University Post
University of Copenhagen
Independent of management


The Utopian University

There lies a university, where the students and employees decide everything. Where there is comprehensive feedback for everyone – and a job waiting at the end of the exam period. The University Post was in Spain to visit the utopian university.

The first time I hear about Mondragon is at a conference at the beginning of June.

A few hundred researchers from around the world have gathered at Aarhus University’s Copenhagen campus to discuss ‘Future Universities.’
There is a mix of hope and doubt in the air, while the participants make presentations and mingle. Hope, because the wonders of modern technology could be part of democratising and reinvigorating tertiary education. Doubt, because there seems to be a consensus that it is going in the wrong direction.

The chatter carries over to the conference lunch: We are drowning in administration. Research freedoms are under pressure. Universities are being run as if they’re graduate factories under CEO management. Smaller programs are closing, education’s formative capacity is dwindling. Or as Davydd Greenwood, a recently retired anthropology professor from the US, put it:

“We are heading down the wrong path. The students and employees in the faculties have no voice. The universities are led by leaders of the business world, who are being dropped in via parachute. We have more managers than workers. The debt burden is crushing for the students. The administrative body makes decisions without understanding anything about education, research and formation. And the only winners are the high-paid managers at the top of the pyramid. It is a terrible system.”


Davydd is behind a session on ‘Alternative Universities.’ This is where he pulls a short Basque man to the stage, who loads a PowerPoint presentation so packed with organizational charts, that you risk missing the radical things he’s describing.

His name is Jon Altuna and he is the vice rector for Mondragon University in Spain, a cooperative university which is owned and managed by the employees and students. He and the rector are mere figureheads.

It sounds like a highly democratic educational utopia. Some kind of wacky 1970s experiment, drowning in endless committee meetings and churning our perennial student types unwilling to get a job. Except, it doesn’t. 90 percent of the students have a job one year after their bachelor – and that’s during a crisis period.

Davydd Greenwood has researched the Spanish university. He is a fan:

“Mondragon is evidence that you can find an alternative to the national system. It works, because people can decide how things work and are therefore also willing to do them,” he says, when we speak with him the next day.

Maybe utopia is worth checking out.

Welcome to Mondragon

The highway to Mondragon winds through the green Basque mountain until it hits a narrow, well-hidden valley around 70 kilometres from Bilbao.

There lies a small city with 22, 000 inhabitants known for two things: one is the fight for Basque independence. The other is Mondragon Corporation, Spain’s seventh largest business group. It consists of over 100 cooperatives, which are run by independent firms and are owned by the workers. The majority operate the machines and take part in the industry. There is a supermarket chain, a bank, an insurance firm. And a little university of 4000 students.

“Mondragon is evidence that you can find an alternative to the national system. It works, because people can decide how things work and are therefore also willing to do them” – Davydd Greenwood, anthropology professor

I meet the vice rector Jon Altuna at Mondragon University’s Faculty of Engineering, which is found among a row of concrete blocks from the 1970s, at the foot of the hills in the outskirts of the city.

“One thing you will notice is that we are far more specialised than a large, public university such as Copenhagen’s”, says Altuna, fiddling with a PowerPoint presentation.

You cannot study law in Mondragon. Nor theology, most of the natural sciences, health science, social sciences or humanities. The university churns out engineers, specialists to the education sector, business managers, entrepreneurs – and most recently – gastronomy researchers at the new Faculty of Gastronomic Sciences, which moved into a prestigious building in the food hub San Sebastian in 2011.

Mondragons University’s Faculty of Engineering. Photo: Mondragon University.

But the first thing I notice is that the university’s entire administration takes up about as much space as the editorial room of Universitetsavisen. Davydd Greenwood tipped me off about the ultra-streamlined setup: “They are only three – the rector, the vice rector and the general secretary!” In reality there are also a few student assistants, but that’s still not a lot of employees. For an institution ten times its size, the administration of UCPH is 100 times as big.

While I wonder how it all works, Altuna proudly explains Mondragon’s democratic structure: all faculties are lead as independent cooperatives. Researchers, educators and administrators contribute 15, 000 euros to be co-owners and vote in the general assemblies. Here, they are joined by an equal number of students and representatives from the local community’s businesses and organisations.

At the engineering faculty’s general assembly, there are 200 from each group. They choose their dean, and together with other faculties – rector and vice rector. They also have a Governing Board made up of four employees, four students and four representatives from the local community, which controls how the dean runs the faculty.

The question is thus, what decisions Altuna can make as vice-rector.

“Nothing in relation to the faculties’ activities,” he says. “Nor can the rector.”

So the next question is what he and the rector actually do.

“Our role is to harmonise. We try to push the faculties in the same direction. We also represent the institution, and we run cross-field, strategic projects. But we have nothing to do with the curriculum.”

And if the faculties don’t wish to be harmonised?

Altuna smiles.

“They are independent cooperatives. We can try to convince them, but we can never force them.”

Where does the money come from?

Altuna takes me on a tour of the faculty’s buildings, where the interior is far more luxurious than their dismal facades. Where does the money come from?

The answer is, in part: the students.

“We don’t like to be categorized as a private university, but that is what we are,” says Altuna.

It costs 6000 euros per year to study at Mondragon University. The actual expense is 10, 000, says Altuna, but the university covers a portion from its own coffers. Student payments contribute to 40 percent of expenses, public sources give 15, and the university must make up the rest through external grants and by selling research projects and training to local companies.

Back at his office, I meet Oscar and Karmele, who both study Business Management at the Faculty of Business Studies in the nearby city of Oñati. I ask them how they are able to fund their degrees.

“We work,” they both say.

In fact, the studies are organised around it. Four hours at university in the morning, four hours work in the afternoon – or the other way around. The majority of students work for one of the cooperatives in the area. A portion of them, including Oscar and Karmele, work for the university.

“The professors offer us work or help us find it,” says Karmele. At the same time, both Oscar and Karmele have received scholarships from the university, which together with their student jobs allows them to fund their private university studies. But the arrangement does not come without its challenges:

“We don’t have enough time,” says Oscar. “Last year we had to produce 21 reports, several of them 50 pages long, and we can’t do that when we also have to work.”

“I chose Mondragon because of its participatory approach. If I am unsatisfied with something, I go there personally and ask to have it changed” – Karmele, student at The Faculty of Business Studies at Mondragon University

It’s a situation many students in Copenhagen are familiar with. The question is, whether they have ever encountered Mondragon’s approach to dealing with the problem. At the university, each team chooses representatives for the Student Council, and as one of his team representatives, Oscar went to the faculty’s Quality Department with a complaint. After a meeting with professors, the number of reports was reduced.

“I chose Mondragon because of its participatory approach,” says Karmele. “If I am unsatisfied with something, I go there personally and ask to have it changed.”

Overall, the students have very close contact with the professors. Each lecturer is a personal supervisor for four to five students and holds several one-on-one meetings across the semester, where they get feedback from all of the students’ professors.

Neither Oscar nor Karmele know what they will do when they are finished with their Bachelor degrees in two years. But there is still time to figure it out. The entirety of the final year is spent with a company, where the students must write a report which the company is able to use. 90 percent of the bachelor students from Mondragon secure a job one year after they graduate. 40-50 percent end up in a job at one of the local cooperatives.

On the way out the door, I ask what has left the biggest impression on them during their first year at Mondragon University.

At first, they don’t know what to say. Then Oscar smiles.

“The parties,” he says.

“Oh, the meetings… There are so many meetings”

It’s been a few years since Laurentzi Aretxabaleta studied machine engineering, debated and partied at Mondragon University. Today, he is a researcher and lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering, specialising in composite materials. His official title is “Associate Professor”, just as it is for the other teachers at the university. There is no “professor” at Mondagron. You are an associate professor from the day you are hired, until the day you stop (which, technically, could be the day you die, because employment at Mondragon University – like the rest of the city’s cooperatives – is lifelong.)

“If we are overseas, we sometimes need to refer to ourselves as professors so it is understood that we have a strong academic grounding,” he says, stroking his hipster-length red beard.

“If a decision benefits the interests of the entire cooperative, not just me, then I must accept it” – Laurentzi Aretxabaleta, researcher and lecturer at Mondragon University’s Faculty of Engineering

After his Ph.D., he was offered a job at both MU and the university in Le Havre in France. He chose to remain in The Basque Country due to the research team – and due to the system which he had come to value as a student.

“From the beginning I have felt that I could come forward with input to all the important decisions in the firm. There are committees and groups, where you can have your say and have it taken seriously and which allows you to have influence. I also experienced this as a student.”

The other side of the coin is that his research doesn’t always come first.

“If a decision benefits the interests of the entire cooperative, not just me, then I must accept it.”

And he can certainly find himself having to make uncomfortable decisions. His colleagues at the Faculty of Business recently voted to go down in salaries by 20 percent in order to keep the faculty’s budget afloat.

Overall, his average day as an educator and researcher at the Utopian university is not always rosy.

A Danish researcher would probably turn his nose up at the fact that all research at Mondragon is applied research. At the same time, Laurentzi is battling – just like all researchers in Denmark – to find external sources for his research projects and believes that it is becoming harder and harder to score big in the grant lottery.

And then there is another downside – one which is probably not unfamiliar to UCPH academics, but which begins to take on epic proportions at Mondragon:

“The meetings,” he says, taking his hand to his forehead. “There are so many meetings! I can have 10-12 meetings in one week. If you are both a lecturer and researcher and a member of “the Basque language group” and then “the social council”, then you are crazy – because you won’t be able to work.”

Anja C. Andersen’s dream

Two weeks after my trip to the Basque region, I am sitting in the office of astrophysicist Anja C. Andersen at the Dark Cosmology Centre.

The democratic approach of Mondragon sparks enthusiasm in Andersen, who as a member of UCPH management, is in the process of formulating “The university UCPH should aim to be in 2029.”

“I was a huge advocate of the old university model (with a democratically elected management – ed.) despite its mistakes and all that was missing. Because it is those who are part of the system, who are able to determine how to best run it.”

Andersen believes that the students of the future will have a better opportunity to choose study places at a strongly specialised university. She doesn’t look at UCPH’s future this way, because there is a huge leap from a local, provincial university in The Basque Country which educates the workforce for local companies to an educational juggernaut in the Danish capital, which according to Andersen will need to rise to bigger tasks both now and into the future.

“One of the most important things to have happened in the 2029 process is that we in the board have agreed that we will have a classic university of cultural value. We want to have the small programs. UCPH should have the widest possible range of programs, because we cannot predict what the future Denmark will need. At the same time, we will have a UCPH, which aspires to the absolutely highest possible academic level. We educate both the elite, and the masses.”

Andersen is well aware that this strategy will create major challenges for university management.

“We will fight for the politicians to give us proper frameworks. They need to tone down their documentation requirements, so we don’t need to use so many resources on report writing and explaining everything.”

Anja C. Andersen. Photo: Lars Juul Hauschildt

It hits me, that the management’s vision sounds like a continuation of the university as it stands today, except without the irritating intervention from Parliament in Christiansborg.

She nods. “Yes, on a sunny day when everything is working.” But Andersen hopes that the digitalisation of education can free up time and allow professors to give students the feedback and guidance, they yearn for.

“Why should students sit in the auditorium and see me give a lecture, if they can go online and see a Nobel Prize winner do the same thing better at Caltech in the US?” she says.

But there are still major challenges between the elite and the masses:

“It is expensive to educate the masses, and it is expensive to buy new instruments and laboratories which will educate the elite. Can we do it?” she asks and follows up with yet another question:

“And then there is a whole other challenge with the students. The mass university spreads its quality among the students. Should we take two paths? A research-focused elite path, or a mass education path, where we emerge from behind the university walls and try to incorporate businesses into the training?”

What do you think?

“I don’t like to put people in boxes. Everyone should have the opportunity.”

You must specialize!

In Silicon Valley in the US, Saad Ritzvi considers Andersen’s vision of a future UCPH that could be both a university for the elite and for the masses.
“That will be a challenge,” he says.

Ritzvi is a co-founder of recruitment firm Menton. Three years ago, he wrote the report ‘An Avalanche is Coming’ on the future of universities. Together with his co-workers Sir Michael Barber and Katelyn Donnelly, he argued that the established university system is about to be broken up.

The traditional, broad university is under economic pressure, pressured by the intake of masses, pressured by globalisation and digitalisation which make it possible for more than ever before to follow online courses of high educational quality. Think tanks and private institutions are breaking the monopoly on research – and the consequence is, according to Ritzvi, that future universities will not be able to offer the all-you-can-eat-buffet we were raised on.

Instead, Ritzvi depicts five models which the universities of the future can expect to sit within. The Elite University, The Mass University, The Niche University, The Local University and the Life-long Learning Mechanisms – the latter is a somewhat diffuse concept, for when an individual no longer needs to be enrolled in a university to take a tertiary education (see the box on this page).

One of the report’s points is that it is very difficult to be both an elite and a mass university.

“But it is not impossible” assures Ritzvi. “It will demand, that UCPH makes some very hard decisions regarding what it will include. That choose two or three areas and say: in this field, we will be the best and allocate the resources to become it.”

For some, it might sound like a gloomy future for UCPH –one where an unprofitable field ends up completely abandoned. However, they can take comfort that management is not looking into this path, and that not everyone sees the same thing as Ritzvi, when peering into the fortune-telling ball.

It’s gone!

In Brisbane, Australia, you can find the office of Peter Høj, Vice Chancellor at the University of Queensland which boasts just 50, 000 students. For him, there is no inherent opposition to being a broad university, which values the elite.

On the other hand, the large universities have some serious challenges when it comes to budgets, he says.

At the University of Queensland, an education costs 30, 000 –50, 000 kroner per year. In order to avoid increased user payments, Høj is constantly striving to maximise the university’s overall earnings.

The University receives 330 million annually in support from former students, but it is not enough and must be upped to a billion-dollar amount within the next ten years, he says.

Another way he wants to net funds for the university is through international students. Queensland University is made up of 25 percent international students, who already contribute almost two billion to the university coffers annually.

“The times when every single university had to prepare all course fundamentals with its own course material, they’re gone!” – Peter Høj, Vice Chancellor at the University of Queensland, Australia

And then there is administration, which must be streamlined:

“We have not developed as quickly as other service organizations. Within the next 5-10 years there will be computer systems with so much artificial intelligence, and there are many processes, which will be automatized.”

Ritzvi also talks about outsourcing some of universities’ administration.

But technology should not only be used to save jobs, stresses Høj. He sees a future, where the university will not use its resources to host a large number of lectures, when students can find them online:

“The times when every single university had to prepare all course fundamentals with its own course material, they’re gone! We will come to expect that you acquire a lot of the basic knowledge yourself before you get to the lecture. When you go to university, you’ll get a much more intensive education. We’ll use the time which has been freed up for our professors and researchers to develop you as a complete person – someone who can work in groups, be an entrepreneur, and where instead of preparing for your first job, you prepare for an entire career.”

This is where Høj’s vision of the future university merges with Andersen’s: universities must be closer to the students, and train and guide them.

It also echoes something else. A university with close mentorship between professors and students, with project-based learning in groups, which prepares students for their lifelong careers. Mondragon University.

Pintxo pote in Mondragon

It is Thursday night in Mondragon, and the city is buzzing.

“You call it ‘little Friday’ in Denmark, right?” says Altuna, who is fairly well-versed in Danish customs after his conference visit in Copenhagen.
Everyone goes out on Thursday night in Mondragon. A snack and a glass of red wine – known as Pintxo Pote in Basque Country – costs one euro at any bar. Altuna takes me on a little bar crawl.

We tend to meet people he knows. Professors from the faculty, and more students, including a former chair for the student council, with whom – explains Altuna – »I had to deal with several protests and occupy sit-ins.«

Every third person we meet seems to be connected to Mondragon University. And if they aren’t directly linked to the university, they are hired by one of Mondragon Corporation’s other cooperatives.

Altuna explains to me that five percent of the cooperative firm’s profit goes to an educational fund, which can only be used to purchase new equipment for the university – which subsequently, always has state-of-the-art laboratories. We chink glasses. I mumble something about how it is funny, really, that a cooperative university works so closely with the business sector. It prompts Jon to recall his favourite paradox: Mondragon’s democratic university utopia only became possible due to a new law introduced in 1997 which increased the privatisation of the university sector.

There is something special about this place, I think, making my way back to a little room at Hotel Mondragon after several red wines.

It is not until one week later, when Saad Ritzvi talks of “the local university” in his model, that it dawns on me. It is not just member participation and near-democracy. It is also the love of the city and the region that you can feel radiating from everyone you talk to. When you hear talk of social responsibility and Mondragon University, it’s about responsibility for the local society and its inhabitants – not a general duty to offer a broad education. It is a local university, which is completely built up around the goal of creating solutions for the local community.

The question is, what the future University of Copenhagen can learn from it.