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Rule change could support more prisoner learning

Relaxing the regulations on student loans allowing more prisoners to learn could pay broad dividends, according to a policy paper from The Open University (OU) and Higher Education thinktank Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI).

In a joint policy note published on Thursday October 24, the two organisations propose a change to the six-year rule, which prevents prisoners applying for student loans until they are within six years of release.

Could help rehabilitate prisoners

The proposal suggests that letting longer-serving prisoners apply for student loans and begin their studies earlier could help to rehabilitate inmates in prison and outside.

It is estimated that a change to regulations in England and Wales would equate to approximately 200 more students per year doing distance learning with The Open University.

The projected cost of the extra entrants (£2.3 million) is set against the potential saving to the public purse which could be three times as much because of reduced reoffending rates, even if the student loans were never repaid, the paper states.

Changing the six-year rule would have a significant positive impact on the life chances of many more prisoners and bring social benefits to wider society.

It cites many benefits of higher-level study for those on longer sentences who can become “trusted prisoners who can contribute to a settled environment” within their institution.

Ruth McFarlane, Senior Manager, Students in Secure Environments Team at The Open University said:

“A fundamental part of the OU’s mission is to open up higher education to everyone, regardless of background. We know that education has the power to transform lives and is recognised as one of the pillars of effective rehabilitation.

“As well as the potential savings identified to the public purse by this proposal, we believe that in addition, with the right support, more people in prison can leave with qualifications and aspirations that change their lives and allow them to make valuable contributions to society and the economy upon release.”

Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said:

Very occasionally, even when you know a policy area well, you come across something that simply beggars belief. For me, the fact that prisoners can’t access tuition fee loans unless they are six years from release falls into that category.

Prisoners who seek to improve their education are positive role models for other prisoners and are less likely to reoffend on release. 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 manifestoes for the next general election, all the political parties should consider a new commitment to helping prisoners better themselves through education.”

The Open University has been delivering courses and qualifications to students in prisons since the 1970s. Since 1972 there have been 16,000 OU prisoner students and in the last year alone almost 1800 people in approximately 150 prisons and secure units across all security categories in the UK have studied with the OU.

The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to shape the higher education policy debate through evidence. It is the United Kingdom’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded in part by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate.

About Author

Christine is a manager in the Media Relations team within the Marcomms Unit at the OU. She is an experienced BBC journalist, sub-editor and news editor and has a background in regional newspapers. After moving to PR she worked as a press officer for the Zoological Society of London. She has a BSc in Social Sciences with Politics from The Open University; she focuses on STEM stories and widening access in HE. Chris swims regularly and has a pet Tortoise called Lightning.

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