Lift block on long-term prisoners getting student loans, say MPs

Westminster government says it does not want to lend money to inmates ‘who have no prospect of paying it back’

May 18, 2022
Books in prison
Source: iStock

Inmates serving lengthy sentences in English prisons should be given access to student loans, in a redrawing of Westminster government policy, according to MPs.

Under current student loan regulations, prisoners with more than six years left to serve are ineligible for loans for higher education study. Alex Burghart, the skills minister, recently told the House of Commons Education Committee that the government did not want to lend money to detainees “who have no prospect of paying those loans back”.

But in a report published on 18 May, the committee calls for a rethink, noting that reoffending “is lower in prisoners who participate in higher education”. For every 100 prisoners who take higher education courses, compared with those who did not, the number who reoffend within a year after release is lower by four or five individuals, the MPs say.

“The government must remove the ‘six-year rule’ so that prisoners on long sentences can apply for higher education courses earlier in their sentence,” the committee says in its report on prison education. “This would give them motivation during their sentence and keep them focused on their potential employment opportunities following release.”

The MPs’ inquiry heard from the Prison Reform Trust, which argued that education behind bars “had to be about more than short-term ‘employability’”, since about one in nine prisoners are now serving life sentences, with an average minimum term of more than 21 years.

“Some will never be released or when they are, will be elderly and not job-seeking,” the committee report says, although it notes that there are more than 1,400 inmates aged under 25 serving life sentences with minimum terms of 15 years.

The report also flags that the lack of access to digital technology in prisons means that distance learning is accessible only in paper-based formats, and is dependent on the support of prison education staff, which varies between jails. One serving prisoner told the MPs’ inquiry that it was challenging “doing my master’s in the cell with just Post-it stickers and notebooks”.

Conservative MP Robert Halfon, the committee chair, said prison education overall was in a “chaotic place” and called for a “root-and-branch overhaul that extends throughout prison culture”.

“The prison system must be held accountable for preventing reoffending, and therefore for making education accessible and high quality. I urge the government to carefully consider the steps set out in the committee’s report, which would reframe learning within the prison system,” Mr Halfon said.

chris.havergal@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Student loans are not regular commercial loans, where the recipient's creditworthiness is taken into account when deciding to make the loan. All you need to prove is that you have a place on an appropriate course that is covered by the student loan scheme. Hence it is perverse to argue that as a convict may not be in a position to pay it back they should not get a loan, as this test is not applied to any other student... never mind the evidence that study is beneficial to convicts' rehabilitation and demonstrably reduces recidivism.

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