Widening prisoner access to degree courses ‘could save millions’

There are huge direct and indirect benefits in removing loan restrictions which make it impossible for many prisoners to study for degrees, argues Hepi

October 24, 2019
Prison
Source: iStock

There are currently around 2,000 prisoners in higher education in the UK, the vast majority (1,750) studying for part-time distance-learning degrees with the Open University. Yet the Student Support Regulations for both England and Wales lay down that “to be eligible for student support the prisoner is someone whose earliest release date is within six years” of the start of their course.

A new policy note by the Higher Education Policy Institute puts the case for “the simple change of excluding this clause from the regulations”.

For the prisoners themselves, writes Ruth McFarlane, who leads the Students in Secure Environments Team at the Open University, studying for a degree “contributes to a sense of well-being that cannot otherwise be easily met within the confines of a prison regime”. Yet there would also be significant financial and other benefits for society as a whole. Removal of “the six-year rule”, the policy note argues, “could yield an additional 9,770 eligible prisoners in England and Wales who would have access to higher education funding”. Given rates of “approximately 2 per cent of the prison population in higher education, we estimate this would equate to an additional 200 OU students per year” – and an additional £2.3 million in “the upfront cost of student loans”.

At the same time, writes Ms McFarlane, “participating in higher-level study…has been proven to reduce reoffending”. Reasonable assumptions indicated that the extra 200 OU students would “equate to between eight and 12 fewer reoffenders. Based on the annual cost per prisoner in England and Wales [about £37,750 in England and Wales for 2017-18], and assuming that people who reoffend commit a crime that merits a 10-year sentence, this could mean savings to the public purse of between £3 million and £6 million” – and that is “even if the student loans were never repaid”.

Alongside such direct “potential savings to the public purse”, Ms McFarlane told Times Higher Education, “we believe that…more people entering prison with limited educational experience can leave with qualifications and aspirations that change their lives and allow them to make valuable contributions to society and the economy upon release”.

“Prisoners who seek to improve their education are positive role models for other prisoners and are less likely to reoffend on release,” said Hepi director Nick Hillman. “So it is hard to imagine anyone on either the right or left of politics could want the current obstacles to learning to stay in place.

“As they write their manifestos for the next general election, I would urge all the political parties to consider a new commitment to helping prisoners better themselves through education.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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