The Mondragon cooperative experience

In advance of our upcoming #WAOBasque conference in partnership with the Wales Co-operative Centre, Fred Freundlich from Mondragon University has written a blog explaining the background of the University and its role in the Mondragon group…

mondragon-logoHello from Mondragon University in the Basque Country. Two of us from the University, Leire Uriarte and Fred Freundlich, will be holding workshops at the upcoming Mutual Benefits Conference and we wanted to talk a bit here about the University and its role in the Mondragon group, since our time at the Conference will be limited.

For those unfamiliar with the word “Mondragon”, it is the name of an industrial town in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa, where a large network of successful worker cooperatives began in the 1950s and has continued to prosper up to the present day. The group took on the name of the town, Mondragon, and it now involves about 100 worker-cooperative companies in advanced manufacturing, retail, banking, technology R&D and other services.

What does the University have to do with all this?

In short, it gave birth to the co-op group. The whole Mondragon cooperative experience grew out of initiatives in education, including the University. A Catholic priest named Arizmendiarreta arrived in Mondragon in 1941 and immediately decided that a large part of his mission should focus on education, sadly lacking just after the Spanish Civil War. He created a small technical school in 1943, but also started all kinds of other educational projects, formal and informal, with children and adults, in classrooms and in the community. It was often just as much community organizing as it was education, but, in any case, all this activity was crucial to Mondragon’s later success.

The technical-vocational college he created was recreated in later years in nearby towns for clerical and  bookkeeping studies and then also for teachers and, out of these colleges, three centers of higher education emerged in the 1960s and 70s in engineering, business and education. For a couple of decades these three centers collaborated more or less loosely, but then in 1998 they joined forces to create Mondragon University and a fourth center was formed later.

Today, Mondragon University has four faculties (Engineering, Business, Gastronomic Scences and Humanities & Education) where about 4800 students are completing vocational-college, university or postgraduate degrees. They can choose to study from among various specialties of engineering, business, entrepreneurship, gastronomy/culinary arts, audiovisual communication or three subfields in education. Each faculty has its “story” and relevance to Mondragon, of course, but the Faculty of Humanities & Education might also be interesting to Wales for a particular reason: the Basque language, “Euskara”. The teachers college was formed in the mid-1970s to help train primary and secondary teachers to work in Basque, as one of many efforts in the Basque region undertaken to revitalize the language.

The university’s role is, in certain ways, different from that of conventional universities, given its very close relationship to Mondragon’s cooperative businesses. The first Mondragon cooperative was formed by five graduates of the initial technical school and many later cooperatives were created and staffed by Mondragon University graduates. The University is tightly integrated into the Mondragon group and central to its mission are:

  • knowledge transfer, that is, helping organizations innovate in product and process technologies; in work, management and ownership, and in teach and learning methods; as well as…
  • preparing students with the practical knowledge and social competencies to become effective worker members of the companies in the group or teachers in regional schools.

MU graduates are certainly free to go to work for conventional companies or schools and its professors work with conventional as well as cooperative organizations in knowledge transfer projects. Still, MU is an integral member of the Mondragon network and its central focus is to contribute to cooperative community and economic development in the region by collaborating with companies and schools on applied projects, providing them with skilled graduates and promoting entrepreneurship in business and education.

The University pursues this mission in different ways. FIRST, it is itself a cooperative organization. The faculties are legally structured as nonprofit educational cooperatives and together they form the second degree co-op that is the University. Each faculty has three constituencies (staff, students and “collaborating members” — local companies, town authorities, etc.) and each constituency has one third of the votes in cooperative governance bodies (General Assembly and Governing Council).

A SECOND strategy to fulfill this mission focuses on teaching and learning methods that are very applied and often group-based: students do extensive problem-based, project-based learning in groups, grappling with how to address practical issues in collaborative teams.

THIRD, students must complete multiple placement experiences over the four years, working and frequently doing couse work in local co-operatives. The idea is to for the university to be as close to the companies as possible.

FINALLY, the university tries to encourage cooperative values. This is maybe our hardest task, both in terms of doing it well and in terms of knowing how well it is working. One cannot “teach” values in a traditional classroom format and one cannot evaluate them with an examination. Despite the diverse obstacles, a variety of activities are organized, inside and outside the classroom, so that students and professors can … not teach… but question, debate, discuss etc. … and that way help each other learn the values that should underlie a successful enterprise whose ownership is widely shared and whose decisions should be made in participatory ways. This “values education” has been a perennial challenge for Mondragon University, in fact, for all the Mondragon co-ops, and is sure to remain one of our most important and trying undertakings.

MONDRAGON Corporation – 2018 – English – Inglés – Anglais – Englisch – Ingelesa – Inglese – Inglês from MONDRAGON Corporation on Vimeo.

That’s all for now. We look forward to talking with you all about it at the upcoming conference on Tuesday 4 December.

We would also like to invite you to listen in to the webinar on the afternoon of 3 December – Can the social economy save us? What can Wales learn from the Basque experience?