Participation Now

The Ragged University

These events are designed for sharing and learning in informal social spaces.

Alex Dunedin
20 November 2013

The Ragged University project rests on the concept that everyone is a unique and distinct body of knowledge, accredited with their own life experience and with a membership of one. The events we organise at the heart of the project are designed for sharing and learning in informal social spaces. Using available infrastructure and common technology, we can all open a learning space in the sorts of ‘third places’ which Ray Oldenburg describes - pubs, cafes, libraries. These are spaces we all own. The common technology around us - talking, projectors, computers and so forth - is all we need to begin to facilitate communication and create these knowledge landscapes.

Ragged University takes inspiration from the grassroots community achievements of the Victorians where informal schools proliferated, so much so that the collective movement improved everyone’s lives and created free education in the UK (1870 Forster Education Act).  The Ragged project is an attempt to rekindle and update the philanthropic traditions which brought about and cemented the free education system of the modern day.  By adapting Dr Andrew Bell’s Madras peer-led teaching method, and learning from Thomas Guthrie who spearheaded the Ragged Schools movement, the project aims to generate events and facilitate groups working together more, to aggregate the contributions of various individuals.

Anyone can do a talk, often held in pubs, where we bring food to share.  This occurs in many traditions, but is neatly described by the Native American Potlatch.  By putting shared food at the centre of the free events where people share their knowledge and experience, in environments which are co-owned, and by working to underpin all these self motivated individuals in their work, positive externalities emerge.

The events are all held in the informal places where we meet and socialise. These are an annex to formal spaces but are distinct from them. The result is that dynamic conversations, crucibles and encounters arise under friendly circumstances less bound by conventions or policy practices.  The theory of learning here is part predicated on the notion of how we go to formal meetings, run through formal rituals and then adjourn to informal spaces where the real work gets done – we have extended conversations and cement collaborations over drink or food. By acknowledging and valuing this, and also by not interfering with its nature, a positive learning environment is set.

In the background and through the website, the project is exploring the theme of generating inclusive forms of bonding, bridging and linking social capital using education/learning as a lens to focus community. These are fancy words for working together and supporting individuals and the  groupings of individuals if they are open. Adopting and adapting educators’ ideas which have proved fruitful, and mixing them with a bit of relaxation and fun serves as the engine for the communities we need and want, forming a richer, happier society.

All are welcome to give a talk or guest blog on the website about education and sustainability, adding to the mix their knowledge and experience.


This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.

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