The Principal; Power and Professionalism in FE: Measuring Up To The Mean – Beggars Belief

On Saturday 25th November I attended and presented at the ‘Power and Professionalism in FE Conference’ which was held at University of Huddersfield (Twitter hashtag: #hudpowerfe). This conference was brought together to coincide with, and reflect the themes, ideas and work of a host of contributors to the launch of the book ‘The Principal; Power and Professionalism in FE‘ published by University College London Institute of Education Press.

Niccolo Machiavelli
Niccolo Machiavelli


This is the audio recording of the presentation which I gave on that day which was to complement and expand upon the chapter which I wrote in the book titled ‘The prince and the paupers: The mean end of the stick’…



In this presentation I am going to review and expand on some of the anecdotes which are used to illustrate the history of running the Ragged University community education project. I shall attempt to draw some over arching themes which run through the anecdotes and contextualize how Ragged University has necessarily evolved from a project to a practical philosophy which enables learning opportunities in the face of cultural constraints.


Metrics and the institution of a culture of metrics has infiltrated many aspects of human life. In the form of bureaucracies costly processes in terms of time and energy are imposed on those who seek resources through administrative structures and the growing influence of business management.


Professionally, whichever sector we care to look at is seeing an equivalent disruption through the imposition of the kind of line management and use of metrics we find in factories and farms. Culturally this kind of bureaucratic form of power impacts on the least privileged and/or resourced of society either by being a deliberate barrier or a sunk cost which is out with many peoples means.


I shall argue that Machiavellian behaviours/scenarios arise from abstract depersonalised corporate organisational structures which we collectively have come to work and live under. I shall be talking about Ragged University as a response to the corporate social, economic and educational landscape which can serve lifelong learning despite the hostile circumstances.

University of Huddersfield


Ragged University is a free informal education project where I get people who love what they do to share their knowledge and skills in social spaces, and from there we build off of that. We don’t have any funding and it is voluntary; we use what we have and share who we are.


In my chapter I argue that Machiavellian behaviours arise from abstract depersonalised corporate organisational structures which we collectively have come to work and live under. I shall be talking about Ragged University community education project as a response to the corporate social, economic and educational landscape which can serve lifelong learning despite the hostile circumstances.


I will start this presentation by suggesting that the issues which I am bringing to the discussion are not unique to community settings or the field of education, but are manifest in all sectors and domains of contemporary life – both inside and outside of formal structures. Pick a sector, any sector or domain of life, and ask the same questions.


I shall start by running through the anecdotes I used to construct the narrative found in my chapter. I shall follow this by surfacing common themes which emerge from the impact of managerialism which I relate to Machiavellian behaviours; and I shall finish by touching on key elements which describe how Ragged University has had to evolve as a practical philosophy which acts to open up educational and social opportunities which are conspicuously absent in a wealthy culture.


Part One…


Yes maybe no

My first anecdote in the chapter is about ‘Permission to Exist’ and the sinking costs of trying to concord with the conventions of formalising a project…

I chose this anecdote to illustrate the issues that come with large bureaucratic processes where the chains of command are so large that tangled hierarchies occur resulting in situations where no-one is sure whether they have the agency to say yes, so the safe answer is no.


People have agency over other people’s actions but none over their own. This kind of command and control way of working often results in endless deferral for those at the bottom of the pecking order resulting in killing off many initiatives through uncertainty and strangling communities which don’t have the resilience or resources to get through a process.


In 2005 A taskforce investigating the activities of Britain’s 16 million volunteers found they were hamstrung by different levels of bureaucracy. Charity managers spend many hours a week on supplying different sets of similar information for central and local government regulators, and funders.


Sir David Arculus, the chairman of the taskforce said: “The voluntary and community sector is working in areas that the public and private sectors have failed to reach. Yet too much red tape can have a negative impact on the public’s willingness for volunteering and the sector’s ability to innovate and deliver.” (Quoted in the Guardian – Original source: document “Better regulation for civil society”)


Better Regulation for Civil Society Making life easier for those who help others
Click to Download Document



Perverse incentives

The next part of my chapter deals with the ‘Displacement of Volunteers’ and the financialisation of the ecology of voluntary action…

The second vignette of the chapter I wrote was selected to paint a picture of how the financialisation and demarcation of the domains of the community is taking place. This is happening under the name of voluntary activity through the creation of a professionalised Third Sector.


Something needs to be on record about the way that the insurance, legal, financial and bureaucratic frameworks have colonised our everyday lives and actions. Where there is muck there is money, and money comes to distort the social landscape.


To illustrate how big a business has developed around volunteering, the Office For National Statistics estimated that in 2014 volunteering through formal organisations was worth about £23 billion or 2% of the total value of unpaid work. This is the most reserved figure I could find and estimates have ranged to £100 billion in the UK.


In the next part of the chapter I focus on ‘Charity Registration’ and bureaucratic drift resulting in demarcation of who becomes involved in charitable activity…

Colin MacLean was a teacher, local authority education adviser, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools and the Scottish Office Chief Statistician before becoming a policy civil servant in 2000. He has led teams working on education, children, family issues and finance, all within what is now Scottish Government.


I asked Colin if I could quote him as I asked him to lend a sage critical eye over what I had written before submission to the editorial process for this book. In a friendly capacity he helps highlight the complexity of issues for me around things like charitable registration and public works as well as emphasizing the need for nuanced thinking which moves away from, rather than to, simplistic binaries. He said as a response to the chapter:


“Alex, Love it! Pungent and to the point. I cringed when I recognise some of the barriers I have maintained – and cheered when I could see that I had taken steps to empower and liberate and allow people to have a voice.


In general terms, I would leave it (the chapter) as it is, because it ought to provoke thought and debate. The one section where I think you might be (legitimately) challenged is on the response of OSCR [The Scottish Charity Regulator].


The regulator’s response seems highly restrictive and bureaucratic and I hope they will say – ‘you have misunderstood’. For example – Universities are charities and lecturers are not required to be qualified teachers…” [In the chapter I showed this as one of the stipulations which was asked of Ragged University before it could be awarded charitable status as an educational charity]


Colin continued: “In a previous life, I would have sent this to the regulator and said – ‘I am about to publish this and wonder if you have any comments’. They may very well ignore it – or send you general comments – but there is always the chance they will retract / rephrase / explain – and you have given them the chance to correct factual errors. It might make your essay less exciting – but might help develop policy for the good”


I checked with OSCR, the charity regulator for Scotland and they are happy for me to publish their responses to the charitable application. I shall be doing this shortly to accompany my presentation to this conference and booklaunch. It is important to acknowledge the dedicated, diligent and genuine nature of civil servants in general and to hold this in mind whilst examining the systemic problems we are all facing as well as their complex nature.


Preferred supplier

The next part of the chapter deals with ‘Access to funding’ and the enclosure of resources through the professionalisation of the acquisition process…

This part of my chapter I used to surface some of the obvious issues which come with the professionalisation of fundraising and accessing resources to facilitate activities which have public value. The Institute of Fundraising was founded in 1983, and is the professional membership body for UK fundraising.


In the Institute of Fundraising’s mission they report “to support fundraisers through leadership and representation; best practice and compliance; education and networking; and to champion and promote fundraising as a career choice”.

In October 2012 Third Sector [purportedly the UK’s leading publication for the voluntary and not-for-profit sector], reported concerns voiced by Rory Stewart MP. He said: “We have put so much energy and joy into the development of a specialised profession of the third sector, and we have tended to assume that we were doing the right thing… All of this might have created charities that are further and further away from the imaginations and interests of ordinary people”.


So rather like the British Standards Institute ISO quality assurance certifications, the Institute of Fundraising sets up a culture where professionalized fundraisers gain priority access to funding pots as “preferred supplier” lists set up hierarchies within the sector.



Hierarchies of Legitimacy

The final part of my chapter asks ‘Who Is Allowed to Make What Meaning ?’; Prompting the need for a Ragged University…

This vignette I used to illustrate around how knowledge and meaning-making in a professionally demarcated world becomes transformed from an expression of the inherent efforts and owned investments of the individual in learning to a process of political commodification that sets up and reinforces ‘hierarchies of legitimacy‘ around ‘distinction significations‘ that professional ingroups use to articulate their identity and dominion.


The effects of these hierarchies and ingroup structures result in occupational closure and specious forms of Credentialism which manifest social and legal barriers around the professionalised domains. Such enclosures “raise the rewards of their members by restricting the labour supply, enhancing diffuse demand, channel demand, and signal a particular quality of service” by excluding others.


When this culture encloses aspects of individual and community life such as learning, human capabilities and development then for those outside of the privileged ingroups alternative strategies have to be developed to “negotiate and renegotiate our way of life”. This is essential so that educational opportunities and freedom of association within these are a part of our lives and not liberty as a product sold back to us.


The Ragged University has evolved as a practical strategy borne of a philosophy that values the knowledge and skills individuals have as innate parts their lives and identities. In this way the important developments in philosophy and human rights may come from a self instructed woman in Stoke Newington; technical solutions on to how to measure longitude at sea may come from an autodidactic carpenter from Yorkshire; affordable systems of medicine for the poor may come come from a self taught woman from the suburbs of Paris; and the laws of electrolysis may come from a self educated boy from Southwark.

  • Mary Wollstonecraft
  • John Harrison
  • Marie Meurdrac
  • Michael Faraday




Confronting Managerialism by Locke and Spender

Part Two:

Part of the activity of Ragged University which I personally have been manifesting is a form of action research which has focused in part on the impacts of managerialism. This is a working thesis and as such, too broad to cover in detail here today. What I will do is briefly voice some threads which crop up again and again in different ways and places.


Locke and Spender’s book “Confronting Managerialism; How the Business Elite and their Schools threw our lives out of balance” does a good job in charting the rise of ‘scientific management’ and its application across fields and domains of action. I think it is important to analyse how corporate settings influence the ideas which are taken on, the social relations of the people who live and work in and under the organisational structures, and the behaviours which emerge from bureaucratic ways of coordinating collective action.


Large unwieldy highly professionalised, bureaucratised environments have the effect of depersonalising people. When complex human activities are read and understood through numbers, spreadsheets and policies the distance between decision makers and the site of their action allows for mental images of what is actually being represented to become simplistic reductions necessarily omitting sociological knowledge from the representations.


The larger the hierarchy, the greater the abstraction from the realities on the ground, the more scope there is for people in positions of power and agency to impose practices which respond to financial aspirations rather than social-ethical ones (of which I include education).


[In this thesis I am drawing on psychological work such as that of Stanley Millgram (Obedience to Authority), Philip Zimbardo (Understanding How Good People Turn Evil), Adam Waytz – Juliana Schroeder – Nicholas Epley (The Lesser Minds Problem), Miroslaw Kofta – Thomasz Baran – Monika Tarnowska (Dehumanisation as a Denial of Human Potential); Haslam – Bain – Douge – Lee – Bastian (Dementalization); Lee – Harris (Dehumanized Perception)… to name a few.]


What seems obvious is that what often get described as ‘Machiavellian’ behaviours commonly arise from the depersonalisation of people in artificial settings which pit one against another. I can provide references and a bibliography for those who gets in touch.

Everybody is a Ragged University

Part Three:

I shall finish by saying often successes and positives get overshadowed when problems are being focused on; being here today is an example of how a humane culture very much exists within the people and generates opportunities in response to interest and need.


Our world and lives are works in progress, and as such Ragged University is a construct to facilitate that progress. My life situation informs the project, and having no formal education I am afforded a good vantage point to study what constructive things can be done. Critical thinking is a part of this constructive approach.


Without education and from the lowest socio-economic demographic, I have formed the practical philosophy of Ragged University around the means which are available to me and those in similar situations. Necessity, passion and joy are drivers in all of this and through starting this journey seven years ago I have found my voice and community. This is my life, and many things more which transcend my experience.
Ragged University, like the Ragged Schools, I believe will come be a recognizable part of a diverse educational landscape in a more equitable and social future. But for now…

  • Ragged University has been developed to exist independently of the dominant structures for the discussed reasons
  • The choice of ‘Play the game’ or ‘abandon the trivialisation of lifelong learning’ is one which we personally make; but by taking the latter route I feel there are greater riches to be discovered and shared collectively
  • I believe that we must ‘Adapt, Improvise, and Overcome’, as my friend Gordon Barclay taught me. Practically that involves using available infrastructure and common technology to embody our means.
  • We must break down binaries and humanise activity through relationships and informality; I now look past the organizational structures, the contractable idiocy of money and perceive individuals which live and work in formal education as the rich autonomous whole people they are.
  • Education for me is best described as a personal covenant with learning as understood through relationships with people in community in a haphazard, chaotic, disorderly and messy world

by Alex Dunedin