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Ragged University as a model of education: Power differentials and problems of scale

This presentation was given to the Knowledge, Power and Identity research group at the University of Manchester Institute of Education, on the 29th February 2016.  The research group explores understandings that educational theories, practices and policies work to constitute categories of identity and subjectivity that reflect knowledge and power relations. 


They work to examine educational practice, performance and engagement with individuals and communities in diverse social contexts and to explore how definitions of educational need, such as ‘special’ or ‘additional’ are formulated and engaged with.

They focus on generating rich descriptions of the kind that can document subjugated or implicit understandings of power and resistance, including resistance to received normalisations and pathologisations.

As academic researchers and educators they draw on qualitative and interpretative research, including discursive, creative, participatory, feminist, queer, anti-oppressive and decolonising research.

I was invited to present to the group, the work of Ragged University and discuss power differentials and the issues which are associated with scale. This is a podcast of the presentation and the discussion after, and below you can read an annotated transcript.

Abstract: Running a grassroots community organisation comes with certain hidden problems. I’m going to talk about the issues encountered in delivering Ragged University; a free education project inspired by the Ragged Schools. Who you are effects who will engage with your work and what resources you get access to.

Negotiating the practicalities involves regularly confronting the disparities in access which come with differentials in status. I will be discussing how this forces a change in the mode of operating in such a way as to reinforce the existing problems of scale.

Ragged University is a free and open education project in which everyone is respected as having valuable knowledge which they can share in a community context. Starting over five years ago, it sought to open up opportunities to share knowledge outside of institutional spaces. Without budget, equipment or premises, a model had to be devised which could use available infrastructure and common technology to build public events.

The privileging of finance above other forms of valuation has resulted in the emergence of massive constraints being imposed on activities which are not driven by the impetus of generating financial profit. This drive is monetizing traditionally free social spaces such as community centres, church halls, libraries and is narrowing community use of function rooms.

Ragged University uses shared social spaces for events. This is because, as an informal project, everyone should feel they own the space and share in it with others. Professor Ray Oldenburg is known for his work on the sociology of spaces where communities come together, forge and reinforce interpersonal connections. He calls them ‘third places’ and writes about their disappearance from our landscape.




The Ragged project uses these spaces and adapts to what is available as sometimes bookings may change as paying clients get privileged. Thus avoiding having any offices or fixed arrangements means both having the flexibility to work with what is available but losing status in any formal context like funding or sponsorship processes.

Intellectually and psychologically, social spaces are chosen as they have certain qualities – there is a level of comfort in them as they are familiar to everyone; they are spaces which we negotiate the rules of through interaction; they are harbours for playful behaviours which encourage experimentation in a safe setting.

Essentially, these are important spaces where we live significant moments of our lives in and through. These informal spaces contrast with corporate spaces which are policy driven. Corporate spaces run through abstracting bureaucracies which are formed distant from their sites of action.

Often people working in these formalized spaces “have control over other people’s actions but none over their own”, as Iris Marion Young puts it. Thus agency to achieve even simple things from within these decision managed systems can be arduous as the responsibility and power to do things shifts through the structure.

(Reference: Justice and the Politics of Difference, Iris Marion Young, Princeton University Press, 1990 – ISBN: 0691023158, 9780691023151)


I say this to highlight the alienating nature of formal corporate environments. The result of trying to interact with these entropic systems of decision making is that dialogues take an amount of time and energy which are disproportionately expensive to the smaller concern. Procurement, tendering, striking formal allegiances, funding bureaucracies, application processes and committee structures are all examples of where smaller concerns enter into what Hofstadter describes as a ‘tangled hierarchy’.


(Reference: Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter. Penguin; 20th Anniversary ed edition, ISBN-10: 0140289208)


The practical problems of dealing with such an entropic system of decision making are largely defined by the resources you have available to you. How much time, energy, finance – indeed, how much ‘cognitive surplus’ in Clay Shirkey’s terms – you have available to you determines how much weathering of decision making cycles can be absorbed.



In a world where participation in long expensive processes gives great definition as to the outcomes in these spaces, an organizational model like Ragged University simply cannot compete on traditional terms.

The chief asset available is time to be well used, thus working on an interpersonal basis is viable but precludes the possibilities which come of engaging in formal processes.

Scale of concern is a significant factor which defines what connections and collaborations can be cultivated. This is where ‘too big to fail’ also means ‘too small to succeed’.

Situations of scale regularly interfere in Ragged University forging the meaningful conversations and connections it seeks with the administrative systems that govern formal educational institutions – despite the written policies of public engagement, widening participation and social responsibility.

UNESCO co-chair in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility, highlights this in the paper ‘Global Trends for Support Research Partnerships’ which shows that university research partnerships are still overwhelmingly initiated inside the institution onto the external communities.

(Crystal Tremblay, Budd Hall and Rajesh Tandon: UNESCO Chair in Community-based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education)


What is evident is that academics and researchers who work within the institutions similarly suffer from the constraints of working within and under a tangled hierarchy. Often I have found academics keen to engage in work with a community were it not for ‘time poverty’ – an expression developed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.]




A further effect of power differentials and problems of scale is being prioritized on the long tail of the Pareto Principle. This is most commonly recognized as the 80/20 rule, where 80% of your business comes from 20% of your clientele. It actually describes a power law which runs throughout nature, and we can see it in the way that people are forced to prioritize who they meet with and what time they can allocate to each.

Why am I talking about academics and universities when I describe the Ragged University project as a grassroots organization ? This is because a community is embodied by all of its people. If we conceive of knowledge and wisdom as being held in ‘the people’ – the plural – then it would be folly to set up acultural spaces.

As the Reverend Malcolm Rew once expressed when insisting that a sign read ‘Deaf Church’ rather than ‘Church For The Deaf’ – “a church is the people inside the building, not the building itself”; this is a good metaphor to communicate the inclusive notion of knowledge Ragged University attempts to embody.

Ragged University events are ones where anyone can do a talk. Each person is respected for their life experience and what they have chosen to invest their time in. Professors speak alongside people who have no formal qualifications, entrepreneurs speak alongside people who have never generated financial excesses…

Why ? – Because life makes this so, and the events are to reflect what is there in the people plural, and not to compound the differentials which come with the rituals of status. ‘Everybody is a Ragged University; each person is a unique and distinct body of knowledge, accredited with their life experience and with a membership of one’

This axiom attempts to express the soul of the project and erode the categorical differences which are the habit of, and which have come to pervade our collective experience. To do a talk you just have to love what you do, and want to share it with others for free. I argue that it is in this dialoguical space that we come upon learning and thus ‘education’ of a sort which is an essential compliment to the more formalized educational spaces we are dominantly familiar with.

It is in these spaces which we all own and co-own – and it is with these people who want to participate through their passions – that we build the generative circumstances which bring about collective capacity building.

If we do not work towards these diversifying means in our practical society we are endangered by our tendencies as a species to create ‘ingroups’ and ‘outgroups’ which set up differentials that objectify our ‘selves’ from our Gestalt potentials. Together we are greater than a sum of our parts. As R. D. Laing put it “we become estranged from our authentic possibilities”.

These differentials are rife, and can be set up as easily as labeling people with having brown eyes or blue eyes. Ann Cahill describes part of the spectrum of objectification as ‘derivatisation’ where she suggests we end up seeing each other as ‘similar to, but different from us’, thus opening the door for dehumanizing behaviours.

People become estranged through the setting up of ‘otherness’ and our ability for confirmation bias can be fueled by these differentials such that knowledge and insight becomes devalued as a correlate. Fallacies such as ‘I have a degree therefore I am more intelligent than someone without a degree’ can find a foothold in such misconceptions.

Ragged University actively pursues the counter-intuitive compliment to the obvious intuitions which come to us as legacies of collective human society. Thus we get the opportunity to understand the value of knowledge which comes from outside the rehearsed narratives.

The mode of operation of the Ragged University project aims to defuse the tensions of working at an unfunded, unresourced, grassroots level exploring ways of tackling the power differentials by acting in the interpersonal space rather than the corporate ruled space.

As a focus, it is always addressing the individual rather than the group categoricals hung on the individuals such as job, gender, sexuality, culture, financial status – these all reduce a person to less than they are.

Consciously avoiding such ways of packaging reality means that people become freer to express the polymathic beings they are. Organising events such that gatekeeping behaviours are replaced with an appreciation of the eclectic means we can be drawn into each others worlds encountering the connections and similarities of them.

This is entirely antithetical to the funding bureaucracies which define resource allocation in our time. We consciously avoid measuring who and what goes on in each event despite this precluding our getting financed to produce more activities and events.

Repeatedly I have been told “everybody is not a demographic”; thus the decision not to compromise these sacred personal and informal spaces. The compromise was judged to be too destructive to the eclectic, inclusive and personal happenings which go on.

How can we evidence the learning which goes on ? Much of what goes on simply cannot be measured for a prescribed outcome without altering and destroying it.

What we can do is take part and appreciate what comes out of these interactions by way of knowledge artifact. What can be found are the things people choose to make and share, and this is rooted in our experience rather than a bureaucracy of numbers.

Our estrangement may have begun in separating our selves from nature and setting upon the universe an order constructed by the few which impacts on the many.

Ragged University is about letting this go so we can better appreciate what is valuable in the schemes of order we have been presented. It sets up the circumstances for open discovery.



To recap:

  • Ragged University is a free and open grassroots education project
  • It is a model designed to utilise available infrastructure and common technology
  • Our social spaces are increasingly becoming financialised
  • Events take place in co-owned informal social spaces – Prof Ray Oldenburgs Third Places
  • The project has to be flexible as finance often displaces our activities
  • Being flexible means avoiding owning offices and fixed infrastructure
  • Operating informally like this means formal funding and sponsorship is not available
  • Informal spaces intellectually encourage playful experimentation and sharing
  • Corporate spaces are policy driven, resource intensive systems to engage with
  • The project’s chief asset is time well used
  • Scale of concern defines what connections and collaborations take place
  • Time poverty limits and prioritizes what people within corporate structures can engage with
  • Status largely defines who will meet with you and what time they allocate
  • Knowledge is held in the collective of the community
  • Everybody is the demographic which Ragged University is concerned with
  • Anyone can do a talk as they are credited with what they have invested their time in
  • If we do not work towards inclusion we generate ingroups and outgroups
  • By creating these divisions we become estranged from our greater collective abilities
  • The creation of status ingroups and outgroups devalues people and the knowledge they hold
  • By avoiding categorical thinking funding routes and resources are cut off
  • We don’t measure what goes on in the events but value what comes out of them
  • Ragged University is a counterpoint to the reductive modes of working which have become dominant
  • We aim to cultivate the circumstances for open discovery


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