by Debbie Jones and Mark Jones
It is often the case that those entrenched in patterns of offending find it difficult to stop due to stigma, discrimination and other structural issues limiting opportunities to bolster aspiration (Ministry of Justice, 2010; Shapland and Bottoms, 2011). Several studies have concluded that studying within Higher Education (HE) can be a significant ‘hook for change’ offering development of personal agency and widening positive social networks, key factors towards desistance (Lockwood et al, 2012; Runell, 2017).
Yet, despite widening access to HE being a global endeavour (Evans et al, 2017), the Prison Education Trust (2017) highlight that HE can feel unwelcoming for those with a criminal record. Evans et al (2017) found that, despite a drive to widen participation and access to HE in Wales, the internal culture and narrative can become ‘entangled, reinforcing the status quo at the expense of developing non-traditional student participation such as adult learners.
This blog shares our research carried out in Swansea, Wales which was funded by the Society for Research into Higher Education. The project explored the aspirations, barriers, and challenges for those at risk of offending to study in HE and considered what might be needed to support the desire to desist from offending within the context of a HE setting. The data collection phase consisted of two engagement events: one for those that had offended or were at risk of offending and were members of our partner and host organisation ‘The Hub’ (n = 16), and the other with practitioners who worked with people at risk including two participants who were also studying at Higher Education and had offended (n = 10).
We adopted a Pictorial Narrative Approach as a data collection tool and community engagement activity (Glaw et al, 2017). We will talk more about the Pictorial Approach and share some of the visual data in a forthcoming blog but for now, we want to share some of the key findings from the project.
It was clear from the data that aspirations, short and long term, varied but there was a common desire to ‘get back on track’. This was articulated as achieving better mental health and well-being which was seen as a ‘daily struggle’, securing employment, with some of the group wanting to use their own experiences to help others, and the development of positive family ties and relationships. Such aspirations have been identified as key drivers to desistance (McNeill 2019) and might be the necessary pre-requisites before any consideration can be given to embarking on higher education.
However, one of the more concerning factors from the data was the impact of previous education. 12 participants reported negative educational experiences, feeling like a ‘lost soul swimming in a fish bowl’. Many recounted negative learning experiences within the classroom such as, ‘getting the answers wrong’ and being ‘told off’ leading to feelings of embarrassment and intimidation. A majority of participants identified other forms of educational exclusion such as learning difficulties and bullying. Such experiences left the participants with feelings of alienation and resentment of the whole education sector. For participants who had been to prison it was often ‘the beginning of their education’ where they found hope and aspiration. Prison education was viewed as offering opportunity to develop basic skills such as reading and writing and for one participant it offered the chance to pursue a higher level of education at university on release from prison.
In terms of barriers and challenges to accessing HE, most of the participants were sceptical of HE and identified university as marketing itself as a vehicle for gaining employment but really ‘just wanted the money.’ Three of the participants in the first group had attended university and felt the level of debt acquired in the pursuit of a degree was excessive with no guarantees that it would lead to a job. Indeed, funding of a degree was a perceived as an insurmountable barrier for the group. All participants from the first group were claiming benefits and felt university was out of reach because of the trade-off between state support and the notion of ‘degree debts’. Even something as simple as paying for public transport to get to university was seen as problematic.
There was recognition however that university could help people gain confidence and improve their well-being if the issue of exclusion/rejection for previous offending could be addressed. One participant reported, ‘I applied for university but they rejected me because of my conviction, only drink related offences mind you, but they rejected me anyway but even when I walk across the campus now I feel proud and it makes me walk with my head held high – the university has a good vibe about it’.
Indeed, there was a strong sense of despondency amongst the group who felt their convictions would prevent them from going to university. One participant reported that he had been told that he needed to be ‘clean from drugs for two years before I can start doing courses, it’s really fucking hard’. Another participant articulated the views of the group when he said, ‘if you have the money they’ll take you but not if you have a conviction’.
The findings from this pilot study suggest that HE can offer people who have offended, or are at risk of offending, the opportunity to develop positive personal agency. However, for that to happen universities need to reconfigure how HE is delivered in the truest sense of widening access. This might include: the delivery of HE in partnership with prisons and existing community rehabilitation programmes to overcome issue of stigma and increase confidence; training for student services to meet needs of those students with a criminal record or at risk of offending; and, better outreach and marketing of HE and student loan systems to those at risk of offending. You can read the full report on the project at http://www.srhe.ac.uk/downloads/reports-2018/JONESdebbiemarkReport.pdf
Debbie Jones is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Director for Undergraduate Studies, Hillary Rodham Clinton School of Law, Swansea University. Deborah.firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter @debjonesccjc.
Mark Jones was an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University at the time of the research and is now Director at Higher Plain Research and Education. HigherPlainResearchEducation@gmail.com Twitter @A_HigherPlain. Our lead partner in this research is The hub in Swansea. Debbie and Mark are grateful to SRHE for funding the project.
Evans, C, Rees, G, Taylor, C, and Wright, C (2017) ‘Widening Access to Higher Education: The Reproduction of University Hierarchies Through Policy Enactment’ Journal of Education Policy, 34(1): 101-116
Glaw, X, Inder, K, Kable, A, and Hazelton, M (2017) ‘Visual Methodologies in Qualitative Research: Autophotography and Photo Elicitation Applied to Mental Health Research’ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 16: 1-8
Lockwood, S, Nally, J, Ho, T, and Knutson, K (2012) ‘The Effect of Correctional Education on Postrelease Employment and Recidivism: A 5-Year Follow-Up Study in the State of Indiana’ Crime and Delinquency, 58(3): 380-396
McNeill, F (2019) Rehabilitation, Corrections and Society Retrieved July 01, 2019, from http://eprints.gla.ac.uk/159625/7/159625.pdf
Ministry of Justice (2010) Understanding Desistance from Crime. Available at: http://www.safeground.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Desistance-Fact-Sheet.pdf
Prison Education Trust (2017) To be Truly Inclusive, Universities Must Help Prisoners Feel They Belong. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/aug/16/to-be-truly-inclusive-universities-must-help-prisoners-feel-they-belong
Runell, LL (2017) ‘Identifying Desistance Pathways in a Higher Education Program for Formerly Incarcerated Individuals’ International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 61(8): 894-918
Shapland, J, and Bottoms, A (2011) ‘Reflections on social values, offending and desistance among young adult recidivists’ Punishment & Society 13(3): 256–282 https://doi.org/10.1177/1462474511404334