People with convictions share characteristics that UCAS and the government call “disadvantaged” – i.e. those least likely to progress to university. Almost half the prison population left school with no qualifications, 42% were permanently excluded and nearly a quarter (compared with 2% of the general population) have spent time in the care system as children.
This is a widening participation issue.
People with convictions are discouraged from applying. UCAS has a tick-box on its application form requiring every applicant to a university in the UK to disclose “relevant unspent convictions”. This discourages people with a criminal record from applying. It’s what research from the State University of New York (SUNY) calls a “chilling effect”, which discourages people from completing the application process – it’s why SUNY has removed the box from its forms.
It’s not important at application. Many universities don’t use this information until after an offer has been accepted by the applicant. Safeguarding issues can be explored after the initial application process has been completed.
Universities have complex and differing policies and procedures. Good practice is often not followed. Some universities have a poor track record of treating individuals fairly.
What we think needs to change
It’s time universities reformed their application process.
Applicants should be judged first and foremost on their past achievements and experience. UCAS should remove the box about criminal convictions. Targeted and specific questions can be asked, where necessary, once applicants have been offered a conditional offer of a place.
Tailored guidance to applicants with a criminal record should be provided when applying to university.
Each applicant should be looked at based on the risk they pose today, rather than by the fact they have a criminal record or the reputational damage this might cause an institution.
Admissions teams needs training on good practice.
What we’re doing
We are taking forward this work through our Unlocking students with conviction project.
Looking for support?
If you’re part of a university and are looking for support or training, visit our section for universities.
Research from the US found no evidence that admitting people with criminal convictions led to a higher rate of crime on campus.
“There is no evidence that screening for criminal histories increases campus safety, nor is there any evidence suggesting that students with criminal records commit crimes on campus in any way or rate that differs from students without criminal records.” Centre for Community Alternatives in collaboration with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars & Admission Officers, 2010
In a study of the State University of New York, key findings were that:
- Asking applicants about past convictions has a ‘chilling effect’ discouraging people from completing the application process
- The application attrition rate for individuals who check ‘yes’ to the criminal conviction question is significantly higher than the attrition rates for the general applicant population
- Application attrition rates are a greater barrier to admission than rejections based on criminal conviction
- Criminal history screening policies have a disparate impact on African American applicants
The study recommended that universities refrain from asking about and considering criminal history information in admissions decision-making.
“There appears to be a growing presumption of inquiring about an applicants history rather than presumption against it. The widening spread, or creep, of non-compulsory disclosure and legally allowed disclosure of a wide range of information beyond unspent criminal convictions can have a chilling effect on the career and educational progression of significant numbers of people.” The use and impact of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974)
Support for change
Dame Sally Coates recommended (p55) that universities ‘ban the box’:
“The Prime Minister has set out his intention to ‘ban the box’ for civil service roles (so that applicants do not have to declare their criminal convictions at the initial recruitment stage). Colleges and universities in receipt of public funds should be challenged to match this ambition.”
UCAS announced in May 2018 that they were dropping a question about criminal records form their application form.
The Open University does not ask applicants about their criminal record at the initial application stage.
Some universities recognise the importance of this group: Goldsmiths and Cardiff Metropolitan have expanded their “widening participation” to include people with convictions.
Many universities are developing partnerships that bring their students into prisons to study alongside prisoners.
Useful links, resources and publications
Unlocking potential: a review of education in prison (Dame Sally Coates, May 2016) – in particular, see page 55
SPA good practice guide – Considerations for applicants with criminal convictions (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, October 2016) – this sets out guidance for higher education institutions.
Visit our practical information for universities
From the US
Beyond the Box (US Department of Education, 2016)
Boxed out: Criminal history screening and college application attrition (Centre for Community Alternatives, 2015)
The use of criminal history records in college admissions: Reconsidered (Centre for Community Alternatives, 2010)
For more information
- Project page – Unlocking students with conviction
- Practical self-help information for people with convictions – We have guidance on applying to university on our information site
- Practical self-help information for university admissions professionals – Visit our section for universities
- Personal experiences – We have posts relating to university and college admissions on our online magazine, theRecord
- Discuss this issue – Share your views and experiences on our online forum
- Landmark case on disproportionate criminal records disclosure regime reaches Supreme Court Posted on: Jun 18th, 2018
- New paper published: University admissions and criminal records - Lessons learned and next steps Posted on: Jun 7th, 2018
- Details of the Supreme Court hearing Posted on: May 30th, 2018
- Help us to wipe DBS checks clean of old and minor criminal records - We need your help to challenge the government in the Supreme Court Posted on: May 9th, 2018
- New research finds thousands of people every year struggle because of youth criminal records from decades ago Posted on: May 9th, 2018
Latest news on this issueVIEW ALL -
- Today Unlock has published a paper, University admissions and criminal records: Lessons learned and next steps. The paper is featured in a blog by Christopher Stacey in Times Higher Education. For the last two decades, access to higher education in the UK for people with a criminal record has been seen to be much more...
- In September, Michael Gove announced a review of education in adult prisons. Unlock as a charity focuses on the problems that people face as a result of their criminal record. We do not provide education in prisons or in the community to individuals. However, we run a Helpline that deals with over 5,000 people with...