Shoestring Initiative: Ragged University – The Means to Organise Education Beyond Money

This presentation was given to the Shoestring Initiative on ‘Ragged University – The Means to Organise Education Beyond Money’ by Alex Dunedin. The Shoestring Initiative is a grassroots initiative to build community and support among first-generation students, staff, and faculty who identify as coming from poverty and/or living in poverty or working class backgrounds.  As members of the University of Victoria community from poverty or working class origins ourselves, we recognize that our backgrounds come with shared strengths and experiences, as well as unique challenges that continue to influence our work and life at the University of Victoria in Canada.


Session Description:  
This session will start with a brief account of what Alex understands education to mean to him in real-life terms.  To Alex, education speaks of the things which have helped him to develop skills, knowledge and understandings he has but also it includes being in an environment which nurtures him and others as a human being.  Alex writes about how education and learning is a part of our natural social habitat as living beings rather than a business in the document ‘Education as Human Development’:


In this session, Alex will explore the ideas which he sees as the foundations of learning as a behaviour which runs through our relationships with people: our parents, our siblings, our friends, our children, our communities and the natural world. This is in contrast to the idea of taking nurture behaviours, which we need to live happy, healthy, productive lives, and making them profit-driven activities. That is, if you don’t or can’t pay, you don’t get help; imagine if that is what parents did to their children!


From these points-of-view, Alex will then explore methods and strategies for doing educational activities which don’t require money and which can support communities of independent learners whatever their resources are and especially if they don’t have money. Alex views this as taking charge of our own human development and away from profit-making corporations which have lost this ethical compass.


The session will end with an interactive conversation to explore the practical ways that people can use what is found in the world around them to build communities of learning with like-minded people using, for example, free software and public spaces. This conversation offers the opportunity to learn more about the social traditions and practices of learning in the lives of the group involved in the session such as how and what we learn from/with our lovers and friends to do so many things and understand the world we live in.


Alex Dunedin (@Raggeduni) has run the Ragged University project for the last ten years. The idea is based on the successes of the Ragged Schools, a social tradition in the UK where communities shared their knowledge and skills with each other in providing free education prior to any formal system. The Ragged University project takes up this history and carries it forward in the context of higher education with the aim of developing a practical philosophy which allows any individual to embody a form of human development suited for their needs and context independent of finance.

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I am going to try and structure it in three sections with micro breaks between to punctuate it.  The three sections will be

  1. Understanding learning as human development
  2. Practical Models of working with the landscape
  3. A shared discussion identifying learning strategies in our lives


Understanding Learning as human development

There are five key questions I have come use to orient my thinking in relation to learning and education. These are useful to help analyse the contexts which I find myself working in with a view of where I am trying to get to.  These are:

  • What does education mean in Real Life terms ?
  • What helps develop skills, knowledge and understandings ?
  • What environment nurtures capability ?
  • What is a natural sociological habitat ?
  • How do we build the social environments we need without recourse to finance ?


These are compasses I use to navigate in a constantly changing world nearly all of which has become dominated by human beings, and in which there are profound and startling inequalities.  Human beings have cultures which propagate inequality and, like other simian species, organise ingroups with privileges and outgroups from which privilege is taken.


Over the ten years of organising educational activities my ideas of learning, education and how to do these things have changed fundamentally because of the activity I have been involved with and my encounters in the world.  One of the most fundamental shifts which has taken place is the move from the notion of education as an organisation or institution to one which more resembles a practical philosophy found in relationships.


My starting point is from one of inequality because this is something which I have had to accept lest I be hindered by what some psychologists call a ‘toxic optimism‘.  I am by no means a pessimist and indeed think that pessimism is a means of closing down our opportunity to see in the world; pragmatic pessimism being distinctly pathological.  I have found that pragmatic optimism best describes the outlook which both allows me to critically analyse the world for the sake of realism, and also understand that the expectations people are psychologically leading – and as an influence it is better to be open to humans being dominantly generative and constructive than dominantly degenerative and destructive.


I believe that pragmatic optimism is an essential part of working in the world and is the source of energy which underpins the practical philosophy of doing ‘Ragged University’.  The internal environment is the environment which we have most control over and the only ethical balance which I have discovered so far to negotiating the negative that I have seen is to seek out the positive and hold that in mind.  To overly privilege the negative is to lend it your own success.  Stoicism is a good meditation to practice.


With this in mind I orient myself around the idea of Human Development as the guiding principle of working in the world and take the ideas which are found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as mediations on what things are necessary in contributing to Human Development in the face of all the difficulties which we encounter.


To develop a sense of what education means in practical terms I view education as something which is distinct from what we find explored in politics, religion and the corporate; these ways of seeing occupy their own paradigms and are respected as such.  I place education in a position which is pre-political as it relates to a process of coming to understand how I want to act in the world.  I see education not as a matter of faith but as a process of coming to know through practical reason and engagement with first principles.  I see education as something which is which extends beyond human construction as process involved in coming to realise our relationship with an infinitely rich universe.


In Real Life terms I have come to see education and learning as behaviours which can be seen throughout life.  My interests are in understanding the forms of these behaviours which are available to every person regardless of their status in human society or the finance they have available to them.  In this sense education and learning is not made of buildings, rituals, certificates or membership.  A question to help orient ourselves in this notion: Can you think of anything which goes on inside a university which does not go on outside of it ?  A university, in one analysis is just a collection of human beings using tools and interactions in developing understandings which are meaningful.  You can reconstruct all that is found going on in a university in a different configuration within your own life which is your sociological habitat:

Axiom: Everyone is a Ragged University – a unique and distinct body of knowledge accredited by their life experience and with a membership of one


Starting from the place of unequal access to resources in the world I set out to find processes of education which could exist independently of the organisational structures which do not cater to those outside of them.  It was through two friends in particular that I was to discover something which was to offer an answer.  I had met Eileen Broughton and Leroy Wilsher through passing on some basic understandings which other friends had passed on to me.  As a result of being shown basic computer skills which allowed me to take computers which other people had thrown out and make them work, that I could help them as retired teachers, use their computers.


I had met Eileen through a friend who told her that I could help her understand what a pdf document is and how to open it on her computer.  I went to her house and showed her a free piece of software to open the file (Foxit PDF reader) explaining to her that a pdf was in effect a book in digital format.  I enjoyed an afternoon sharing practical knowledge of how to run a free antivirus and defragment her computer to speed it up and run properly; and she shared with me some thoughts on Systems Analysis and how people go about things.


On my way out Eileen said to me ‘how much can I pay you ?’ and in response I had said ‘nothing, I am just passing on somethings which my friend Jess had taught me, and besides, I enjoyed your company’.  I would describe Eileen as a bit of a force of nature and recall vividly her rising up and saying ‘I am an economist by trade, everyone deserves to be remunerated’.  I thought for a moment and felt it was a devaluation of what was happening to reduce it to money.  I said ‘Well, if you were in teaching why dont you teach me something in exchange’.  It was such a pleasant time with tea and biscuits that a friendship developed.  She would invite me around to her flat and drill me on systems thinking exercises, or talk through ideas such as Opportunity Costs challenging me to rehearse back to her how I had understood what she was trying to communicate to me.


She was kind and frank and did not really care that I was scruffy.  She introduced me to one of her friends, Roy – Leroy Wilsher – who was also a retired teacher.  He had taught History and had been an inspector of schools at one point.  He had a deep love of literature and language sharing this through evoking history in the everyday.  I had no idea how much of the day to day language we use was drawn from William Shakespeare and that, at the time he lived, his work embraced the living languages and dialects which people spoke – quite different from the elitism which gets assumed on it.  As someone who has grown up with dyslexia I felt quite excluded from much of what gets proffered as education.


I would enjoy a half pint of Guiness with him and he would share history as an alive subject, one which everyone owned, one which everyone was capable of.  These two people, through friendship, helped teach me critical thinking and that it was a skill to analyse what we think, how we come to think it and nurtured me to have the confidence to examine my own thoughts and formulate opinions.  Their friendship was a setting in which I was introduced to a kind of education which was not punitive or authoritative but one which was a part of a collaborative process of offering up ideas and together testing how helpful and meaningful the ideas are.  It was quite different from the formal experience I had encountered of a large logistical system of sorting and systematically disqualifying individuals until opportunities were awarded to the last people standing.


It was a revelation, it was unnerving as they insisted on questioning the premises of everything and not just accepting what information you had received.  They pointed out again and again that regurgitating information is different from understanding and that even if you give the information which is a fitting response in a setting that does not necessarily equate to knowledge.  This was bizarre to me as school had taught me that it was wrong to question the person or idea who was stated as the authority; or to suggest something that I had creatively come up with – I had learned that these led to disqualification so best not to.


Here were two teachers who were telling me to question even the agreed upon things as learning is a process of discovering truth.  They provided a warm atmosphere where they were genuine but not sentimental about encouraging me to explore.  I learned from them to reorientate the social anxieties of inquiry and develop a skill of being truthful to myself, that there were not stupid questions but there may be intentions which bring about stupor (for example not wanting to do the work involved in reading something but wanting to be able to know the content of the writing).  They helped me move beyond the desire for categorical understandings towards exercised skills that enabled me to understand the world in analogue and resist stating the world in black and white binary ways.  They helped me rediscover learning as an adventure; an enrichment that excites and reveals more of an infinitely rich, infinitely complex, beautiful and sometimes terrible world.


Coming back to the purpose of this presentation, I am trying to share an indication of the relationships which are the foundations of education and learning.  It is an exploration of the relationships we have with nature, with the world, with people, with society, with ideas such that we are not fooling ourselves or others.  The setting in which the concept of Ragged University has evolved needs a little more context:


2021 is an age where the economy in Britain (and many other countries) is acting as the ‘trickle up’ sort and where finance and opportunity has followed the technocratic bent of flowing towards those who already have finance and opportunity.  In this setting the notion of education which has spoken most clearly to me as an individual is one which fits more with ideas found in the area of International Development.   A good book to paint the detail is written by Leslie Christine Groves and Rachel Barbara Hinton called ‘Inclusive Aid: Changing Power and Relationships in International Development’.


The Third Sector has become an extension of a world dominated by finance; a world that has become highly professionalised and bureaucratically structured in ways that have evolved what have been called “Super-major charities” by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations – these are charities which have an income of over £100 million.  These act as gravity wells to which more funding flows as highly credentialed people are paid increasing amounts of money with the idea that you need these people if the organisation or cause is to attract the right kind of funding.  Charity has become big business to the exclusion of grass roots and voluntary initiatives that don’t get a look in.


Whilst the educational sector is going through a process of financialisation, marketisation and corporate takeover, it is little scrutinised that universities in Britain are established as charities in law.  This is enigmatic due to the fact that student fees are creating generations of people in debt whilst partnering with multinational companies such as Pearson Plc which are rooted in tax havens.


Former tax-inspector, and winner of the Paul Foot Award for Investigative Journalism, Richard Brooks wrote a book called ‘The Great Tax Robbery’ in which he points out that taxation is one of the most important and useful systems for redistributing wealth for healthy functioning cultures stating: “If this were a club only a fool would not join. In fact nobody does opt out, but plenty happily enjoy the benefits of membership without paying their subs.”


So we have a system where universities are operating under charity law with their associated tax exemptions working hand in hand with multinationals which have focused on re-framing education as “a market opportunity” in which an ecology has been created that in many cases charges academics to publish their work (locking away the knowledge under intellectual property law) which has often been significantly bankrolled by the taxpayer, whilst putting students in debt for engaging in basic functions of human development which societies neglect at their peril:


The Great Tax Robbery by Richard Brooks

“…with the shackles removed from international finance, a simple trick became easier and, for many companies, irresistible. Money could be placed in a tax haven subsidiary company in return for share capital in that company, and then either invested or even lent back to the British company from which it came in the first place. The high interest rates employed in the battle against inflation at the time meant a quick accumulation of tax-free profits offshore, matched by a corresponding reduction in taxable profits back home.


One of the first multinational companies to cash in was Pearson, the owner of Penguin books and the Financial Times, which in 1979 placed £20m surplus cash in a Jersey-registered company for deployment in several high-yielding schemes made possible by the currency relaxations. It doubled its money in five years, free of UK tax.


But in order to get out of both the UK’s and Jersey’s taxes, the company needed to ensure it was not ‘managed and controlled’ – a trigger for tax residence – in either place. Its directors toured Europe’s tax havens, holding thirty board meetings in Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Luxembourg, Geneva, Monaco and elsewhere to ensure the peripatetic company remained stateless for tax purposes…”


(Brooks, R. (2014). The Great Tax Robbery. New York: Oneworld Publications. page 81

Educational qualifications have become pre-requisits in getting recognised for even getting to interview stages of what used to be understood as job roles which did not require degrees.  In 2018 The Economist reported on how algorithms are being used to reject up to 75% of CVs without a human even seeing them:


“Victoria McLean is a former banking headhunter and recruitment manager who set up a business called City CV, which helps job candidates with applications. She says the applicant-tracking systems (ATS) reject up to 75% of CVs, or résumés, before a human sees them”


Cathy O’Neill who wrote the book ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’ lays bear the reality of algorithms: “Algorithms are opinions embedded in code. It’s really different from what you think most people think of algorithms. They think algorithms are objective and true and scientific. That’s a marketing trick. It’s also a marketing trick to intimidate you with algorithms, to make you trust and fear algorithms because you trust and fear mathematics. A lot can go wrong when we put blind faith in big data.”


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The current paradigm we are living through is saturated with mantras of ‘meritocracy’ which are further creating underclasses who are uprooted from a stock of human capital which is historically understood as inalienable to them – i.e. the skills, knowledge, and experience possessed by an individual or population.  Michael Sandel has questioned these mantras discussing ‘meritocratic hubris’ in his recent book ‘The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good‘:


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Add to this the undermining of the Further Education sector and the fact that unpaid internships have become overtaken by young people who can either support themselves or who have parents who can provide for them while they work without pay” we can see that even unpaid work as a form of opportunity has become a marginal and exclusive reality for a great number of people.  The traditional societal infrastructures of apprenticeships similarly have been ruined by mismanagement and opportunism if we survey the reportage tracking their organisation.


It is in these kinds of settings which the individual without finance or a degree to authorise them in the socio-financial hierarchy as legitimate that even people in financially rich countries like Britain have to think through the means of the processes essential for human development.  The sketch above is brief and stops short of many other identifiable problems such as the corporate buying up of public space, the degradation and destruction of the natural environment, the degeneration of the food chain, the erosion of employee rights and job security, the pollution of air and water, and various other collective issues which are looming.


There is accumulated evidence that for the increasing numbers of people planet-wide who have – and are – become devalued it is important that methodologies which look towards our own means of capability are developed.  This is not to say that the cultural structures of the world should not change in their implicit nature and that we should not call out the fraudulent logic of the neoliberal mantras of entrepreneur of the self.  It is to learn from thinkers who have emerged amidst oppression.


Being practical about the reality of creating one’s own process of human development and education one must incorporate understanding of ideas like “Interest Convergence” to be viable in the context of human development. This theory was put forward by Dr Derrick Bell in the field of Critical Race Theory whereby significant change may only come about when there is a convergence in the interests of the dominant culture with those of the individuals seeking parity. In plain terms, Bell suggested that white people will support racial justce only when they understand and see that there are advantages to them embracing the change – i.e. there is a convergence in the interests.

(Bell, D. A., (1976), ‘Serving Two Masters: Integraton Ideals And Client Interests In School Desegregaton Litigaton’. New Haven: Yale law journal Co. – Bell, D. A., Jr., (1980), ‘Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest-Convergence’, Dilemma, 93 Harv. L. Rev. 518, 523,


In consequential terms, wishing for financial systems to represent those without finance is wishing for a fairytale – in practical terms, here and now, it is a pleasant fiction of a mirage in a human made desert.  What individuals must think through, I argue, is the inherent value contained in learning and developing skills and knowledge in their own lives.  I also argue that an important part of this is being involved in a learning society best expressed in the hospitality of strangers.


It comes from the orienting statement – “If we find ourselves in the absense of having access to a resourced educational process sufficient to exercise and develop the necessary characteristics involved in mental and physical wellbeing, what do we do ?”


The response to this must come from each individual locked out of the privilege which has accrued within the system of finance and enacted in a personal relationship with those learning processes.  Like the history of the Ragged Schools and countless other informal systems of education throughout history and place – we must do what we can, with what we have, when we can, to meet our needs.  This I would argue is only possible by building on the what it is to be human and humane; sharing in a learning society.


To help us understand what is at stake we can look towards neuroscience.  The brain is like a muscle and like muscles, neurons develop when we exercise ourselves through learning and meaningful activities.  As we learn new nerve cells are stimulated to grow as well as make connections between each other; as well as this, if we stop exercising our brain the connections between nerves weaken and decay.  This is known as neuroplasticity.


The external environment and the internal environment are intimately linked in this way.  As we explore the world through activities our brains develop.  Charles Darwin was an early thinker who developed this understanding of the connection of the richness of the environment with the development of the brain.

Darwin noted differences when in studying and comparing the brains of domestic rabbits with those of their wild counterparts. He found that the domestic rabbits had smaller less complex brains than those of their wild counterparts and he reasoned that this was due to the richness of the environment and lifestyle of the free rabbits. He concluded the domestic animals “did not exert their intellect, instincts, and senses as much as did animals in the wild” and that this manifested in the way brain tissues had adapted to their environments in developmental terms.

(Darwin, C., (2009), ‘Variation Of Animals And Plants Under Domestcaton: Volume 1’, New York: New York University Press,


In recent times Marian Cleeves Diamond pioneered work documenting how enriched environments result in the development of heavier more complex brains. She and her colleagues helped establish this theory in modern neuroscience demonstrating that environmental enrichment causes the adaptation of structural components in the brain at any age.


(Diamond, M. C., (2001), ‘Response Of The Brain To Enrichment’, Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências, 73. 211- 20. 10.1590/S0001-37652001000200006,; Diamond, M. C., Krech, D., Rosenzweig, M. R., (1964), ‘The Effects Of An Enriched Environment On The Histology Of The Rat Cerebral Cortex’, J. Comp. Neurol. 123:111-119; Diamond, M. C., Greer, E. R., York, A., Lewis, D., Barton, T., Lin, J., (1987), “Rat Cortical Morphology Following Crowded-Enriched Living Conditions” Exp. Neurol. 96:241-247


It is by understanding this principle that we can engage with the orienting question ‘what happens to the brain when you take a living being away from an enriched environment ?’.  The consequences of withholding educational activities from an individual are correlated with the withholding of human development.  The results are forms of stress which result in measurable traumas that impact on mental and physical health.


It is in this way that I have come to understand Education is an intrinsic part of our wellbeing and health.  The activities involved in learning and education are intimate parts of our sociological habitat which we have co-evolved with for tens of thousands of years.  A deeper exploration of these realities can be found in the chapter titled ‘Physical Reflections of the Non Physical: Stresses from loss of habitat‘ which is found from page 46 in the ‘Education as Human Development‘ document which you can download below:


Click Here To Download

Drawing on what resources we have available to us we can forge strategies within our means.  The result of this tactic is that our efforts become more resilient to the fickle whims of finance which often encloses things of value in order to extract profit.  As a result the effects of finance often distort the nature of the good and/or make it fragile to the volatility of the finance rather than the constant nature of the good.


In the next part of the presentation I am going to talk through a number of elements which I have laid out on a Miro Board which is a free online collaborative space that allows the embedding of media.