A Bitesize History of The Ragged University

Where it started ?….  The whole thing crystalised around a table in Stoke Newington in London.  I had been asked to help out the Street Performers Community Organisation with sorting out their office.  James Tonner and Roy Gurvitz had been thinking about doing a festival in Hackney Marshes.
The question was asked what would be a good thing to do which was interesting, fun and brought people together.  Around that table three other friends agreed on the idea and after some background work, I left to set it up in Glasgow whilst Jes Haley, Grant Crozier, and Will Bentinck did the first events at the Palatine Bar in Dalston.

Jes and Grant first RU

What is the Ragged University ?

The Ragged University is the concept of free education and self learning – everybody is a Ragged University sums it nicely.  The Ragged project is something which is delivering free, fun and informal talks in pubs, cafes and libraries around the country.  The idea is simple – anyone can do it.  In fact that is how the Ragged Schools started, as did many other free education like the Chautauqua.

With a few ales and chewing ears off, we discussed the theory of taking the origins of the Ragged Schools and update them using available infrastructure (i.e. pubs, cafes, restaurants, businesses) and available technology (internet, libraries, books, open access learning).


Whatever your passion, if you love a subject, the idea is to create a space to share insight into that. There is no money involved, there is no registration nor accreditation. Just plain old pleasure in learning and a confidence with knowledge comes power, however it is only power when it is shared.

Who wants to talk ?

Many people build up a considerable catalogue of intricate knowledge but do not always get the opportunity to share in conversation about that subject.  Lots of people develop expert understandings of an area which has absorbed their attentions. Many people have multiple sides to their lives.  People have lifetimes to pick up all sorts of knowledge.  You never know who you are talking to…


Since then people have got involved in many different cities, from many different backgrounds – all with an interest to run free learning events in their local community spaces.  Over the years hundreds of talks, events, and activities have been given on ranging subjects – all of which fit within the bounds of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Is it formal ?

No, Ragged University is not formal; there are not the same rules you find in formal spaces like institutions and organisations.  It is more based on the social traditions of learning which are found throughout the world and the name of ‘Ragged University’ draws from the history of the Ragged Schools. In particular it speaks to the history of the life of John Pounds, a person who decided to share his knowledge informally in his own life with the waifs and strays of Portsmouth.  He inspired a social movement of individuals, businesses, philanthropists and communities in general setting up education as it did so many good things in people’s lives.


Today, the aim is to practice learning and education in social ways without involving finance and without creating clubs and memberships.  There are no ingroups and outgroups, just individuals who want to share in public spaces with other individuals – the idea belongs to nobody and everybody.  The events have the social spirit of a rolling house party where people share knowledge, company and what food they can.


Who Can Do It ?

Anyone can – the point is that Ragged University is a reference to social practices that anyone can do by finding a local pub, cafe, park, library (anywhere which is free and where everyone co-owns in a public sense) and supporting people to share their knowledge.  The Ragged University website aims to support people doing this in a diversity of ways. It does not need to be called ‘Ragged University’, in fact the names are beside the point.  By organising the open sharing of knowledge for creative and generative community purposes lots of good things happen and the activity is its own reward.  Motivated people who have a personal covenant with learning.