Ragged University: ‘Something For Nothing’ by Don Ledingham

The notion of getting ‘something for nothing’ doesn’t sit well with those of us of a lapsed Scottish Presbyterian background. Yet that is exactly what I received yesterday from Alex Dunedin and left feeling very pleased with myself.

None pound note image

So is this Dunedin chap some sort of marketing genius who would be better suited to selling dodgy towels at an open market?  The simple answer is – absolutely not –  for I found myself purchasing twenty ‘None’ Pound notes from Alex in order to invest in the Ragged University concept.


As witnesses to my Aberdeenshire genes will testify the idea of separating me from my hard-earned cash is not the easiest thing in the world to achieve, yet of all of the good causes and charities I know of, this is one which has the greatest potential – not just locally and in the UK but possibly at a global scale.


So before I fall into the trap of over-optimism and high flown rhetoric let me attempt to describe in a few paragraphs what the Ragged University concept is about and I think you might come to share some of my excitement about the project.


The Ragged University builds upon the legacy of the 19th century Ragged Schools where  people began to worry about the education of the disadvantaged.  Initially the Union comprised of about 200 teachers. By 1851, the number of educators grew to around 1,600. Aligned with the Ragged School movement was the development of peer-to-peer learning This was known in its day as the ‘monitorial system’ – with  more able or older pupils passing on information that they had learned to other pupils.


In simple terms the Ragged University aims to reanimate the spirit of ragged schools by promoting peer-to-peer  learning, albeit for all members of society.


It is this element of ‘gifting knowledge’ which is at the heart of the Ragged University, where the individual becomes the university, with a unique and distinct body of knowledge, accredited by their life experiences and with a membership of one. In this manner learning belongs to everyone, and begins to break free from the traditional restrictions which are placed on access to knowledge.


If peer-to-peer is the key methodology then the second unique feature of the Ragged University are the settings for learning. Just as traditional universities and educational establishments are often monolithic structures – the Ragged concept makes use of ‘third spaces’. Third Spaces are simply pubs, cafes, coffee shops, or other community spaces which can be donated for free to enable the sharing of knowledge to bubble up wherever possible. It is of some significance that during last year’s Edinburgh Festival, the Ragged University delivered 72 events at a wide range of venues – none of whom charged for the space.


By enabling people who are committed to their subject area to share their knowledge and expertise with other people a community of learning can be created which exists outwith the controlled environment that most of us would associate with formal teaching and learning. Of course there is a parallel model in existence in the form of the world wide web, whereby people can access information and knowledge in a myriad of different forms from google, to wikipedia, to youtube, and everything in between. Yet while the latest learning craze is for MOOCs (massive open online  courses), the Ragged University, turns that on its head by providing a ‘real’ space for learning.


That is not to say that the Ragged University cannot make use of digital technology, in fact it has plans to enable On Line learning to complement and support Real Life events. In turn it has ambitions to create a Ragged publishing and Ragged Music service.


Ultimately the Ragged concept depends upon releasing the social capital that exists in our communities. Once again the notion of ‘freedom’ is of critical importance where people are not tied down by over-bearing bureaucracies. There are no forms, no memberships, no charges, no records of attendance.


Yet this freedom does not sit well with funding bodies who seek to create competitive and limiting conditions on organisations dedicated to doing good. For example, a typical question from any funding body would be “What is your target demographic?” – well the true answer from the Ragged University would be that there is no ‘target’ group – it is open for all. In this way the Ragged concept challenges the model of charitable funding.


Of course at the heart of any innovation lie remarkable individuals, and none moreso than Alex Dunedin. Alex in a typically understated and genuine manner describes himself as the ‘janitor‘ – who organises and advertises events (in reality he does much more than that).  It’s so refreshing to come across an innovator who is not in it for themselves – five minutes in Alex’s company is enough to convince you that this is a mission and journey which he seeks to share with other fellow travelers.


That’s where my untypical investment came in.  Alex donates all of his time for free, and I do mean ‘all’ of his time. And it was this that set me to thinking would it be possible to generate enough investment in this person to allow the Ragged project to fulfil its true potential before Alex and others like him burn themselves out?


Given that we are talking about a social enterprise and social capital, perhaps we need to think more about how capital and investment takes place within the world of markets and financial capital. If I am a potential social investor, a ‘social capitalist’ perhaps – then why couldn’t I be provided with enough compelling  information to encourage me to make an investment?


This idea is not a new one – albeit that it’s not a strategy which has seen the light of day in the UK.


There is a fascinating article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review which descibes how an IPO (initial public offering) might work in the not-for-profit world, whereby potential investors purchase shares in the organisation – as opposed to making donations. So in conclusion, here’s an extract from that article that captures the essence of such a scheme:


Yes, one could call the IPO a gimmick—at the end of the day, a share is a fancy term for a donation. But that misses the point. Just asking someone to purchase a share, as opposed to donate a dollar, has a different feel to it. From a behavioral psychology perspective, the IPO taps into the human need for reciprocity. We like to get something in return for what we do, even if it’s a certificate, the title of shareholder, and the ability to vote to elect a board member. And what makes our approach unique is the notion of giving shareholders a real, tangible stake in the organization, one that is about more than just a donation.