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As a University, the OU has a commitment in its Charter to ‘the advancement of learning and...

The OU in prisons

One small but significant group that The Open University has catered for right from its very first intake is people in prison. Walter Perry’s Open University: A personal account by the first Vice-Chancellor explains:

In 1970 the Home Office offered to make available, in two prisons, facilities for inmates to take Open University courses. Both were men’s prisons and on security grounds, courses were excluded which involved the use of Home Experiment Kits. The Home Office paid each student’s fees, and provided the necessary equipment in terms of set books, projectors, tape cassettes and films. The prisons’ tutor organisers were appointed counsellors. The prisons’ vetting of applications is designed to discover whether the applicants’ motivations are genuine and well-directed and whether security considerations allow them to study, but selection remains a University responsibility. In all, 22 prisoners were admitted for study in 1971, of whom 16 were in Wakefield and 6 in Albany prison.

 The Home Office in the 1970s was adamant that no prisoner could be transferred exclusively on education grounds in order to study with the OU at a designated prison and only one subject, at foundation course level, may be studied in the first year.

In most cases OU study was regarded as a leisure time activity, outside working hours. However in come cases prisoners were released from their normal employment to study in the education centre during working hours without loss of earnings, amounting to 10 working hours a week.

In 1974 Wakefield prison produced the first OU prisoner graduate. Perry pointed out that ‘prisoners tend to have a relatively high rate of withdrawal from courses before the examinations…Nevertheless, for those who actually sat the examinations, the results are reasonably good.’

The experiment of 1971 was extended to other prisons in subsequent years and by 1985 150 prisoners in 31 establishments were registered as OU students. By 2011 The Open University was the largest provider of HE distance learning courses to prisoners with around nearly 1,800 OU students in more than 150 prisons across the UK and Ireland, studying over 200 courses across all faculties.

Some more well known prisoners who studied with The Open University include Bobby Cummines, John McVicar, Erwin James and most notoriously Myra Hindley.

Delivering higher education to students in prisons and secure environments remains part of The Open University’s core values, although prisoners are only a tiny fraction of the student body.

There is a prisons team based in each of the OU’s regional and national centres. These teams support prisons locally with information about each step of the student journey. More information about the current Offender Learning Programme is available on their website, which includes testimonies from prisoners about their OU experiences. The OU has also led research into the impact of higher education in prisons. This can be explored at the website of the Higher and Distance Education in Prison research network.