Beyond the gates - 50 Years of prison education

Updated Wednesday, 30th October 2019
Beyond the gates - a short film exploring 50 years of educating students in prison.

As one of our Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) Curriculum Managers – and author of The Open University. A History – Dan Weinbren tells us at the start of this film, the OU first opened to 22 students in prison in 1971; and there are now close to 2,000 learners studying with the OU in secure environments. Almost a third of these study on modules and programmes in FASS.

While the OU is not now unique in providing education to students in prison, we are by far the largest provider in this context. This, we thought, was something appropriate to both take pride in, and reflect upon, as the University celebrates its fiftieth year. And that is why, as colleagues working in FASS, we developed the idea for this film.

Of course, students in prison gain many of the same benefits that OU students in general talk about – empowerment, the realisation of potential, recognising that Higher Education is not just for others, an increased sense of confidence, self-respect, self-worth, horizons being broadened and new opportunities being discovered. But as our graduates and Associate Lecturers in the film indicate, in their various ways, these benefits – these achievements - are all the more significant for students in prisons:  as one of the participants says in the film, if you end up in prison, life probably isn’t going well for you at that time. So the chance to study for a qualification – across a vast range of subjects,  from access to postgraduate level  -  underscores the potential of education as transformative. What is more, the achievement of a degree for those studying in prison is all the more remarkable, given the continual obstacles they can face – which are clearly articulated by our ex-students in the film.

OU students in prison are also a great testimony to the benefits of learning together, of learning communities.

Within this specific community, the work of the OU Students in Secure Environment (SiSE) programme, which supports their learning, is crucial. Where the OU gets things wrong in this context – and we still get many things wrong – SiSE is the first to learn of this, and is ready to suggest, ways of improvement; at the same time, it works proactively to widen participation to students in prison to all areas of our curriculum, to try and provide the same learning experience for students in prison as for those ‘on the outside’. It does this work in conjunction with our students in prison.

We’re proud to work in an institution that extends its commitment to ‘openness’ to some of the most marginalised learners in our communities, confined in places that are perhaps at best boring and monotonous, at worst degrading, violent and inhumane. Studying can, we hear in the film, take a student’s mind, for a while, metaphorically ‘beyond the gates.’ And the benefits of that study are something from which the student can benefit when they are, quite literally, beyond the gates, walking free, with choices to make and fulfilling lives to lead.




If you want to explore further issues related to the Open University’s involvement in educating students in prison, you might find two other initiatives of interest
You could check out a new publication, Degrees of Freedom. This edited collection is the first authoritative volume to look back on the last 40 years of The Open University providing higher education to those in prison. It gives voice to ex-prisoners whose lives have been transformed by the education they received while offering vivid personal testimonies, reflective vignettes and academic analyses of prison life and education in prison.
And you might visit the Time to Think exhibition. In this oral history collection, the Open University Ireland explores its work in British and Irish prisons during the years of conflict, 1972-2000. The collection contains interviews with Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoners who studied in prison, Open University tutors and staff, prison education staff and Open University students who worked in the prisons. 


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