To be truly inclusive, universities must help prisoners feel they belong
30 Aug 2017
By Nina Champion, Head of Policy
In the next few days, the news will be full of images of teenagers nervously opening envelopes and jumping for joy at their exam results. It doesn't feel too long ago I was in their place. Twenty years later, I’m waiting for results again, but this time from students who have had a different educational path to mine – through the prison system.
Prisoners’ Education Trust, whose policy team I head, funds prisoners to take courses in subjects and levels otherwise unavailable to them. Amid the despair in the prison system today, with the staffing crisis and increases in violence, drugs, self-harm and suicides, there are some incredibly determined men and women working against the odds to gain GCSE, A-level and university-level qualifications.
These students are working without access to the internet and with limited libraries. They are studying in places where study support, when it exists, is hampered by staff shortages and institutional lockdowns. They are writing their essays by hand, sat on a toilet seat in a shared cell.
Theirs is just the sort of resilience and ambition that we need in new university recruits, and it’s all the more remarkable because of their backgrounds: close to half the prison population left school with no qualifications, 42% were permanently excluded and nearly a quarter (compared with 2% of the general population) have spent time in the care system as children. In these ways, they share characteristics with the group that Ucas and the government call “disadvantaged” – those least likely to progress to university.
But for a prisoner applying to university, it is not as simple as just getting good grades. A tick-box on the Ucas form requires every applicant to disclose unspent convictions. There are two issues with this – first, it might lead to discrimination on the part of the university, and second, it sends a signal to the person applying that they may be discriminated against.
I saw this first-hand earlier this year when I sat with a prisoner who had requested day release to complete his online Ucas form. One moment he was animatedly telling me about his remarkable journey through a long prison sentence, gaining qualification after qualification, the next I saw his demeanour completely change – his shoulders and head droop as he came across the disclosure box.
It’s what research from the State University of New York (Suny) calls a “chilling effect”, which discourages people from completing the application process. It is a signal that they will never belong in this world and will be viewed in terms of the identity and lifestyle they are trying to leave behind. These findings have informed Suny’s decision to remove the box from its forms. In Belgium and Denmark, universities don’t ask about convictions either.
Universities must of course be aware of safeguarding, but this can be explored after the initial application process is completed. Each applicant should be appraised based on the risk they pose today, rather than by the fact they once served time in custody or the reputational damage this might cause an institution.
Research from the US found no evidence that admitting people with criminal convictions led to a higher rate of crime on campus. This speaks to the transformative power of education. Prisoners who access higher-level courses provided by PET are 25% less likely to reoffend compared with a matched control group. Going to university will further embed these benefits, reinforcing their new student identity and enabling them to build new, positive support networks.
Because of this, PET is working alongside universities, Ucas, Unlock and a number of other charities, as well as prisoners and former prisoners, to find ways to better support people with convictions to enter university. Some universities are already recognising the importance of this group. Goldsmiths and Cardiff Metropolitan have expanded their “widening participation” remits to encompass those who have spent time in custody.
Many universities are developing partnerships that bring their students into prisons to study alongside prisoners, breaking down myths and barriers for both groups. I have heard of several cases of prisoner students excelling in these courses and being offered places at the partner universities after release.
This year, two men we funded 10 years ago to take their first steps in university study were named in the Queen’s birthday honours list for services to young people. Learning at this level has had a profound effect on them as individuals, but also on their communities, through the young people they have helped turn away from crime. Their original offence had a negative ripple effect, but their education has had had had a positive impact on their families, communities, and scores of young people; preventing future crimes and further victims.
If we are to have truly inclusive universities that reflect and serve society, we cannot afford to exclude people with convictions. People who have been in prison have much to gain, but also much to give back – to the institutions they enter, to their children as role models and ultimately to our communities.
So when you are looking at the images of teenagers opening their brown envelopes in school halls, think about the hidden student successes behind the walls of your local prison. Theirs are fragile hopes, but ones we – and our educational institutions – must do everything possible to keep alive.
This article first appeared in The Guardian, 16 August 2017