"My ethos is that everyone – and I mean everyone – should have the right to fulfil their academic potential."
Joe Baden was born in Southwark and left school at 13 with no formal qualifications before starting work in the print industry. Soon, though, he drifted into crime. This was followed by addiction and mental health problems. By the time he was 30, drugs and alcohol were playing a major part in his life. He had convictions for theft and affray, and had already spent time in prison. "My life was falling apart," he says. "The only future I could see for myself were longer and longer stints in prison."
It was while on probation that he reluctantly agreed to join a basic skills programme. "I did it to keep my probation officer happy," he admits. Looking back, though, it's clear that the course changed his life. Joe was reminded of how much he'd enjoyed writing on the rare occasions he had gone to school, and started thinking about whether education might offer a way out of the cycle of crime and addiction. First, though, he had to overcome a deep-seated mistrust of learning. "I thought education was for people from another world," he says. "My concept of university was coloured more by the media and stereotypes than reality. I didn't know anyone that had studied, or was studying, for a degree."
Nevertheless, he signed up for an access course at Greenwich University. In 1998, he graduated with a BA in History from Goldsmiths College. His first job, working as a tutor with the probation service, brought it home to him both how many ex-prisoners had the potential to go into higher education and how few opportunities were open to them. So he started working on pilot projects with Goldsmiths, aimed at encouraging ex-cons to follow in his footsteps. Gradually the projects gathered momentum and in 2002, Open Book was launched.
Open Book's aim is to help ex-offenders and those with addiction and mental health problems to get into education by offering both practical and emotional support. The project provides year-round access to mentoring plus drop-in and study sessions. There's also an outreach programme, which includes visits to prisons, hospitals and residential units. "We want to demystify the world of learning," says Joe. "We teach people how to understand academic language, how to write an essay, how to put together a CV."
Since 2002, Open Book has successful recruited and supported over 200 students on courses ranging from foundation to postgraduate level in a vast number of educational institutions. The project can boast more than 50 graduates, none of who would ever have considered studying before they came into contact with Joe. To date, only one Open Book student has dropped out of their course. "Our guiding principle is that everyone has the right to fulfil their academic potential," he says. "Whoever you are, whatever your background, we can help."
Today, Joe is much in demand for his expertise and his outspoken opinions on topics from prison reform to youth offending, to how to encourage more working class people to go to the opera. He acted as key adviser to the enquiry into the racially-motivated murder of Zahid Mubarek at Feltham Young Offenders Institute and has addressed both the Labour and Liberal Democrat Party conferences - "I'm working on the Conservatives!", he says.
He has been courted by Cambridge University, the Longford Trust, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and, most recently, the Sainsbury Family Charitable Trust. In terms of publicity, Joe boasts more column inches than any department, academic or student at Goldsmiths College, and has a unique habit of infuriating both Guardian and Daily Telegraph in equal measure. In 2007 Joe was given a prestigious Life Changers Award by the University College Union, and, for the last three years, has been voted Staff Member of the Year by Goldsmiths Students' Union.
Since taking those first skeptical steps into the world of education, Joe Baden has become a shining light in further and higher education. He truly believes in the work he does, he truly cares about the people he meets – and he truly believes that education is the route to self-fulfilment.
Joe Baden was awarded an Honorary Fellowship for his contribution to the mentoring and development of young people, his dedication to helping the most disadvantaged members of our society, contribution to education and for his unwavering commitment to widening participation."