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In my opinion

Why do so few business students learn about co-operatives?

The "Global 300" (the largest co-ops) have revenues equalling the tenth largest economy in the world.

BY PATRICIA BRADSHAW | JAN 09 2013

On Oct. 11, 2012, I stood before the 2,800 participants from 91 countries at the International Co-operative Summit in Quebec City. On behalf of Saint Mary’s University and the Sobey School of Business, I pledged to make the co-operative movement a more integral part of postsecondary education.

The United Nations designated 2012 as “International Year of Co-operatives” to highlight that co-operatives are major players in the world economy. The International Co-operative Alliance claims that the livelihood of half the world’s population is made secure by co-operatives; they have a billion members, and they employ over 100 million people – 20 percent more than multinational enterprises. The “Global 300” (the largest co-ops) have revenues equalling the tenth largest economy in the world.

According to the Canadian Co-operative Association, 17 million Canadians are co-op members, 150,000 Canadians work for co-ops, and 100,000 volunteer on their boards and committees. Canadian co-ops have $275 billion in assets, and recent studies show the survival rate of co-operative enterprises is 25 percent higher than that of investor-owned businesses. The Global 300 not only defied the financial crisis but actually grew during the recession.

Yet co-operatives are virtually unknown in the halls of academe, and certainly in business schools. Only a handful of the major business introductory textbooks mention this business form. Precious little research and teaching in fields from accounting to marketing to human resource management touch on co-operative enterprises.

The Sobey School of Business set out to remedy that lacuna more than a decade ago with its master of management – co-operatives and credit unions (MMCCU) program. To date, the three-year, mostly online program has welcomed almost 100 students from nine countries. Most are managers in co-operatives, sponsored by their employers.

The MMCCU program results from a partnership between the university and a consortium of more than 60 co-operatives and educators from seven countries. Our innovative program has an international faculty and a curriculum drawn from global co-operative business practice and research. Our program collaborates with universities in the U.S., U.K. and Europe and with co-operative studies centres in Canada, such as those at the universities of Victoria, Saskatchewan, York and Sherbrooke.

The curriculum builds from the ground up. For example, our accounting courses answer the question: “If regular businesses account for the maximization of shareholder value, how should co-ops not only shepherd financial resources but also fulfill member need?” Our marketing courses ask, “What is the co-operative advantage and how do we market it?”

In October, we convened an international conference on co-operative economics (www.imagine2012.coop), where 650 participants converged on Quebec City to celebrate the late Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate in Economics, and listen to world-renowned thinkers. Immediately afterwards, we joined Desjardins Group and the International Co-operative Alliance in hosting the International Summit of Co-operatives.

By the summit’s conclusion, university representatives had promised to collaborate on promoting study and teaching about co-ops, and I made 10 pledges on behalf of the university sector:

  1. Take the lead at senior levels of universities. For example, talk to other presidents and deans about the need to advance education in the area of co-operatives.
  2. Move to embed co-op education across the curriculum, not only in standalone courses and specialized degrees.
  3. Continue to develop research on co-operatives and disseminate it in journals.
  4. Think critically about co-operatives and find other ways to help communicate with managers and workers in the field.
  5. Collaborate with other universities. Establish a network to advance education in co-ops globally.
  6. Work on experiential learning opportunities for our students, such as the student-run co-ops in Quebec bookstores, food service and so on.
  7. Develop more for-credit and non-credit training.
  8. Ensure that promotion and hiring criteria in universities do not work against faculty with interests in alternatives such as the co-op model.
  9. Help lobby government to invest in education in co-operatives.
  10. Consider setting exams to test knowledge of co-operative principles and help build revolutionary spirit in universities.

Patricia Bradshaw is dean of the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University.

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  1. Sanjay Kumar Verma / January 27, 2013 at 02:57

    A very timely article,with good insights.A similar situation prevails in India,where cooperatives are struggling to make their presence felt in the mainstream education system. I think a global movement must be initiated to make cooperatives a part and parcel of the mainstream education system.A real beginning has to be made at the school level,where cooperatives are totally neglected in the school syllabus.In India the school syllabus totally ignores the cooperative sector.I have a firm conviction that if cooperatives are neglected in the mainstream education system,then the cooperative movement can not be strong.The initiatives of Sobey Business School can definitely show a direction for the future.