Unlocking Opportunity: Accessing Higher Education with a Criminal Record

Charlotte Brooks
Doctoral Researcher, University of Nottingham

A criminal record can be devastating, lifelong and far outweigh the harm caused by the official punishment itself. For instance, people with a criminal record can be subjected to discrimination within employment and experience challenges when accessing housing and education. Yet restricted access to opportunities and basic rights because of a criminal record are rarely recognised as part of a person’s official punishment. This has led a criminal record being described as an ‘invisible punishment’.

Over 11.8 million people in England and Wales have a criminal record. That equates to one in six people. A criminal record can be understood as any formal interaction with the criminal justice system. For instance, fines, cautions, community sentences or prison sentences.

What Does a Criminal Record Mean for Access to Higher Education?

Currently, little is known about the consequences of a criminal record on access to higher education in the UK. In one of the only studies that has explored the impact of criminal records on access to higher education in England, Custer (2018) gained usable data from 21 university admissions teams finding that 4,585 students in 2014–15 and 3,986 students in 2015–16 indicated having a criminal record. Applicants rejected solely because of their criminal record ranged from as low as 0 percent at four institutions to as high as 21.43 percent at one institution. This information is useful in providing an initial indication of the number of people pursuing a university degree with a criminal record.

Despite this, people with criminal records are rarely part of the conversation about widening participation to higher education. Instead, some admissions policies deem students with a criminal a ‘risk’ to campus safety, and admissions processes asking applicants to provide extensive details about their criminal record, can further exclude applicants with criminal records. There are several compelling reasons why this needs to change.

Firstly, from a social justice perspective, it is crucial that everyone should have the opportunity to access higher education should they choose to. From providing a sense of purpose, increasing career opportunities, to revolutionising a person’s worldview, education can be transformative. It is unjust and unproportionate to deny someone the opportunity to access education, for a crime they have already been punished for. Secondly, providing opportunities for people with criminal records to access higher education, could support desistance from offending by enabling people to learn essential skills to enter the labour market. This could have beneficial outcomes for those with criminal records, their family and wider society. Finally, implementing fairer admissions for people with criminal records could contribute to widening participation to university. Evidence suggests that those that are underrepresented within higher education are also more likely to be criminalised (see Lammy, 2017). Thus, creating fairer admissions processes could contribute to generating a diverse student body and in time, a diverse future labour market.

What’s Changing?

There are indications that the impact a criminal record has on access to higher education is beginning to be recognised. For instance, in 2020 the Office for Students produced guidance for universities about the obstacles people with criminal records face in accessing higher education. Eighteen institutions have signed Unlock’s ‘Fair Chance Pledge’ to demonstrate their commitment to creating fairer admissions for applicants with a criminal record. Furthermore, changes to data protection legislation in 2018, along with the successful lobbying from Unlock and The Prisoners Trust, resulted in the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) no longer requiring applicants applying to non-regulated degrees (i.e. degrees that do not require regular contact with vulnerable children or adults at risk) to disclose their unspent criminal records upon application to university.

This change from UCAS appears to demonstrate a positive step forward in providing equal opportunities for those with unspent criminal records applying to university. However, three years on, little is known about how individual higher education institutions have responded. For instance, have universities stopped collecting criminal records data for non-regulated degrees, or instead is this collected at a later stage in the admissions process? Additionally, this change would have predominately impacted students applying to undergraduate degrees, but little is known about admissions processes for people with criminal records applying to postgraduate courses.

Want to Learn More?

The impact of a criminal record on university admissions remains relatively unexplored within a UK context. As part of my PhD research, which is being undertaken in collaboration with Unlock, I will be working with university admissions teams and people with criminal records, to learn more about the impact of a criminal record on access to higher education. If you would like to find out more about the research and how you can participate, please get in touch.

To discover how your institution can create fairer admissions processes for people with criminal records, explore Unlock’s project ‘A Fair Chance for Students with Convictions’.

To join the conversation about creating fairer admissions for people with criminal records, you can sign up to the PURSUE Presents: Access to HE for People with a Criminal Conviction event on Thursday 22 July.

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