Collaboration with the OU: Providing library resources to Students in Secure Environments

The OU’s student volunteer scheme that provides students in secure environments with access to essential library resources has recently reached its 300th enquiry!


Without The Open University, there would be no OU Students Association; our histories are interwoven, and we have shared the goal of improving the educational journey of OU students for the past five decades. 

That is why throughout April in the year of the Association's 50th anniversary, we will be celebrating the collaborative work we do with the OU. This crucial work is always for the benefit of our students. We want to talk about why, in 2022, our partnership is stronger than ever.

The Open University has been providing world-class education to students in prison for over 40 years. As of March 2019, there were approximately 1,800 students on more than 130 courses in 150 prisons. Some students in secure environments (SiSE) have access to the OU’s Virtual Campus (intranet site) and printed materials, depending on the facilities available at their prison or health facility; however, independent study materials found through the Library are not available via these routes. Students were therefore reliant on their personal tutors or educational officers to obtain independent study material for them with varying results. 

To overcome this obstacle, in late 2018 the OU Students Association suggested a student volunteer scheme whereby the OU student in a secure environment would send an anonymised request detailing what information resources they were looking for and a volunteer student would then carry out the research on their behalf. The student volunteers would all be experienced students studying at the OU who would receive training from the SiSE Team, the Association and the Library before they answered research enquiries. Ongoing library support would also be provided for the volunteers. All those involved managed to get the service up and running in just 3 months, being piloted back in January 2018 with students in prison studying at Level 3 and above. There was rapid take-up of the service, with 27 requests being received within the first 4 weeks!  

Due to the huge success of the pilot, it was decided to provide the service as part of the Library’s business as usual and extend it to include SiSE studying at Level 2. The service has now been in place for nearly 4 years and, in total, has received 300 requests!  

Considering there was a prison-wide lockdown in 2020, this is an impressive number and is a huge testament to the collaborative effort of the teams involved, including the Association, SiSE Team, Library staff, Level 2 and above students, and Warehouse Team.  

Feedback from the volunteer students and students in prison indicated how much the service is valued. 

One SiSE commented: 

“Thank you for sending out this new service for OU study research. I am very grateful that this is a viable support to my learning. I wish you the very best of health wealth, joy and spirit and look forward to receiving the response to my requests.” 

Student volunteers were particularly appreciative of the training sessions they received from the Library, commenting that they would have benefited from attending these to support their own studies as it improved their search skills. 

Once a larger cohort of students have used the service, the Library plans to carry out further analysis to determine the true impact of the service. All teams involved are also involved in ongoing discussions around how they can help SiSE to develop their digital skills, which are essential to function effectively within the work and personal environment, without having open access to the internet. 

If you’d like to learn more about how the OU is supporting students in secure environments, visit the SiSE Website. 

If you'd like to get involved with the Association through volunteering, keep an eye on the opportunities available on the volunteering website.


The Library Services website is your gateway to a wide range of online information resources. You can use it to find out more about the Library, search our extensive online collection of Library resources (including eBooks, journals, databases and more), and explore our programme of live online training sessions that are available to all OU students and staff. Or indeed, come and speak with us at the Helpdesk: we look forward to it. 


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