The piece below has been published as part of new good practice resources for universities, published by UCAS, which Unlock has supported.
Unlock very much welcomes the removal of the main criminal conviction box from the UCAS application. Having worked with higher education providers for a number of years, the previous approach presented a barrier to individuals with a criminal record, and the decision by UCAS is a significant change that has the potential to help many people with convictions see higher education as a positive way forward in their lives. Unlock has seen first-hand how people have been put off from applying to university as a result of the box on application forms.
With the changes that UCAS has announced, the higher education sector now has a unique opportunity to question whether criminal records should feature at all when deciding whether someone should be accepted onto a university course. If universities are committed to widening participation, they should be considering the widest number of potential applicants. The change by UCAS provides a strong signal to universities that criminal records should not feature in their assessment of academic ability. Many institutions are now rightly looking at how to amend their policies and practices.
When you look at who actually has a criminal record, you can see how there are real benefits to universities in being open and inclusive towards people with a criminal record.
- There are large numbers of people with convictions who could potentially be admitted to university who are not because they are being deterred from applying. The numbers of prison-university partnerships are growing. Less than 10% of people with a criminal record go to prison, yet there are over 11 million people with a criminal record and approximately three-quarters of a million people with an unspent criminal record.
- This issue should be seen through the lens of widening participation, which remains at the forefront of government policy in higher education. People of Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background are disproportionately represented amongst those who are arrested and imprisoned; the racial disproportionality in the UK criminal justice system is actually greater than that in the US system. Just under three quarters of the prison population in England and Wales was from the white ethnic group. When compared to the general population, those who identified as BAME are over represented in the prison population; 13% in the general population compared to 26% in prison. People with convictions also often represent other groups who are disproportionately under-represented at university, including care leavers, people from low income households, mature students, people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities and first-in-family. Nearly a quarter of people in prison (compared with 2% of the general population) have spent time in the care system as children.
People with convictions who are applying to university are showing a huge commitment to turning their lives around. As a society, we should be doing all that we can to support them. The opportunity to go to university can help people to move away from their criminal past, build careers and contribute positively to society. Their presence is also hugely beneficial to universities themselves, which gain highly committed students who help create a more diverse and inclusive learning environment.
Whether universities should ask at all
It’s important to understand why UCAS have dropped the need for applicants to disclose relevant unspent convictions; they recognised that the question at application stage could deter people from applying, and wanted to reaffirm that higher education is open to everyone.
In Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, universities don’t ask about criminal records. Most European universities do not ask, nor do Australian institutions. The 23 California state universities do not ask. The 64 State University of New York colleges and universities do not ask. Research from the US found no evidence that admitting people with criminal convictions led to a higher rate of crime on campus. It is also consistent with the ban the box campaign that is spreading amongst employers, removing the question about criminal records from job application forms.
How should universities respond to the change?
It is our view that the starting point should be that criminal records should not be a part of a university’s assessment of academic merit. The change by UCAS sends a strong signal to universities that they should not be collecting criminal records from all potential students at application stage, and we expect to see the majority of institutions decide not to ask about criminal records for admissions purposes for most courses. Criminal record disclosure (of, say, certain offences) may feature in other parts, like when applying for university accommodation, but that’s further down the line and a separate process to that of admissions with different considerations.
In considering concerns about people recently convicted of serious offences applying to universities and not having to declare whether they have a criminal record, this is where a key understanding of the role of others outside of universities is important, and Unlock has produced a separate briefing on understanding applicants with a criminal record.
For courses that involve enhanced criminal record checks, the briefing also looks at how universities should approach applicants that have a criminal record. There remains work to be done to ensure that there is a proportionate approach to assessing the relevance of the applicant’s criminal record and that the right decisions are reached. While it’s right that individuals should be aware of what future challenges they might encounter, universities shouldn’t be preventing them the opportunity to try.
Throughout all of this, universities need to have a strong, inclusive mindset with student support at the heart. Unless you are proactively including, you are probably accidentally excluding. Many institutions are now rightly looking at how to amend their policies and practices. I hope to see a number of universities step forward and make changes to their processes following consideration of this good practice. Unlock will continue to work with UCAS and institutions to ensure fair admissions policies towards applicants with criminal records.