I am not wedded to the idea of co-operatives. The co-operative model is currently one of the most progressive organisational forms that we have; but I expect us to discover new forms of autonomous organisation and autonomous education as the crisis deepens and the alternatives intensify and become established.

In sum, my own position is that the Social Science Centre is about much more than defending the public university; it’s about creating an entirely new kind of university out of the ruins of what the university has become.

What is the SSC’s educational philosophy?

We don’t have one educational philosophy. Like I said, the key issue is what we do rather than what we believe in. But, for me, there needs to be a clear link between revolutionary social action and revolutionary social theory. For myself, I am attracted to concepts that have emerged out of Autonomous Marxism: ‘autonomist education’ and ‘co-research’ (conricerca).  ‘Autonomous education’ is a critical response to the crisis of the university, involving an alliance between faculty and students in co-operative learning, forming an experimental space for an academic commons against the pedagogy of debt and enclosure. The principle of ‘co-research’ involves students and academics working together as a form of political practice, so that the production of knowledge becomes a key principle of self-organisation and radical subjectivity.

More broadly, The Social Science Centre is rooted in the history of how those excluded from higher education have organized their own intellectual lives and learning in collaboration with university academics. Historical examples in the UK include Working Mens’ Clubs and University Settlements, Free Libraries, Extension Classes, Ruskin College and the Workers Educational Association, (as discussed by Jonathan Rose and Angela Thody). 

The SSC is grounded in forms of organisation that have arisen out of the development of the Social Centre network in the UK and around the world. Social Centres have emerged as sites for the development of autonomous politics and resistance to the growing corporate take-over, enclosure and alienation of everyday life. Social Centres convert local unused buildings into self-organised sites for the provision of radical community use: social services, music, art and publishing. A key characteristic that the SSC takes from all these forms of provision is the concept of localness. The Centre will make use of the most up to date educational technologies, but this is not an online or web-based provision. It is important that the Centre is in a real space at the heart of its local community.

How will it work in practice? (e.g. how would a daily lecture at the Centre differ from your average lecture at a 'standard' university?)

I don’t think there are going to be many set piece lectures. The model of teaching and learning is collaboration, rather than transmission, by which I mean it won’t be teachers instructing and explaining things to students. Teachers and students and the supporting members have much to learn from each other. 

The subjects taught at the Centre will be based on the core Social Sciences (Sociology, Politics and Philosophy), broadly defined, in ways that involve the knowledge and experience of the teachers. All students will be part-time, with most teaching taking place in the evenings and at weekends. While a full-time degree normally takes three years, it is envisaged that students at the Centre will take up to six years to obtain their undergraduate certificate in higher education, up to four years for the equivalent of a Masters and up to eight years for the equivalent to a PhD.

Does the Centre see itself as part of a wider movement? 

The SSC is inspired by and connected with movements of resistance against the corporatisation of higher education in Europe and around the world. These movements include the Edu-Factory Collective for whom the crisis of higher education is part of a wider global social and political crisis. It also has links with and draws inspiration from the Transition Network, a movement seeking to find ways to build sustainable and resilient models for local community development based on alternative forms of energy production, health care, education provision, economic exchange and agriculture. 

The SSC acknowledges that while these radical alternatives are yet to get beyond the constraints of capitalist education, each in their own way provides a space within which lessons learnt from the struggle to create a dissenting form of higher education can be further developed (as proposed by, for example, John Holloway and The Invisible Committee).

Does the SSC aim, in turn, to inspire a new educational movement in the UK? 

While the centre is located in Lincoln and based around the social sciences, it is hoped and expected that this model of small scale, self-funded higher education provision will be adapted for different subject areas and in different locations nationally and internationally. These multi-various centres will provide a supportive and co-operative network to further advance this radical model for higher and higher education in the UK and around the world.


To become a member of the Social Science Centre, please submit an application on the centre's website. 

About the author

Professor Mike Neary is the Dean of Teaching and Learning at the University of Lincoln. @mikeneary