Student cooperation can help us reclaim “belonging” post-Covid

Sean Porter is Residential Experience Coordinator at Bristol University Students’ Union

As we move beyond Covid, we should rethink and re-evaluate the orthodox student experience framework that consistently struggles to address loneliness, isolation, and alienation.

Student cooperatives offer insights in how to build resilient and compassionate student communities, based on notions of belonging and agency.

To you I belong

“Belonging” at university typically implies some type of agency and control over studies, social life and living spaces. A feeling of ownership. A university that you can feel part of. Meet like-minded people, meet un-like minded people.

Join a society, volunteer a bit, play some sports. Feeling safe, empowered to speak up, getting involved with union campaigns, maybe even run to be an officer. These are all great things, and they go a long way in helping you feel as if you belong.

Yet despite all the opportunities for engagement, loneliness levels across the sector are always consistently high. Universities are a breeding ground for depression and many other severe mental health disorders. It feels like no matter what we offer as a service, as on the ground cannot break through the structural barriers that make so many students feel utterly miserable and alone.

Students unions are when it comes to connecting students to each – even in Covid we have led the way in innovative ways to develop social bonds – but that extra step, of politicising “belonging” through building new social structures in the shell of the old, is where the cooperative movement distinguished itself as an antidote against alienation.

Student cooperatives are voluntary organisations, whereby members exercise democratic ownership over the organisations they run.

Ethical in nature, cooperatives are built on the anarchist principles of mutual-aid, self-help, sustainability, and participatory democracy. self-run communities of solidarity, which require members to take an active role in maintaining and governing the organisation in a way that is geared towards care and social responsibility.

Student-led housing

As a student, I spent some time staying in housing cooperatives in Europe before working with some food cooperatives here in the UK. Before I got involved, my knowledge of how cooperatives run was limited. I knew that they provided alternative ownership structures, but beyond that I did not understand how they operated as a tangible lived space.

The best way to explain life in a student housing cooperative is by contrasting it to the experience in the private sector. Mainstream student accommodation — in particular “luxury” purpose-built accommodation — is often expensive, cramped and far removed from the fancy glossy images seen in marketing brochures. Rooms are highly sanitised and come with the expectation that tenants do not make any attempt to modify or personalise the space beyond the most superficial level.

Purpose-built private halls are not spaces which can be engaged with in any meaningful way: posters and artwork are arbitrarily removed, communal spaces are often scant and poorly kept, and students are subjected to uncomfortable levels of surveillance and private security.

I am not sure what “belonging” really means in this context, but it does not appear to promote the type of “autonomy”, “agency” or “ownership” pushed in the narratives of strategic documents and marketing material.

In talking with students, you quickly learn how restrictive living conditions impact the way they socialise and relate to each other as flatmates. A significant part of my job involves connecting new students to the broader city, helping them feel part of a larger community that goes beyond the university and the student’s union.

However, community and belonging starts in the home. It is hard to galvanise camaraderie and connection in living spaces that are geared entirely towards private profit.

Under these conditions, the most meaningful connections seem to be generated by a shared sense of despair – see the Rent Strike movement of the past ten years.

Democratic control

Student-led housing cooperatives offer a total contrast in terms of experience and expectation. To belong to the cooperative is to have democratic control over how the space is run, designed, and lived in.

The walls and ceilings are often alive with vibrant artwork, rooms are modified to cater for the needs of the members, and all decisions that impact the living spaces are established democratically via consensus.

Even the process of consensus decision-making is imbued with fun and frivolity. My first night in a cooperative involved a meeting on several topics — ranging from the distribution of surplus food, ideas for a bike repair scheme, and general housekeeping expectations – which was accompanied by wine, freshly prepared food from the community garden, music, and lots of comfy seating options.

Everyone was given space to speak; a collective attempt was made at communal facilitating, which occasionally misfired, but ultimately added to the playful and relaxed atmosphere of the meeting.

Direct democracy and housekeeping infused with good food and friendship. The social and the political blended into a single process of community building and belonging.

This is not to say housing cooperatives are perfect utopias. A few friends of mine have told me stories of abusive and power-mad members, instances of discrimination, and failures to cater for the diverse needs of all members.

However, cooperatives are set-up to be resilient in dealing with these issues. Prospective members typically buy into the values of solidarity and social justice and therefore the majority feel empowered to keep these spaces inclusive.

With increased autonomy comes the confidence and ability to resolve conflict internally. The community gains strength through each mediation. In this context, cooperative living spaces are not sanitised of conflict, but rather conflict is resolved – where possible – through the means of democratic action.

Beyond Housing

Student housing cooperatives are firmly ingrained in the broader communities they live in. Indeed, volunteering and community outreach are core values of the cooperative movement.

However, there are a multitude of other student-led cooperatives that focus on a range of issues beyond housing. Students for Cooperation are a federation of cooperatives that operate across the UK; everything from food, cycling, zero-waste, and sustainable swap-shops are running according to cooperative principles.

Existing as horizontal structures alongside their universities and students unions, student-led cooperatives highlight a desire for collective ownership and autonomy over the activities that make up the student experience.

Experiments in alternative modes of sourcing, producing and ownership are vital for changing a global landscape that will have to be more cooperative if we are to exist sustainably. Here notions of belonging are deeply rooted in our relationship to the natural world and the people we share it with.

Universities champion themselves as hubs of innovation and enterprise. It would be great to see cooperative initiatives at the forefront of conversations we have around student innovation — perhaps reclaiming the word from its current context within Business Schools and the tech industry.

Encouraged by the idea that we have agency over the communities and economies we live in, cooperatives show how students can take matters of belonging into their own hands, creating systems that are socially and environmentally just in the process.

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