The Final Research Report

Please read the full Final Research Report for the Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE).


Associate Professor Debbie Jones, Hillary Rodham School of Law
Associate Professor Mark Jones, College of Arts and Humanities


We would like to thank the SRHE for supporting this project.

This project would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the Include Hub, who worked in partnership with us to explore this issue.

Our final, and most important acknowledgement is reserved for the members of the Include Hub who shared their often personal and distressing experiences of education to help us to better understand how Higher Education needs to adapt to be a truly inclusive environment for effective learning.

Aims of this study:

The aim of this study was to explore the role of Higher Education in supporting aspiration towards desistance from offending behaviours in a very localised area, Swansea. In achieving this overall aim, the project also sought to explore the use of Pictorial Narrative Mapping as a research tool to both gather data and empower those involved in the research.

Background context:

It is often the case that when people get into a pattern of offending or are at risk of offending, it is increasingly difficult to stop the cycle and this along with other factors, such as stigma and discrimination, make it difficult to find opportunities towards positive change and bolster aspiration (Ministry of Justice, 2010; Bottoms and Shapland, 2011). However, previous studies have identified that studying within a Higher Education environment can be a significant ‘hook for change’ as it provides positive development of personal agency through the development of new positive social networks, ‘non-offending’ identities as well as knowledge and skills (Lockwood et al, 2012; Runnell, 2017). Therefore, whilst the benefits of Higher Education as a route to desistance are recognised, those working with people at risk of offending/reoffending point out Higher Education can be an exclusive environment with little appeal to those with offending backgrounds (Prison Education Trust, 2017). Furthermore, there has been a renewed call that within a Welsh context, that widening access should be meaningful and explore options for the integration of those at the margins of society (Evans, et al, 2017).

Therefore, this pilot study set out to consider how Higher Education, as an institution, and the aspiration of a higher education might be a useful and powerful process to support diversion and desistance from offending. It should be noted that previous research on this topic has focused on the role of education within a prison setting and therefore this study was the first of its kind in Wales as it sought to examine the role of Higher Education within the context of prevention of offending/reoffending within a community setting.

Findings & Key Messages:

Whilst the findings are preliminary, at this stage, the data suggest that:

  • For Higher Education to be considered as a meaningful ‘hook for change’, the complexity of the basic needs (housing, substance misuse, relation issues, mental health) of potential individual students requires recognition.
  • Understanding how universities support such prospective learners with their aspirations to higher education requires a renewed vision. As a starting point that might mean those tasked with ‘widening access’ reach out to organisations that work with those at risk of offending.
  • Whilst many participants had poor early years educational experiences and lack of opportunity, the participants expressed a desire to access Higher Education but the thought of entering into an institution was overwhelming. Their voices expressed a desire for a new type of Higher Education which focused on a more individualised and specific experience to them in their setting within the community. Additionally, students would be supported through this transition by workers who understood their background and specific needs and what that meant so they did not feel threatened or exposed.
  • For many of the participants their positive experience of education began during a prison sentence. This therefore lends itself to the opportunity for prisons to work closely with local universities to build on this positive experience and introduces and exposes ‘prison-students’ to Higher Education in a safe and supportive environment.
  • The study also highlighted the issue of stigma for this potential group of learners. Whether real or perceived, stigma was experienced by those studying at university whilst serving a prison sentence at every level.
  • The use of creative and ‘story-telling’ approaches such as Pictorial Narrative Mapping, has the potential to support marginalised groups in having their voices heard. It also supports an inclusive and ethical approach to data collection and may also have the potential to assist those at risk of reoffending to measure their progress towards desistance.


Therefore, it is clear from this pilot study, that Higher Education can be part of the desistance framework. However, there is still a long way to go. Indeed, this research supports the current view that of the Prison Education Trust (2017) who argue that Higher Education can feel an unwelcoming place for those with a criminal record. It is also clear from this study that the participants had a deeply held mistrust of universities as elite institutions and more needs to be done to transform the image of a neo-liberal environment that focuses on exclusion and monetary gain into a place of empowerment, through learning and social growth supporting enhanced employability, life opportunities and, in this case, sustained desistance from offending.