Offender Learning: Fairer Access to Higher Education

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Rosie Reynolds is working at the University of Westminster and Prisoners' Education Trust to try and develop fair access to higher education. CareersinJustice spoke to her about the challenges she frequently sees for prisoners trying to get involved in higher education and what needs to be done to get rid of these difficulties.


You currently work on fair access to Higher Education at the University of Westminster, what challenges do you frequently see in terms of access to education?

We work with lots of people coming to higher education from non-traditional backgrounds (i.e. who aren't 18 years old, completing A-levels). Lots of advice and guidance is designed with this traditional applicant in mind, and so finding the information you need on, for example, childcare facilities at or near the university campus can be difficult.

One of the biggest general challenges is the lack of advice and guidance available to young people following cuts to services like Aimhigher and Connexions. Ideally this would be available when young people are choosing their Level 3 qualifications too as I find people are sometimes unable to apply for the degree they want because they have chosen subjects at Level 3 without understanding the impact of making a wrong choice.

Teachers and school/college careers advisors are under immense pressure and have so many personal statements to look at that it isn’t always possible to respond every student’s individual needs. If someone has English as an additional language, has a big gap in their education for whatever reason, is applying with professional rather than academic experience, they may need specific, rather than general, personal statement advice. Many of the people I work with are the first in their family to apply for a degree, and so they do not get the same input from their parents or siblings for what to put in an application. One of my favourite parts of my job is doing one to one personal statement sessions, seeing someone’s draft develop over weeks or months until they are submitting something that they feel really proud of. Higher Education institutions often go to schools and colleges to offer advice on student finance, applying for scholarships, housing, student life in general, study skills, etc.

But those in prison do not have access to this support.

A specific problem to people trying to access education from prison is the reliance of so many important sources of information on someone’s ability to access the internet. The UCAS application itself, information on student finance and funding, entry requirements for degrees (even when universities have prospectuses, they often point people to the website for specific requirements), applications for student housing if applicable – often little thought is given to providing this information to people offline.

Writing a personal statement and an application requires a quiet space and a quiet mind. Contrary to what some newspapers may report, prisons are difficult environments to exist in, physically and mentally. Staff shortages and lack of funding, on top of this challenging environment, might mean that providing time, space and support for thinking about higher education is not a prison’s priority.

The challenges do not end on release (or for people with convictions who have not served a custodial sentence). From May the UCAS form will no longer require prospective students to declare a conviction but universities may still ask the question, and since there is no actual policy for universities to adhere to in their admissions process for people with convictions (which I will bring up again later!) it isn't clear what declaring a conviction will mean for your application. It will trigger a different process for every university, and for applicants having to disclose your conviction without knowing why, or who you are disclosing to, is a barrier to applying at all.

Without going on too much here – experience of the criminal justice system has consequences reaching far beyond just the person in direct contact, which can be a challenge to accessing higher education. These can be practical (not having secure employment to support your learning and to be able to buy resources, a stable home environment to apply from and study in) and psychological. The psychological challenges are some of the hardest to overcome.


In terms of education, what do you think could be done to give fairer access to higher education for prisoners?

I’m pleased to say that there are lots of positive changes that can be made, some with relatively little effort.

Partnerships between prisons and universities. The potential benefit of these – for both parties – is immense. I’m coordinator for prison partnerships at Westminster, and we currently work with HMP’s Pentonville, Grendon and Coldingley. On a very simple level one effect of this is that you are giving people without easy access to email the chance to ask university staff questions they may have about higher education. I’m pleased to say that since working in these prisons I’ve received written enquiries and had many face to face conversations about how the application process works, entry requirements, funding options and more.

All of our projects involve taking some of our Westminster students into prisons to learn alongside students there. This does a lot to break down preconceptions – on both sides. It also gives learners in prison the opportunity that learners outside would get at a university open day – they can ask current students questions about higher education that they might not want to ask a staff member.

As part of my voluntary position in research and policy at Prisoners’ Education Trust I work on the PUPiL network newsletter. PUPiL stands for Prison University Partnerships in Learning and aims to bring together people working on partnerships of all sorts, across all disciplines, to share best practice and address challenges. The PUPiL website details some of the brilliant work that is being done – all of which helps to bring down those high walls that universities can seem to have.

Universities should be transparent about their application process for people with convictions, publishing their procedure and explaining what the impact of disclosing a conviction will be for an application to study. For example, is the academic part of the application considered alongside information about the conviction? If so, what is in place to prevent anti-conviction bias? If the application is separated and a decision is made to offer you a place, what does the risk assessment look like? Who is making the decision? Who will know about your conviction when you arrive to start your course?

Universities can offer tailored support and advice for students with convictions should they want it, to address specific issues. For example offer-to-enrolment support to prepare someone for study, signposting for where to access academic support, study skills sessions, counselling, housing advice, funding and finance etc.


What would be the challenges for this?

From the university side, it could be an issue of staff resourcing - for example not having a designated person to oversee practice, from outreach to admissions to support for current students, related to people with convictions (either in prison or otherwise) and to support students holistically when they have been accepted. Outreach for people with convictions is just one small part of my job, for example, which also involves outreach for other under-represented groups, student recruitment events such as UCAS and HE fairs across the UK, running the university’s Student Ambassador scheme and running our online Personal Statement Support Service – that’s just my average day to day before I get home and work on my PhD or start my voluntary work! Dr Darke and Dr Aresti who facilitate the sessions we do in prison are full time lecturers with all the teaching and research commitments that entails. We have all made prison education projects part of our roles but for more to be done and changes to be made a specific role would probably need to be created. There is a question to be asked about whose responsibility it is to address the barriers to education for people with convictions – HE institutions, charities, prisons, the government? I would of course suggest all of the above!

Staff resourcing is also an issue within the prisons. This affects access to education – from something obvious like lack of careers advisors or qualifications on offer to practical issues such as having the available officers to bring prisoners from their cells to the classroom and take them back.

Funding is a challenge, as it is for lots of things.

It can be hard for practitioners both in prisons and universities to make a case for funding or resources to work on this because there is no access to centralised data on applications from people with convictions (or how many people tick the box on the UCAS form, how many get offers, how many accept those). This means it can be hard to prove need and to identify good practice.

Funding isn’t the sole problem. There are cultural challenges to providing prison education, exacerbated by representations of prisons in the mainstream media. There is also the challenge of creating an appropriate learning environment in the prison, often space is multi-purpose and of course students studying English Literature will have different needs to those studying Art, or Food Safety and Hygiene.


How important a role do you think education plays in rehabilitation?

It can have a positive impact; there is some good data  from the government that shows that being involved in education whilst in prison reduces the likelihood of somebody reoffending on release. However, it is one part of a large and complex puzzle - the way in which it impacts individuals will be different for every learner. Prisoners’ Education Trust have developed a theory of change which vitally considers the many ways that education can have a positive impact (not just for a qualification, or employability).


Do you ever think policy stands in the way of prisoners and ex-prisoners and their access to education?

Yes, I do. For higher education admissions I think a lack of policy stands in the way – there is nothing in place from the government to ensure universities are practising fair admissions policies for people with convictions, and because this is not a protected characteristic the Equality Act does not offer protection from discrimination.  

There is also an problem accessing funding through Student Finance for students in prison, because of a policy that dictates that funding is only available to those with six years or less to serve. This is particularly problematic for those serving long sentences and who are seeking to progress whilst inside but can also prevent people from planning for their future.


If you have enjoyed reading Rosie's experiences of Prison Learning and want to know more about working in Offender Education, please explore our latest jobs here.