What a criminal record can mean for access to higher education

Things have got better, but we still don't really know how a criminal record has an impact on application to and study in higher education. Charlotte Brooks aims to find out.

Charlotte Brooks is an ESRC-funded Doctoral Researcher based in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham.

In England and Wales there are over 11 million people with a criminal record. That equates to 1 in 6 people.

A criminal record can refer to any interaction with the criminal justice system. For instance, fines, cautions, community sentences or prison sentences. Fines, which are given out for minor and first-time offences, make up over 70 per cent of punishments given out each year. Of those people that are given a custodial sentence, approximately 70 per cent have committed a non-violent crime. Therefore, most people with a criminal record are not a risk to public safety. Yet despite this, the criminal records disclosure regime in England and Wales severely restricts the educational opportunities for some people with a criminal record.

What could this mean?

In England and Wales, the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) established a “spent” system which means that after a period of time has elapsed, people no longer have to declare most criminal convictions when applying for education or employment opportunities. Yet it can take several years for even a relatively minor conviction to become “spent”. For some people, their convictions will never be considered “spent”.

Every year over 7,000 people receive a conviction that, under current rules, they will have to declare for the rest of their life. Additionally, there are a substantial list of occupations and educational courses that come under exemptions to the legislation meaning that unless a caution or conviction is eligible for filtering, it may need to be declared for some occupations and educational courses indefinitely. This can severely restrict educational and employment opportunities.

Access to educational opportunities is an important part of the rehabilitation process, benefitting the individual themselves, their family and wider society. Currently, little is known about the impact of a criminal record on applicants to university in the UK. As part of my PhD, I am working with the charity Unlock to explore this issue. Below I take the opportunity to highlight some initial thoughts about how criminal records can be considered a widening participation issue and highlight some of the ways in which universities can make higher education more accessible for people with criminal records.

The relationship with WP

Education is transformative.

Education provides people with a sense of purpose, increased career opportunities and can fundamentally alter our worldview. Everyone should have the opportunity to access higher education should they choose to do so. This has been the focus of the widening participation agenda for several decades.

The widening participation agenda has resulted in higher education policy focusing on widening access to university for students that are currently underrepresented within higher education. For instance, care leavers, people from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. A range of evidence shows us that people with these characteristics are also disproportionately criminalised and are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.

Yet few universities recognise the impact of a criminal record within widening participation work. Students with a criminal record in many cases are required to navigate all of the existing obstacles facing students from widening participation groups and in addition they have to manage the stigma that can occur as a result of their criminal record.

Universities are often keen to highlight their support packages for widening participation students through contextual admissions policies, bursaries and dedicated pastoral support. In contrast, institutional support can be lacking for students with a criminal record who are committed to learning and keen to access educational opportunities. Instead, they may be met with admissions policies which deem students with a criminal record as a ‘risk’ to campus safety and questions about their criminal record upon accepting a university place. This is despite evidence from other countries showing that the application of criminal records checks in the context of university admissions has limited utility.

What is changing?

Third sector organisations Unlock, Prisoners Education Trust and the Longford Trust have successfully lobbied the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) to “Ban the Box”. Since the 2018-19 UCAS application cycle applicants studying non-regulated courses, that is courses that do not include placements with children or adults at risk, are no longer required to disclose their unspent criminal convictions when applying to university. This is a positive step forward for undergraduate applicants with criminal records. However, much less is known about how universities approach criminal records for postgraduate courses, where students usually apply directly to institutions rather than through UCAS.

Simultaneously, the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and Data Protection Act (2018) means there is no longer a legal basis for universities to ask about students’ criminal records data, unless they are applying to a regulated course. This change in legislation has created an ideal opportunity for universities to assess their policies and practices in relation to criminal record disclosures.

Over two years on and some institutions have paved the way for fairer admissions processes by actively signing up to Unlock’s Fair Chance Pledge to support people with criminal records into higher education. However, other institutions appear to have replicated the UCAS tick box by asking applicants to disclose their unspent criminal records at a later stage in the process – i.e. after submitting an application, or on receiving or accepting an offer. Whilst this removes potential discrimination from the offer-making process, these practices result in students continuing to encounter barriers in successfully enrolling onto a higher education course.

Research from the USA highlights that asking unnecessary questions about previous convictions results in a chilling effect where students withdraw their application to study. Consequently, they lose their opportunity to access higher education and the myriad benefits it provides.

Even once a student with a criminal record commences their studies, having the correct support in place to ensure students can access housing, part-time work and navigate any questions about their past is essential to ensuring students’ progress and succeed within higher education.

Unlocking Opportunities

Universities have an important role in widening access for people with a criminal record. This is beginning to be recognised within the higher education sector. For instance, UCAS have developed a Criminal Convictions Good Practice Guide for providers and the Office for Students have created a briefing discussing the barriers that may be faced by people with convictions applying to university.

Similarly, through their Unlocking Students with Conviction project, Unlock have launched a toolkit for higher education providers to support institutions in developing fairer admissions policies. This project has already resulted in eighteen institutions pledging their commitment to offering a fair chance to students with a criminal record.

What’s the impact?

The impact of a criminal record on university admissions remains relatively unexplored within a UK context. As part of my PhD research, I will be contacting university admissions departments to ask them to participate in a survey to evaluate how applicants’ criminal records are acquired and used within university admissions at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Following on from this, I plan to interview staff working within higher education to learn more about the impact a criminal record could have on the admissions process and student life more broadly.

Alongside research with university staff, I will also be interviewing applicants and university students that have criminal records to learn about their experiences of navigating admissions processes and university life.

This research will provide insights about the impact of a criminal record on access to higher education in the UK and contribute to broader debates about the consequences of having a criminal record on access to education. It is hoped these insights will be used by universities to explore how changes to their policies and practices could support in widening access to university for people with a criminal record.

If you are a member of university admissions staff or are an applicant that is applying to university with a criminal record, please get in touch to learn more about how you can participate in the project.

9 responses to “What a criminal record can mean for access to higher education

  1. Really insightful article and really highlights an issue that has had very little focus in the widening participation agenda – great work Charlotte. Looking forward to reading more of your research and its outcomes in the future 🙂

  2. Charlotte highlights an important issue that is not given nearly enough attention. As someone with an ‘interesting’ background, I know first hand how much of long shadow a criminal record (no matter how minor the conviction) can cast.

    I’d be really interested to see how applications to HE from individuals with criminal records intersect with age, socioeconomic status, race and gender.

    If the split is how I imagine it would be, surely there is a case for the inclusion of individuals with criminal records in Access and Participation Plans?

    I’ll be flagging the research to my institution. Fingers crossed the admissions team will get involved.

    1. Hi Alex, thank you for the insightful feedback. You raise some important points about how a criminal record may intersect with other identities that are already recognised within widening access and participation work. This is definitely an area I am interested in exploring more as part of the project.

  3. Well done and good luck on your proposal. It seems crazy to prevent those who want to change their lives (and societies) for the better by accessing the tools of education from doing so. Society is just going to shoot itself in the foot!

  4. Hi Charlotte, loved the article I went through the HE system and became a lecturer until they found out I had a criminal record. I was pushed out of the system I was gutted!! I was just starting a PhD at the time

  5. Great article Charlotte. So many issues and points of interest to consider in this overlooked and stigmatised area of accessing education. The label of a conviction can be so damaging. Really interested to see how your research progresses, in particular the views and lived experiences of applicants/students.

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