Catching a Lecture at the Ragged University

These are tumultuous times for higher education. Increased tuition fees, the rumblings of growth from private providers, stiff international competition, and the potential of MOOCs to go mainstream all pose considerable threats to established universities.  On a different scale altogether there are now a range of initiatives that bring people together for formal and informal learning, such as the Omniversity, the Lincoln Social Science Centre (click here for blog post), free skools, and Occupy’s Tent City University.  During a time when education is increasingly seen as a commodity and personal investment these initiatives seem to meet a need for people to congregate, to discuss and learn.

I attended the fourth meeting of Manchester’s Ragged University.  The idea was takes its name from the Ragged Schools, charitable schools set up in 19th Century England and Scotland to provide education in working class areas. Drawing on progressive educational thinkers from Rabindranath Tagore and Socrates to Maria Montessori the Ragged Universities aim to provide an informal learning space that is not about CVs, certificates or making money.  To learn more about the RU click here.

There were two speakers presenting on themes relating to the environment. The first was Judith Emmanuel from Steady State Manchester.  After explaining who Steady State Manchester are (citizens concerned that not enough is being done to engage with the threats posed by climate change) and what they are trying to do (develop a substantive and significant planned response to climate change in Manchester) she played a clip from the inspirational video ‘Taking Root The Vision of Wangari Maathai’.

Next, Jules Bagnoli presented her take on Manchester’s De-Industrial Food Revolution.  The talk was rich with insight, experience and wit.  It’s striking to learn that we think we are in an age of unparalleled consumer choice yet there were more types of apples and pears on a market in Salford 100 years ago than today.  Furthermore, although Manchester has a huge food economy we are 99.75% reliant on ‘imports’.

The Ragged Project’s motto is ‘Knowledge is power but only when it is shared…’ so this is what I learned. Together the talks were grounded in the realisation that we are living in a time divorced from ecological reality, eating meats of dubious origin while sitting on a time bomb of environmental collapse – but all of this most people know the perpetual question is, what to do? What I liked about the talks is the message of hope.  Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai’s ‘Green Belt Movement’ demonstrates the significant change that can be achieved by identifying simple and arresting concrete actions that bring people together, such as planting a tree.  A key issue to resolve is what are the equivalent focal points to bring people together in Manchester?  From Jules Bagnoli’s talk, growing food seems to be an urgent, personal and social activity we need to get right as carbon costs more and more making carbon-intensive farming more costly.  One odd cause for hope is that in Manchester there are individuals with considerable knowledge and experience using hydroponics to grow crops, maybe these skills can be put to less illegal uses.

What next for the Ragged University?  There are many different events in Manchester where people talk about their passions (e.g., Bright Club, Social Media Café, MadLab).  So what will bring people back to the RU?  Away from the pull of credentialism is there a sufficient demand in Manchester to meet, listen and learn? I hope so.

James Duggan

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