The problem

People with convictions are largely drawn from the same groups UCAS and the government call “disadvantaged” – i.e. those least likely to progress to university. Evidence shows that some groups are disproportionately criminalised: BAME people, care leavers, people from low income households and people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities. Along with mature students and first-in-family, these groups are under-represented at university. Despite education being widely recognised as a key factor in successful rehabilitation, benefiting people with convictions, their families, communities and the institution itself, current admissions policies present serious psychological and practical challenges to access. This is a widening participation issue.

People with convictions are discouraged from applying. Until this year, UCAS had a tick-box on its application form requiring every applicant to a university in the UK to disclose “relevant unspent convictions”. This discouraged people with a criminal record from applying. It’s what research from the State University of New York (SUNY) calls a “chilling effect” – discouraging people from completing the application process – and it’s why SUNY has removed the box from its forms.

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. University applicants who have spent time in prison have overcome huge educational, practical and psychological obstacles to even be in a position to apply. Access to higher education is a social mobility issue.

It’s not important at application stage. Most universities don’t use this information until after an offer has been accepted. Safeguarding issues can be explored after the initial application process has been completed. There are issues around data protection and GDPR to consider too.

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 is changing?

For those applying for 2019 entry, UCAS have removed the requirement for all students to declare whether they have any relevant unspent criminal convictions. Applicants for courses involving work with children and vulnerable adults, such as medicine, teaching, or social work – will be asked to declare any criminal convictions, including spent convictions. This question will only appear if a student is applying for one of these courses.

This is good news, and universities are now amending their policies to reflect the change. The University of Westminster has announced that they will no longer require applicants to disclose criminal convictions.

Goldsmiths and Cardiff Metropolitan have expanded their “widening participation” work to include people with convictions.

Many universities are developing partnerships that bring their students into prisons to study alongside prisoners.


What we’re doing

Where applicants are required to disclose criminal convictions, we recommend that UCAS and the university provide tailored guidance to applicants with a criminal record.

Each applicant should be looked at based on the risk they pose today, not on their past. The university should ensure its policy on assessing applicants with a criminal record is accessible and easy to understand and that applicants know what their rights are in relation to their personal information.

Admissions teams that deal with criminal records should be trained in good practice.

Universities should consider how they can support students with convictions to succeed on their course and beyond.

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, visit our Unlocking students with conviction project.



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) 


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.”


Useful links, resources and publications

Developing a fair approach to applicants with criminal records – A toolkit for higher education providers (October 2019)

Understanding applicants with criminal records – Briefing for universities and colleges (September 2018)

Criminal convictions good practice for HE providers (UCAS, with support from Unlock, September 2018)

University admissions and criminal records: Lessons learned and next steps (June 2018)

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 has now been replaced by the UCAS resources above

Visit our Unlocking students with conviction project page

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)


Case studies

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


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