Welcome to the Ragged University By Adam Smyth

If you go down to the pub today you’re in for a big surprise. No,  I’m not talking about getting a kicking from the local thugs who claim the bar as their patch. Instead, imagine the scenario: you walk into a Glaswegian bar  and lay eyes upon a group of students inside. No surprise there you might think.



But what if you saw that they were attending a talk on the merits of Pride and Prejudice, or how Dialectograms are important to our Urban history or even how Hip Hop’s roots started off in gang warfare? Welcome to the Ragged University By Adam Smyth.


The romantic view of a typical student is that of the rag wearing idealist out to change the world (that is when he or she isn’t down the pub, or smashing windows in government buildings because of raised tuition fees), but surely the phrase ‘Ragged University’ is a misprint?


These days many of us think of Universities as being money obsessed, bureaucratic institutions which focus more on profiteering than education. Others may also think of them as being places of grandeur and sophistication, sadly only available to those who can pay their way in to them. The Ragged University (RU) seeks to challenge our prejudices of what a University should consist of.


Ragged Students Going to Ragged University

After making the acquaintance of Alex Dunedin, (one of the founders of the RU) while out chasing up another story, I was keen to discover how the RU came into being. The idea was born 8 months ago in Hackney, London when four people met to discuss the possibility of entertainment through learning. Each individual had their own specialty and interests and they regularly exchanged entertaining knowledge to each other in the relaxed atmosphere of a café or pub.


The fact that most pubs and cafes have projector screens and are connected to the internet made them all click onto an idea. If they could harness the means, there was no reason why an informal but educational and entertaining talk couldn’t happen in your local pub.


Now perhaps that sounds pedestrian compared to the lecture halls of ‘real’ universities, but believe it or not, there are more of us than just students who know a great deal on certain topics that are surprisingly interesting.  That being said, the RU isn’t exclusively catering for any specific audience. It is open to any persons at all who might be interested. There is also no money involved to join, no registration or accreditation, just the opportunity to share what you are passionate about or be entertained through learning. As a free education project,  the format of it’s core event is simple –


standard pub

In any willing social space someone who is passionate about a subject introduces a talk they are keen to to share, with excerpts of free accredited lectures from universities around the world. They then take questions, debate about the subject and produce a handout on their talk for the audience.
The handout is there to provide information on the talk, hyper links to the referenced lectures plus a catalogue of free learning resources available over the internet. Alex Dunedin explained why the idea had such wide appeal:


We are surrounded by people who enthuse over so many subjects and often have heavily invested in those subjects because they enjoy them so much…


Many teachers do not always have the time in a curriculum to impart some of the areas of knowledge which they are passionate about; many autodidacts build up a considerable catalogue of intricate knowledge but do not always get the opportunity to share in conversation about that subject.


Often professionals will have a burning passion for a subject they studied and kept up with, but don’t have the opportunity to find the forum of like minds. The number of people who are in retirement who have a lifetimes knowledge in them is an amazing thought. The fact is that people who do something for the love of it make their subjects enjoyable, they make things fun and can translate key concepts in simple ways.


The sharing and transference of knowledge is a natural function of human community which some believe is falling by the wayside through the trials of modern life and post-industrial living. It is one of the things I enjoy about the pub or the café or the library – people tell me things I did not know and they enjoy sharing that with me. This is what happens between friends, amongst family, in casual conversation, it is part of social life which is completely natural to us; or at least it should do for a healthy culture.


Some younger readers may run for the hills screaming at the thought of going to a lecture for fun, but for many people, it represents a second chance to learn about something different and communicate with others what they are already passionate about.


As a UK programme it is starting to gain recognition in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh with Glasgow being the first city to have people come forward from many different backgrounds and talk on their topic. Each city is managed by a small team who help with PR work and hosting the events.


The first lecture in Glasgow, if you can use such a formal term in this context, was held on Monday 22nd November 2011 at a pub and live music venue called the Gallus in Glasgow. To finally appease any curiosity of what a RU lecture consists of, Pauline Bradey, one of the speakers that night, discussed the intricacies which make Jane Austin’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice a great work of literature. Jamie Hall by contrast, talked about his passion entitled ‘Portrait of a Parasite’- an insightful glimpse into the world of African Sleeping Sickness and the trypanosome parasite which causes the disease.


carrie westwater

According to Carrie Westwater, who is a staff member of RU’s Glasgow branch, the event was a success as some audience members came for the art/literature talk and were impressed equally by the science talk and vice versa. She said that ‘Along with changing opinions and mindsets, it can be a really positive thing for people who experience isolation. It can be a chance to get to know other people and make new friends’.


David Hughes, another staff member of RU, added that ‘very often the feedback that the speakers get from other interested individuals helps them to further craft their arguments and see things they hadn’t thought about before’. These talks give people who were moments ago strangers common ground to build up relationships and network with others.


Possibly what the main hook in getting audience members interested is the fact that no two individuals will duplicate the same talk. Subject matter as diverse as Pride and Prejudice and tropical diseases being in the same session are not the anomaly with the RU. Other topics discussed at subsequent talks in Glasgow included the philosophy and history behind the Hip Hop music genre and Glasgow Dialectograms.


The former subject talked of how hip hop dancing originated from rival urban gangs in America trying to find a way to peacefully resolve disputes over territory: Instead of busting a cap in each other, they busted the aggressive dance moves out. Glasgow Dialectograms in turn provoked an active response from the audience it concerned the use of illustration for recording urban city space that is fast disappearing. The dialectograms use a deliberately loose and organic ‘anti-architectural’ drawing style to describe not just what it is there, but who uses it, what a particular space means to someone, and how relationships between people shape their environment.


One of the largest components of RU is it’s internet presence. By archiving all the topics talked about in lectures, interested individuals can use this digital library to fuel their passion for learning. In part, the RU project has been informed by the vision of the Open University, which was based on high quality degree learning by communications technology for people who didn’t have opportunity to attend traditional campus universities.


Like most universities these days, the RU has a section of it’s website devoted to debating, where any individuals can put forward different theories and takes on a subject. Some speakers may even use their talk overtly as a platform from which they reveal to others their business plan and pleas for constructive criticism and feedback.


Mitch Miller the illustrator behind the Glasgow dialectograms said I’d been working on my idea by myself for so long, I became used to not having to explain it to anyone. When I gave that talk at the Ragged University it actually made me approach my idea from a fresh angle since I had to get into the mindset of someone who was unfamiliar with it. I’ve made a couple of useful contacts through the scheme and one guy even talked of publishing my work in a book!.



The theory and principles behind the RU build on the framework of the ragged schools tradition and ideas of educational theorist Ivan Illich. In Illich’s famous critical discourse Deschooling Society he argues that universal education through schooling is not feasible since it must be curbed in by a syllabus and thought that the education criteria presented in schools is what is best for everyone.


The view of Illich that the RU wants to uphold is that if these institutions were to be inverted, any individual would have the means to an educational web, potentially having the opportunity at any moment in his/her life to learn, share and care about any interest.


Clearly, the emphasis is on building and sustaining social and intellectual capital. These are buzzwords for the idea of learning through all peers in your society. Social capital is cited as having an economic involvement which is why the world bank, economists, sociologists and political scientists are keenly involved in the study and creation of it.


In the RU’s situation, through using and creating links between generations and people from different backgrounds, the goal is to break down obstacles to learning within communities and what’s more, it is being developed as a franchise that individuals can get involved in as deep as they desire.


As it is aspiring to become a charitable organisation, it seeks to support individuals through provision of learning resources, industry connections and relevant financial aid. Whichever way it is looked at, the idea of the RU seems to only have benefits. Alex Dunedin summed up by saying I think I can speak for us all in that we are just glad to be working on something that will bring fruits to all those involved without it being a capital intensive money driven scheme!.


You could argue that this simple idea by it’s very nature is an investment in society. The benefits of education are almost unanimously agreed upon. Knowledge empowers people to do things. People like being productive and skills are cultivated through self developing interest. At the moment, the RU is only in it’s embryonic stages.


The organisation is using Glasgow as a prototype, to see if the idea works in practice and if so, it will install the idea in the other cities mentioned before attempting to gain a broader influence throughout the UK and possibly other countries too. It has also gained support in a relatively short time period from the crescent network and the open university amongst other academia.


Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce

Similarly, the Chamber of commerce recently invited the RU to become a member as it holds an interest in stimulating economy and fostering links with businesses. Amongst many other contacts being made the London team are in discussions with NASA about having a live interview with astronauts in the International space station. It seems that not even the sky is the limit for the Ragged University


School’s out, but RU starts term now

It isn’t just sheer coincidence that the RU chose a name that takes after the ragged schools movement. It’s ideal is to take hold of the baton being passed and build on the strong foundations already in place. The foundations in question stretch back to the eighteenth century, when philanthropists and entrepreneurs started ragged schools in the UK to help the disadvantaged towards a better life.


In the beginning, the schools were formed by merchants and churches and were staffed by volunteers. However, as the ideas proved extremely popular, the schools grew to such a size that it was necessary to have paid members of staff.


The movement gathered pace in the nineteenth century as more people were worrying about the neglected, causing more schools to be opened. Not only that, but as well as providing primary education, many schools provided food for their pupils. In 1844 The Ragged School Union was formed. At it’s start there were 16 schools connected to the union.


By 1861 this number had swelled to 176. The growing movement believed that by gaining an education, people would be enabled to lead a better life in the future. Pupils taught by the ragged schools would be able to find work and engage in commerce, averting the need to resort to stealing and other crimes in order to survive.


One of the other main principles of the RU feeds off the monitorial system (AKA the mutual instruction system). This was an education method that became globally popular during the nineteenth century. It was based on more able pupils being used as assistants to a teacher, passing on the information they had learned to other students. This system proved to be a cheap way of making primary education more inclusive and therefore made it possible to increase the average class size.


The Ragged University aims to revive and continue these traditions by promoting ‘peer- to- peer’ learning; similar in concept to peer-to-peer file sharing. Through person centred and peer led teaching processes alongside engagement with accessible technology, people will have the tools available to them to potentially master a subject.