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How can people with criminal records access higher education?

People with criminal convictions are among some of the most underrepresented at university. Rachel Tynan of Unlock sets out how we can change that
This article is more than 4 years old

Rachel is Policy and Practice Lead at Unlock.

Evidence shows that some groups are disproportionately criminalised: care leavers, people from low income households and some ethnic groups.

Despite education being widely recognised as a key factor in successful rehabilitation, admissions policies to date have presented psychological and practical challenges to access. When UCAS removed the criminal convictions tick box for applicants to non-regulated courses, universities had the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate their approach.

Now the Universities of Liverpool, Southampton and Nottingham have joined others in pledging to offer a fair chance to students with a criminal record. These universities have recognised that widening participation means looking at the range of barriers under-represented students face – including a criminal record.

Unlocking talent

Over the last 12 months Unlock, supported by the UPP Foundation, have worked with partner universities on their approach to applicants with criminal records. The project had three objectives: to get policies in place at each of the partner universities; a toolkit for other universities to use to develop their admissions policies; and a pledge for universities to sign up to.

The project was designed to focus on admissions, whilst recognising that this is only the first stage of the student journey. Accommodation, visa compliance and voluntary placements might require asking about criminal records but for admission to non-regulated courses this is almost always unnecessary. Admissions decisions should focus on an applicant’s ability to fulfil their potential. A fair chance means looking at ways to include rather than exclude those people who are trying to move on positively with their lives.  People like Connor.

Connor applied for a post-graduate degree, disclosing his unspent conviction at that time. The university decided that as his offence was ‘serious’ his application could not be accepted. Determined not give up, Connor submitted information about his conviction and letters of support from previous tutors and others people in his life. Eventually, the university overturned its decision.

Concerns about safeguarding or capacity to complete the course could be managed by engaging with the applicant themself. Offering applicants the opportunity to disclose conditions or restrictions that could affect their ability to succeed on their programme means universities can advise on adjustments or alternatives, addressing their concerns. Applicants can feel confident to ask for support at the earliest stage and throughout their course.

Primarily this is a widening participation issue. Admissions decisions for students with convictions can and should be in line with the principles of fair admissions, as set out in the Schwartz review.

It’s also an issue of legal compliance; any organisation that processes criminal record data must have a lawful basis under Article 6 and a condition under Article 10 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s difficult for a university to identify an article 10 condition for non-regulated courses. Where a DBS check is needed for a placement based programme, universities have a legal obligation to check criminal records. For non-regulated courses, this doesn’t apply. Asking a voluntary question about restrictions or conditions means universities can rely on consent when processing criminal records data.

What have we learned?

Three key themes have emerged from the project and we encourage any university looking at this issue to bear these in mind.

First, focus on inclusion: ask ‘how can we safely include’ rather than ‘how can we legitimately exclude’. Applicants with criminal records are a diverse group and fit into traditional widening participation groups. Excluding people because of their past is likely to result in exclusion of under-represented groups

Second, take a ‘whole institution approach’: Identify what information is necessary – or not – at different stages in the student lifecycle; bringing decision makers together, as well as looking at support for students

Third, words matter: Policies of all kinds reflect the values and culture of the university. An inclusive culture begins with inclusive language. If a university is committed to widening participation and including all under-represented groups, the language used to address them is the starting point.

Students with convictions have usually overcome significant barriers already. They are determined and hardworking and, while they may need support to succeed, their inclusion ultimately benefits us all. Recidivism already costs the economy £18bn a year. Education, employment and opportunity are strongly associated with a reduction in reoffending. Can we really afford to ignore those who are working hard to get their lives on track?

What’s next?

Pledging to offer a Fair Chance to Students with Convictions means:

  • Asking applicants about criminal records only if – and when – it is necessary
  • Asking targeted and proportionate questions during the admissions process
  • Making the policy transparent and accessible to all applicants
  • Offering applicants a chance to discuss their case in person before a decision is made
  • Considering flexible adjustments and alternatives for applicants
  • Ensuring staff are trained to make fair and impartial judgements about applicants
  • Supporting students with criminal records to help them achieve academic success
  • Communicating positively about the benefits of a fair admissions process

Signatories include Universities of Nottingham, Lincoln, Kent, Southampton, Essex and Liverpool, UWE; Birkbeck, University of London; London Metropolitan University and the Bloomsbury Institute. We look forward to more universities signing the pledge in the coming months and working with them to make improvements to their practices.

Our toolkit for higher education providers provides a blueprint for universities to make sure their admissions processes are fair and inclusive. We worked with the Office for students on their effective practice guide to working with students with convictions.

Our longer term focus is on the retention and success of students with convictions – how universities can support them to achieve their potential, and to successfully transition into employment. This includes academic and pastoral support and links with employers. Education can be transformative, and universities have an opportunity to help transform the lives of individuals with convictions and their communities.

4 responses to “How can people with criminal records access higher education?

  1. It is true that the UK has some of the strictest policies on disclosure of spent convictions and these have an impact on prisoner rehabilitation. There has been some recent reform to disclosure but it should probably be re-examined since the balance between deterrence and rehabilitation has been criticised. In the case of university admission, however, it appears likely that a substantial proportion of applicants (perhaps a majority) have been released on license. That is to say, they have not yet served their sentences and have been released on probation subject to the observance of specific conditions.

    It would be helpful for all parties if the probation service worked more closely with HEIs while convicted persons remain on license. At present the HEI is often working with limited information and is not supported by the probation service which has access to a great deal of information. Part of the issue is the resourcing of the probation service which has not kept up with the number of prisoner releases.

  2. Hello Eye Witness, thanks for your comment. I’m really interested in your point about the majority of applicants being on licence. Do you have a source for that info? It’s not our experience, nor that of admissions professionals I speak to. Less than 10% of people criminalised each year go to prison. For those on licence probation involvement can be really useful, I agree – but it’s not always necessary. That’s why we encourage a targeted and proportionate approach that involves the applicant at each stage. If you’re interested in discussing please get in touch.

  3. There is a paucity of data. 13 universities supplied information about 2,502 applicants with criminal records in 2014-15 (criminal convictions is a very expansive term as relatively convictions result in a sentence). A small and not very random sample. Many false negatives and non-declaration can’t be considered data missing completely at random.

    Suggest taking a different approach: link the longitudinal survey of young people in England with the national pupil database and police national computer records. You will obtain a random sample giving the educational outcomes of young people with a criminal record, including those with custodial sentences spent and unspent.

  4. Hello Rachel. Are you able to give some guidance on what a non-regulated course is in an HEI? Are they similar to non-prescribed qualifications?

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