The problem

People with criminal records are largely drawn from the groups least likely to progress to university. Evidence shows that some groups are disproportionately criminalised: people from low income households and people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, those from some racialised communities and care experienced people. 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, admissions policies present serious psychological and practical challenges to access.

Higher education is a route to improving life chances. 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 already overcome huge educational, practical and psychological obstacles to even be in a position to apply.

People with criminal records are discouraged from applying. UCAS has removed the tick-box on its application form requiring every applicant to disclose “relevant unspent convictions”. However, most universities continue to ask during admissions. This discourages people with a criminal record from applying.

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?

UCAS have removed the requirement for all students to declare whether they have unspent criminal convictions.

Universities have their own approach and some continue to ask at a later stage, some no longer ask at all, and some ask applicants about any restrictions that may affect their studies.

Universities that still ask

University of Central Lancashire

Manchester Metropolitan University

London School of Economics

Universities that don’t ask

Winchester

Sussex

Greenwich

Universities that ask about restrictions/conditions

Westminster

Southampton

Cardiff

Exeter

Essex

We will be publishing an up to date list here shortly.

Regulated courses

Applicants for courses leading to regulated professions – medicine, teaching, or social work, among others  – will be asked to declare all criminal records unless they are protected/filtered.

This question will only appear on the UCAS application if applying for one of these courses. Universities should provide information on whether a course will require a disclosure and enhanced DBS check.

Applicants who disclose a criminal record will usually meet with a fitness to practice panel. All students will need to complete an enhanced DBS check.

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 calling on all universities to sign up to our Fair Admissions Pledge.

We are taking forward this work through our Unlocking students with criminal records programme.

Evidence

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

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. Unlocking students with criminal records programme
  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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