Navigate / search

Studying the Press: Alex Dunedin Answers Questions and Analyses Article From Journalist Kashmira Gander

A journalist recently got in touch with me to ask me about the work which has been happening through Ragged University.  Kashmira Gander had initially asked me to reflect on an article ‘The British university where a degree doesn’t mean a lifetime of debt Learning for love, not money‘ published in Huck Magazine which takes a particular focus on the great work going on at the Free University of Brighton.

Kashmira Gander

I have published my email responses to Ms Ghanimi to represent what I said.  Unfortunately my experience of the press is not a positive one as at various times it is vivid how what important messages I have shared are skipped over, truncated or distorted.  I now think of what is happening in the press as a form of pathobureaucracy – a term popularised by Prof Gerald Caiden who studies administrative reform.

A number of things seem to be going on in journalism which hollows out knowledge in place for infotainment. Whether what Ali Ghanimi wrote suffered the ‘death of a thousand subeditors’ or if she wanted to create support for a noble project such as the Free University of Brighton, the principle is that she has misrepresented the information which I shared.  This is endemic in the press and I wonder if the field needs to:

  • evolve to create deeper articles which share information sources/resources (should the reader want to learn more)
  • provide references like we find in the New Internationalist, so that we can compare and fact check the representations
  • give more agency to the journalists and take some from the editorial teams chasing targets and stupifying content

I responded to her request for information about my thoughts on free universities and education projects.  Not only was I aware of Free University of Brighton but I also know Ali Ghanimi who had started the project with others local to Brighton and Hove. From the start I have been impressed by the energy, vision and activity which has gone on there, and have gained a lot from knowing that there are other communities out there exploring how we can configure projects in locales to support learning and teaching.

So, in the tradition of the craft of journalism, she was asking a series of questions to flesh out her understandings of how people saw the issues, and how people reacted to them. Obviously wanting to give as accurate information as I could to Kashmira, I wrote considered answers to her questions so that it might inform the debate and steer away from some of the unhelpful binaries which exist.

After I had answered her questions, I realised that I had a written document which would be of value to people following the Ragged University project, and so in the interests of information and transparency, what follows is the contact I had from her via email and the information I gave to Kashmira as attempts to answer her questions.

The Email From Kashmira Gander

Hi Alex,

Thanks for getting back to me. My piece is inspired by the fact that the Free University of Brighton is offering a free degree-level course that has been validated as equivalent to other institutions. Here is a piece on their plans: perspectives/reportage-2/want- degree-free-start/ . Would you be able to comment on this, and free universities in general?

  • Why did you start the Ragged University. What is wrong with the current uni system? Other than the original ragged universities, what inspired you?
  • How can someone qualify to become a teacher?
  • Are there entry requirements? If not, why?
  • What is the breakdown of the demographic that joins your courses?
  • Is it ever difficult to conduct courses without being in a traditional university setting. For example, finding a quiet space to study, or books to read without access to a library?
  • How do you choose the courses? Are there any you have/would reject? If so, why?
  • Many free universities say they are against education being outcome orientated. Do you think Free Uni of Brighton is going against this principal? Do you think it is important for people to have qualifications that are recognised by employers etc.?
  • Do you plan to do degree-level courses that are validated by officials?
  • What do you say to people who believe it is pointless to study without working towards a qualification?

Please add anything else you feel is important

The deadline for my piece is Wednesday, so I’d be very grateful if you could get back to me as soon as possible.

Best wishes,



My Responses to Kashmira’s Questions

Would you be able to comment on this, and free universities in general?

I think that the work of the Free University of Brighton is very important. It champions a view of learning and education which is in much need of fostering in an age where access to education, communities of peers, and helpful conventions of thinking are being diminished. Our lifeworlds are becoming colonized by the instrumental to the world of reductive finance. Life is so much more and it needs to remain more.

I like what Michael Fullan says about education: “Society for some time now, but increasingly moreso as we head to toe twenty-first century expects its citizens to be capable of proactively dealing with change throughout life both individually as well as collaboratively in a context of dynamic, multicultural global transformation. Of all the institutions in society, education is the only one that potentially has the promise of fundamentally contributing to this goal.” [Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform’. Page 4, ISBN: 9781850008255].

For a healthy, well functioning society, we need everyone to be involved in being aware of, and dealing with the big issues which we face collectively. We need everyone to be able to analyse propositions and formulate answers for themselves as well as working constructively together. We collectively need to be able to tap into the ingenuity, inventiveness and the ability of our species to innovate which is a part of our legacy. Without such a world we are setting ourselves up for massive failures.

The Free University of Brighton to me is an exemplar of the kind of initiative which we need in abundance to create a landscape of opportunities to learn which is diverse and accessible. As Susan Brown at the University of Manchester suggests – “Any monoculture is an impoverishment”. Learning and teaching is something much more than an instrument preparing people to take their place within industry and an economy; learning and teaching represents part of the foundations of our humanness as a social creature. These facets of behaviour take place in all our interactions with each other and form the basis of our means to realise our selfs and actions in the world.

Education Human Rights

There is a very robust reason why education and access to education features in renderings of human rights. Without fostering such means and interactions we wither and become frail in the world, and ultimately become a burden to ourselves, others and the environment – all of which we need to continue well into the future.

The Free University of Brighton is doing critical work in showing how education and its many purposes can be reached with social rather than financial means, and also illustrates the values of people within the academic system as being placed firmly in a human capabilities model. They are helping to erode the black-and-white perception which is all-too-common which expresses the formal as being the antithesis of the informal, community context.

In regards to the emergence of free universities in general, it is obvious that it is a reaction to the prevailing norms which have become captured by financial wealth. In short, communities are sorely aware of the needs which are not being met, and the valuable peoples who are failing to be valued – as are their contributions to the commons. We can see similar social movements throughout cultures and across time. Wherever these factors arise, communities have created learning networks to share and teach knowledge to enrich the commonal life circumstances.

Typical of Britain was the Victorian Ragged Schools system, which was to generate the free education system which forms the existing primary school infrastructure today. This history is but one well documented case study of how communities formed learning networks providing environments where people could share what they knew, become valued for their knowledge and find harmonious meaning in being a part of an extended network of peers.

Eventually, after several decades of the growing and interlinking organisation of free education initiatives, the government of the time realised the overwhelming benefits of free education by bankrolling public education through the 1870 Forster Education Act. Dr Guthrie – champion of the Ragged Schools movement – showed that crime had been reduced by over three quarters in Edinburgh, public health had improved, industry benefited, people were happier and culture was richer in creative terms. It was a logical and obvious move to extend the capabilities of everyone in our modern context too.


Peer led teaching
Peer led teaching

Why did you start the Ragged University ?

I started the Ragged University project because I was asked how I would bring communities together and improve people’s lives. I took some time to talk with my friends and found that education in the broad sense was key to all the improvements which were critical in improving my lot at least.

Examples are where my friends Jes and Ed dragged me kicking and screaming into this century by giving me an old laptop and teaching me how to use it; my friend Will introduced me to philosophical concepts which helped me explore the philosophy of science; my friend Grant taught me a lot about statistical fallacies and psychology…

Two of my friends who were retired educators – Roy Wilsher and Eileen Broughton – told me that I reminded them of the work of Ivan Illich and the movement of the Ragged Schools. I had met them many years previously because I had been passing on the skills which Jes and Ed had gifted to me. Our relationships had grown around the pleasure of knowledge and learning. Roy was a teacher of history and was passionate about English literature; and Eileen was a teacher of Economics and systems thinking.


Ivan Illich
Click to Download the article on Ivan Illich

Online Source:


On presenting them with the problem I was trying to tackle – that of building happy, healthy communities – they set out informing me about the development of the Ragged Schools and education in the UK, and the impacts they made. I felt compelled to do this work of creating the Ragged University as an extension of my life up until that point. Not having any formal education myself, the learning opportunities which I have benefited from have overwhelmingly come from people sharing in the interpersonal space rather than that of the institutional spaces we know and love.

I have not fared well in the institutional context and largely had to find social means of developing understandings through informal relationships. For example, I would worked from textbooks bought from charity shops in South Clerk Street in Edinburgh; I would work in places like the Blind Poet pub where people like Donald Rutherford (who teaches history of economics) took an interest in me as a ‘self-learning’ individual.

Despite trying to go to college and university several times, the structural problems which exist have always presented too many obstacles to take part. The perception is that education is free in Scotland, however the barriers to engagement are still significant enough for a great number of people – particularly from the most deprived 20% of the population – that they are missing in the ranks of higher education and academia.

Ultimately, I found it more possible to sneak into university lectures, attend free public lectures, tap into friend networks, approach academics directly on their own time, use libraries, museums, second hand book shops, and the internet to cultivate knowledge in subjects. Indeed, I have found that small business owners also to be very supportive in learning terms.

I wanted to extend my community of peers and learning horizon through a project which would benefit everyone, not just myself. This passion for education is the legacy of every friendship which I have had, and for this reason I cannot conceive of it as a commercial or financial project. Indeed, the financial models are exclusive and that kind of exclusion is something which I would not like to propagate as it is in abundance throughout the structures which are their to help foster our society.


What is wrong with the current uni system?

This is a tricky question, and a perennial one. It would be more comfortable for me to have a thousand pages and to approach this from what is right about it. Any great human activity is a work in progress with successes and failures. The danger is that we set up misidentifying binaries – which I do not want to do. However, at the risk of evading the question, I will share some obvious problems for many people…

The bureaucracies which govern how we value the knowledge which people have are reductive and cumbersome. Gerald Caiden Emeritus Professor at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy (USC Price) at the University of Southern California writes well about pathobureaucracies, administrative reform, organizational diagnosis, comparative corruption, and public sector innovations. This is an area which has become a focus of an extended participatory action research study which stems from the Ragged University project which will eventually be published when complete.


What Really Is Public Maladministration by Gerald Caiden
Click to Download ‘What Really Is Public Maladministration’ by Gerald Caiden


Online Source:


Some highlights include the non-alignment of different systems of administration such as those of the Job Centre, Department of Social Security, Student Awards Agency For Scotland, and the university administrations; the applicant needs to get these to align if they are to get into higher education. Alternatively, finance is often predicated on having a significant enough credit history, and many people who are from the most deprived backgrounds lack this pre-condition.

The way that universities and colleges (and every other sector) are being managed is increasingly oriented around market values rather than the values of the educators themselves. This means that fee paying students are being privileged as consumers whilst those who have greater needs are often a second consideration. If we look at Russell group universities it is very plain to see that they are consistently failing to achieve Widening Participation targets and policies [page 5 of linked document]. Enigmatically, there is an abundance of research from academics on this.

My thoughts are that it is made much more complicated for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that many of the bureaucratic processes are unrepresentative or even arbitrary. The introduction of Key Performance Indicators, targets, outcomes, measurements and quality assurance cultures sets the scene for perverse incentives in an area of public value. It distorts the teaching efforts of the academics and displaces the traditional competency in a field of knowledge for contemporary competency in bringing money into a department.

As with many sectors which are being carved up as financial opportunities, the frontline staff have been stripped of the agency they require to inform their environment. Despite there being massive amounts of well established research by the very academics of the universities and colleges themselves, there seems to be a managerial administrative level which is repeatedly failing to implement evidence-based policy and tackle the thorny issues. The thorny issues seem always to be attached to bottom line money

One such issue which heavily informs the Ragged University project is that policies such as Accreditation of Prior Knowledge seem to be vague and ethereal. Such that, knowledge which exists outside of the Research Excellence Framework, and to a greater extent, outside of formal academia altogether, seems to be regarded as non-knowledge. This is also a problem in wider society where intellectual property is dominated by market values to the extent where cultures are becoming impoverished. The university system is no different in as much as the administrative systems which are imposed on the public value of education is locking people out from being a part of the production of knowledge and culture, as well as being the beneficiaries of it.

What is wrong with the university system ? A most significant point is that it is all dominant in determining how we societally engage with knowledge and what is regarded as good in the world. Knowledge, ingenuity, invention and discovery happen in many places that need to be more valued than they are – from the individual framed as self-taught to the community organisations which embody living knowledge, through the colleges and further education institutions, the diffuse libraries and museums, to the genuine apprenticeships and independent entrepreneurs. This is a point regularly made by Susan Brown who teaches at the University of Manchester.


Oak growing from acorn
Oak growing from acorn

Other than the original ragged schools, what inspired you?

I think my response earlier expresses much of the interconnected dependencies that amounted to the inspiration. It is worth restating the kindnesses of friends and strangers. What the Ragged University project draws upon, and builds with, is all around us, all of the time. It is the instinctual behaviour we find in social junctures where we share what we have invested our lives in under familial circumstances.

I have been the beneficiary of so many kindnesses from others, where people have taught me something which I have needed to know or been enriched by. I am referring to the encounters where people have given without expectation of them gaining from it, other than the sharing of company. I think this is the glue and animus of our better, more capable selves which is the stuff of all the great achievements of our species.

I have been writing about this conception of knowledge, again to commit to the public domain as a part of the project. Everyone is a Ragged University – a unique and distinct body of knowledge accredited by their life experience and with a membership of one. If you look into the mathematical properties of the number one, it helps inform the concept of a whole…


How can someone qualify to become a teacher?

Anyone can share through the project, and as an initiative it is more like a journey than a formal administrative structure. We learn through teaching, and teach through social interactions. This is about being involved in your subject and with other people as a starting point from which we can grow. The people who are involved are people who intrinsically value the activities which the word ‘education’ alludes to.

People who have been involved, and are involved, are not people who are anchoring to extrinsic rewards such as money. People are qualified by what they produce, and inherent in their work and thinking should be qualities which are self evident.

What is important is that there is a supportive peer community and the opportunity to learn through doing and communicating. There is a significant link between thought and language, such that in the process of articulating an idea or an observation, learning takes place. People who are invested in their subject tend to spend time taking in all the little details because they are interested, and if someone is interested they tend not to fatigue. Work has become play, and from play is generated new possibilities.


Tear down the wall

Are there entry requirements? If not, why?

There are no entry requirements because the proposition leads to a view which is self selecting in an increasingly narrow way. This kind of practice is problematic in that by setting oneself up as a gatekeeper of knowledge, it leads to an exclusive practice. Exclusion leads innately to closing down possibilities which are too valuable to ignore.

It is an ignorant proposition that knowledge is seated in one place or another, one person or another, one culture or another, and so on. This is as problematic as an IQ test – it is context bound and results in ethnocentric perspectives which fail to value where other people are.

It would be a fairly sterile endeavour to create a siloed, monocultural initiative which pairs off like-with-like in terms of subject and ability. The view taken here is one where eclecticism is an important constituent of serendipity, and it is the circumstances of serendipity that we want to cultivate in various explorative ways.

We avoid creating barriers whether that be a test of ability and a typology of interest or expression, be it financial or cultural. All of these segregations work towards omitting richer opportunities from coming about for all concerned.

What is the breakdown of the demographic that joins your courses?

The demographic is very wide, and we constantly try and widen it as well as encourage diversity of experience. Young and old, women and men, those who have formal education and those who dont, those who are well off and those who are poor, those who are comfortable in groups and those who are not – essentially, everyone who feels they have an interest in learning. Categorical thinking does not suit this well at all.

There was a conscious decision to step back from measuring the activity, participation and learning outcomes in events as these practices were found to be both invasive and destructive to the environment which had been cultivated. They get in the way of the learning/teaching itself. Surveying who came by means of ticketing, paperwork or commonly used ways of monitoring caused many people who get labelled ‘hard to reach’ to feel uncomfortable and analysed, and thus they did not come along.

This label ‘hard to reach’ has many problems and is indicative of a service or project which is in fact ‘hard to reach’ because the ways it forces people to engage preclude or displace people from the activity.

There is a problem with proposing ‘everyone’ as a demographic as funders do not recognise this as a category they are willing to finance. In our experience funding providers consistently engineer projects to focus on a ‘target demographic’, which creates monocultural spaces. This is part of the symptoms of a disconnnected, fragmented culture which is constantly being divided out into different typologies rather than brought together into interdisciplinary, intersectional circumstances.

Is it ever difficult to conduct courses without being in a traditional university setting. For example, finding a quiet space to study, or books to read without access to a library?

We work with available infrastructure and common technology – we do what we can with what we have, when we can. The coordinators of the project work to build from opportunities and prospects presented, rather than impose predefined structures onto individuals and environments. If you would like to get a sense of how the coordinators of the events and project operate, Ernesto Sirolli who has worked in International Development expresses the adaptive way we attempt to work well:


We create opportunities and facilitate what people are doing. We listen, learn, reflect and then find ways of getting people where they want to be. It is about underpinning some, inspiring confidence in others; it is about giving the chance for people to share with others, it is whatever is appropriate for the situation. The field of international development has much to teach us in the UK as to how we go about working in community spaces and approach complex human issues.

We look at the landscape and work with it. The libraries, the museums, the natural spaces, the third places (Prof Ray Oldenburg), the businesses, the internet, the cafes, the pubs, the galleries – anywhere which is co-owned in terms of the public. We do not use institutional spaces as these have already established and defined rules which are instituted in them. We look for the interpersonal.


Individuals talking to indivdiuals

How do you choose the courses? Are there any you have/would reject? If so, why?

We let life choose who does what, in which order. When people get in touch and fill out a ‘speakers information sheet’ (which describes what they want to share), then they get put in the next available ‘slot’. A common model for an event is that there are two talks separated by a break where we have food and conversation.

Each person gets around an hour to do what they like in (questions and conversation included) – however, this is a loose model and people are encouraged to be imaginative with formats.

It is about individuals speaking to individuals, thus groups of people do not present nor are people representing a group when they talk. As mentioned, this is interpersonal. This open way of organising avoids the confirmation biases of the coordinators creeping in and programming what – say I – want to happen rather than what life presents.

The talks/events which people do must fit within the boundaries of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – if it does not, then the Ragged University initiative is not the place to share this. Also three main areas of life the project is not the right platform for – these are Politics, Religion, and Corporations. This is because these areas of life have well established terrains of their own, and as the focus is on education, the project takes careful efforts to avoid lobbying, proselytism and selling brands.

These are simple ways of making sure that we always navigate back toward learning as the central pivot. For example, there are two renderings of politics – that of politics with a ‘Big P’ and that of politics of a ‘small p’. Politics holds its roots in the life of the polis (citizenship and body of citizens). In this sense, all of human life can be viewed through a lens of being ‘political’, and indeed, all knowledge is thus ‘political’.

This becomes a sui generis (meaning “of its own kind; in a class by itself; unique”), a way of expressing the world through a particular lens. Likewise, we may view the world through various other categorical lenses such as biology, environmentalism, physics, psychology… Politics with a ‘Big P’ is something of a more partisan nature in that it plays towards a particular party’s campaigning

In this example, I am trying to avoid both this informal education project from becoming a Politics platform, and at the same time, I am making special efforts in not imposing myself as a pedantic gatekeeper who projects his own value judgements in terms of ‘quality control’ (yuck). The effort here is to retain a neutrality and also to remain open to what people are inspired to share.


Double Edged Sword
Double Edged Sword

Many free universities say they are against education being outcome orientated. Do you think Free Uni of Brighton is going against this principal? Do you think it is important for people to have qualifications that are recognised by employers etc.?

I think that the many hundreds of different projects doing things in different ways is important. Ibid; any monoculture is an impoverishment, and why would you close down the prospects which come with doing something in a certain way – particularly when it involves common conventions which have intrinsic value ?

Qualifications as a system have a value, but when the only way that one can get acknowledged or involved in culture is through a system of professionalized qualification we are in trouble. When we can no longer engage directly with someone and the work they produce, thus valuing it for what it is, then we have lost touch with a critical portion of reality.

Outcomes and measurements culture is a double edged sword. How do we know when we are being effective in what we are attempting ? How do we know what we think we know ? Well, these are big questions, and for Ragged University, it is about engagement with the first principles of people, substance and subject. Everyone is welcome, and other educational approaches are appreciated – in fact, they are actively supported.

The website makes efforts to highlight the many different organisations and ways of doing that are out there. We build websites for other projects and groups but do not insist on the values or actions of our work being replicated. This notion is too close to colonising, franchising and branding what is diverse in the landscape.

Ragged University is not setting itself up as an alternative to the formal but exists as an informal annex. The formal needs the informal, and the two are compliments of each other. The conventions of science, of citation, of language, of all subjects are not the exclusive property of formal education and academia but belong to everyone who is interested and invested – wherever they are situated.

There is always an outcome from everything we do – this turn of phrase is just the current cultural zeitgeist which prevails. Some people like to test themselves, some people like to get others to review their work; how can we state this as a blanket right or wrong ?

What I say is “good on the Free University of Brighton” for being so motivated and enjoying what they are doing so much. I made a special trip to visit Ali down in Brighton and Hove, and it is clear to me that she is part of a community passionate about learning and getting the chance to learn. I think sometimes people can end up being too categorical and end up being a bit silly with criticism; for example, when Bob Dylan first played electric guitar there were people who said he had sold out. Im sure that when the Great Pyramids were built someone said they were the wrong shape.


Coocs logo

Do you plan to do degree-level courses that are validated by officials?

We plan to do whatever we can construct, and whatever people want. This is about people choosing what they want and finding ways of working together. I certainly want to pursue discussions about how we can find tangible ways of valuing people as too many people are being excluded from having a peer community and also enriching a community of peers.

Part of the project is about researching society and how it is structured. I mentioned research earlier which is utilising participatory action research; well, bringing together other methodologies such as institutional ethnography, existential phenomenology techniques, and grounded theory – the way that our world is configured is being documented through acting in it.

This is, for me, an active way of learning and discovering who wants to have which conversations with whom. Currently the Ragged University operates without money or funding, so Im certainly keen to find people who are working in these structures who want to explore what possibilities there are. I think it would be foolish to rule out such courses of action. Just now we continue to collaborate with initiatives like Peter Shukie’s Community Open Online Courses which enable everyone to create their own online course (MOOC) for free:

A last note on this question is that I have certainly witnessed degree level knowledge and degree level work; thus the consequent question would be “are the existing educational structures interested in valuing this work by validating it ? “


Ragged University

What do you say to people who believe it is pointless to study without working towards a qualification?

I would say that they have created a view of life for themselves which is very instrumental, and I would be intrigued to explore what the purpose it is that they are pursuing. Is it to be appreciated by others and to be a part of a wider community of peers ? Is it to obtain money ? Is it because they simply don’t want to be left at the bottom of the societal heap ?

I would probably want to know whether they are pursuing a qualification in something which fascinated them, and if they found their work exhilarating or fatiguing ? I would want to know how they regarded others who studied the same subject for no qualification ? I would also want to know if they regarded the work that the other person did worth engaging with ?

Thus I would have questions for them largely, and I would be interested in learning how they reconciled themselves in the world we shared. Art is long, life is short, we encouter many dilemmas…

Please add anything else you feel is important

I will be doing this for the rest of my life.



Final Thought

You can read Kashmira’s article online by following the link below.  I am interested to make a study of the chain of chinese whispers which ultimately informs the press having had a number of conversations with a friend, Will Martin, about what journalism is.

I have had a poor opinion of journalism due to my perception being so saturated with junk news that dominates.  Will however has impressed on me that there is more there than I am perceiving and because there are a great number of trash journalists, agencies, papers and books, it is important to spend time finding the journalistic practice which had maintained integrity.


Is the press suffering from various forms of maladministration and pathobureaucracy, be it through the ‘death of a thousand subeditors’, sensationalism, entertainment taking presidence over education and edification or just plain old lying for perverse incentives and hidden agendas?  I think the organisational structures which dominate the press are distorting the true representation of what is happening on the ground in many cases.


Leave a comment


email* (not published)