The problem

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. Questions can be asked, where felt 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 encouraging the government, UCAS and universities to remove questions about criminal records from the initial application stage. In the meantime we are working with UCAS to amend their application process and improve the guidance on their application form.

We are working with SPA to update their guidance on criminal records.

We deliver training to universities.

We are supporting universities in implementing fair admissions policies and practices.


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:

  1. Asking applicants about past convictions has a ‘chilling effect’ discouraging people from completing the application process
  2. 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
  3. Application attrition rates are a greater barrier to admission than rejections based on criminal conviction
  4. 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) 


Latest news

Dame Sally Coates recommends (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.”

For more latest news, you can:

  1. see the posts at the bottom of this page
  2. click here for a full list of news posts
  3. sign up our mailing list to receive updates by email



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

Visit our practical information for universities

Unlocking potential: a review of education in prison (Dame Sally Coates, May 2016) – in particular, see page 55

Criminal Convictions – Statement for Good Practice (Supporting Professionalism in Admissions, February 2014) – this sets out guidance for higher education institutions.

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)


Case studies

Case of Anne – A criminal record preventing the award of a PhD

Case of Isabel – Refused permission to study at University with no right of appeal

Case of Georgie – I was rejected from university because of my record, now I’m campaigning for fair treatment

Case of Charlotte – A lack of understanding of the filtering rules meant I was almost refused a place at university

Case of Saeed – A criminal record stopped an A-grade student studying medicine at university

Case of Lynn – Refused a place to study as the college had no policy for dealing with people with convictions


For more information

  1. Practical self-help information for people with convictions – We have guidance on applying to university on our information site
  2. Practical self-help information for university admissions professionals – Visit our section for universities
  3. Personal experiences – We have posts relating to university and college admissions on our online magazine, theRecord
  4. Discuss this issue – Share your views and experiences on our online forum


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Latest news on this issue

  • Unlock responds to review of education in prison

    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...
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