Degrees of Freedom – Prison education at The Open University

Degrees of Freedom – Prison education at The Open University

Rod Earle

The 50th anniversary of the foundation of The Open University (OU) is a landmark worth remembering and celebrating, even as it passes. In this article I briefly review the establishment of The OU in 1969 and then its work with men and women in prison. This draws from a collection of essays, Degrees of Freedom (Earle and Mehigan 2019), published at the end of 2019 to mark the 50th anniversary and raise the profile of our work with prisoners.

Widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest educational innovations, the origins of The Open University are less widely known than they should be. While Harold Wilson and Michael Young are often linked to it, the real motive force was Jennie Lee. She ensured it overcame the scepticism and ridicule that initially confronted Harold Wilson’s idea for a ‘university of the air’. Her skilful management and vision for a full university with national reach into parts of the population left behind by the post-war expansion of universities was as essential as it is under-sung. In the early 1960s the UK lagged well behind the rest of Europe, the USA and the USSR in expanding and extending university provision. Only about 4% of school leavers went into the university system and its routine neglect of working-class young people was increasingly exposed as an enduring and profoundly consequential social injustice. The new universities subsequently established in Norwich, York, Canterbury, Lancaster, Brighton, Warwick, Stirling and Coleraine succeeded mainly in extending provision to more of the white middle class, notably “the daughters of the sharper-elbowed middle class” as Patricia Hollis (1997) wryly remarks in her wonderful and worthwhile biography of Jennie Lee.

Much of the establishment scoffed at Harold Wilson’s ‘pipe dream’, suggesting it did little more than reveal socialist’s idealism ‘at their most endearing but impractical worst’. The idea of an open university represented a ‘historical fossil’ lumbering inappropriately out of the dismal 1930s into the brightness of the 1960s. A recurring theme that it would be meaningful ‘only for housebound women’ and those ‘with no need of a degree’ simply triggered Jennie Lee’s incipient feminism. Harold Wilson, to his lasting credit, backed her to the full. Through her The Open University became his proudest achievement, a legacy no Labour leader since has come close to leaving.

The connections between liberation and education have always been precious to the Labour movement. From the Chartists to the Workers Educational Association (WEA) and the left-wing summer schools and book clubs that grew up in the 1930s, teaching and learning has been linked to freedom struggles. Women’s and Black liberation movements have recognised emancipation starts in the head as well as the heart. The picture on the front cover of our book, painted and donated by a prisoner, evokes this experience. Degrees of Freedom celebrates The Open University’s unique but quite discrete reputation for delivering degree level education in prisons. In doing so it fulfils an important part of its government endowed mission to promote social justice. It gives form and substance to its founding declaration ‘to be open to people, ideas, methods and places’.  The men and women who have built this reputation by undertaking their studies in uniquely challenging circumstances have rarely had the opportunity to tell their story.

Our book includes nine chapters written by prisoners or former prisoners who have studied with The Open University in prison. These accounts are supplemented by nine vignettes providing briefer insights into the experience and consequences of studying in prison. As editors, James Mehigan and I wanted to put their stories ‘out there’ because we have both taught OU courses in prison and witnessed the dedication and transformations involved in studying with the OU. The final chapter in the collection, ‘What the OU did for me’ is a typically moving and emblematic account of both by Erwin James. James is unusual, and unusually eloquent, for he is now an accomplished writer, journalist and filmmaker. He edits Inside Time, the vibrant national newspaper for prisoners and detainees as well as finding time to write for The Guardian. The first vignette, by Kamal Abdul, tells of his 11 Ramadans in prison and his journey through maths, engineering and English courses that he hopes will “open doors, windows and gates”. In another, a trans prisoner, Eris, begins by saying “Only a prisoner (and possibly a prison officer) can understand the sheer tedium of prison life”. Margaret Gough tells of how her family and personal life were nearly destroyed by a devastatingly long prison sentence. Discovering a dormant taste and talent for education propelled Margaret through a variety of qualifications, a series of appeals and the completion her sentence.

Each chapter and each vignette author chooses their own story to tell. Laurence McKeown’s chapter, ‘From D102 to Paulo Freire: an Irish journey’, reports on the tensions that develop between students and tutors as Irish republican prisoners in the H-Blocks share their social science and, in the spirit of Paulo Freire, decline to be examined. Their learning is for the struggle not for ‘banking’ they explain to their patient but exasperated tutor who cannot secure their funding if the courses are not formally concluded with an exam. A creative solution is forged; learning, ideals and minds meet on open common ground.

The first five chapters are provided by OU staff and academics. Ruth MacFarlane, as senior manager of Students In Secure Environments (SiSE) not only provided access and opportunities to prisoners to contribute, she wrote the chapter, with Anne Pike, that provides a definitive account of how the Open University developed its work with prisons and prisoners. Ruth embodies the spirit of Jennie Lee by simply getting things done. The book project could not have happened without her and it certainly wouldn’t have the front cover it has. The artist approached Ruth during one of the SiSE team’s outreach events, saying he didn’t think he could write a piece for the book, but he would like to try a painting. We are happy he did and for our book to be judged by his painting on its cover.

The OU’s work in Ireland returns with a fascinating chapter drawing from a unique ‘oral history’ of the OU in Ireland (see link below). Focussing on the events in the North after internment camps were opened outside Belfast in 1971, Philip O’Sullivan and Gabi Kent offer fascinating insights into the ad hoc instigation of what Laurence McKeown would later encounter in the 1980s. OU education classes equipped some former combatants to forge the Comhaontú Bhéal Feirste or Belfast Peace Agreement of 1998. Many of the participants to the negotiations on the Irish side, Loyalist and Republican, had degrees conferred by The Open University as a result of their studies in prison and attest to its contribution to the peace process.

In the early days the OU quickly established a reputation for radicalism. Although this attracted the hostile scrutiny and threats of a Conservative government in the 1980s, it was initially the result of academically conservative scholars advising their promising students to avoid the first OU recruitment drives ‘because it clearly has no long-term future’ (Hollis 1997). This advice skewed the recruitment toward younger and indeed radical academics emerging from the new universities, and among them was Dr Mike Fitzgerald. Degrees of Freedom includes a tribute to Mike Fitzgerald’s work in the campaigning organisation Protection of the Rights of Prisoners (PROP). Mike advocated for a critical approach to penal reform and abolition of criminal justice systems that substitute concerns for social justice with a narrow focus on individual criminality (mostly among the poor and marginalised). My chapter with James Mehigan revisits this critique and poses some questions about the mutual interests that govern the expansion of both prisons and universities.

Prisons and universities are such very different places it almost goes without saying but they are becoming increasingly more intertwined. The Open University pioneered the extension of higher education across prison walls in pursuit of its mandate – to be open to people, ideas, methods and places. By offering degree level tuition to prisoners it offers them the possibility not to be forever defined by the worst things they have done. A degree cannot cancel a conviction or erase the past. It offers no comforts to victims of the various crimes committed, but each chapter of our book is testimony to the power of the second chance. It was this belief in the ‘second chance’ and the general social benefits of higher education that moved Harold Wilson and Jennie Lee to make a university that would work for the many not the few, a university offering a second chance to those who missed out the first time, or who society seemed to think were not worth it. Including prisoners has not been easy, but in this book they remind us why we do.

Hollis, P. (1997) Jennie Lee – A Life, Oxford. Oxford University Press.
Earle, R and Mehigan, James (2019) Degrees of Freedom: Prison Education at The Open University, Bristol. Policy Press.
Time to Think: Open University Journeys in Irish and British Prisons.
A ‘show reel about the establishment of The OU (mp4, 259 MB) is available here


Rod Earle is a senior lecturer at The Open University in the School of Health, Well-being and Social Care. He is a founder member of the British Convict Criminology group, which supports the development of prisoner and ex-prisoner perspectives in criminology. He is on the advisory board of the Prison Reform Trust’s prisoner engagement project and the Scottish Prison Service’s Participatory Action Research (PAR) Advisory Group.