Should universities ask about applicants’ criminal records?

Christopher Stacey, Co-Director of Unlock - 8 June 2018

For the past two decades, access to higher education in the UK for people with a criminal record has been perceived as very difficult, deterring many people from even applying. Last week, UCAS took a significant step forward by removing the requirement for applicants to declare relevant unspent convictions when applying to university. The higher education sector now has a unique opportunity to question whether criminal records should feature at all in admissions.

Many European and US universities don’t ask about criminal records and research from the US has found no evidence that admitting people with criminal convictions leads to a higher rate of crime on campus. Unlock’s new paper brings together research and looks at the lessons that can be learned from the US, and what’s next for university admissions and criminal records in the UK.

Questions about past criminal records may be needed at some stage for courses that involve regulatory requirements or placements requiring enhanced disclosure and barring service (DBS) checks. However, for these types of courses, the criminal record disclosure can be done after a student has been accepted on their academic merit. Any assessment of a criminal record for these purposes should include targeted questions relevant to the course.

In considering concerns about people recently convicted of serious offences, criminal justice agencies should be involved in the decision-making phase. Prison and probation staff have a responsibility to both the individual and the wider public and are experts in risk assessments so are best placed to manage risk. Universities shouldn’t try to do the same job simply based on information the individual provides.

It’s a sad fact that enhanced DBS checks can reveal decades-old cautions and convictions which could easily be ruled out as irrelevant for most courses. Where rejection is on balance quite possible, a face-to-face meeting with the individual to find out more information is crucial to ensure a fully informed assessment can be made.

Universities need to be consistent with the message that higher education is open to everyone and the starting point for this should be that criminal records not be a part of a university’s assessment of academic merit. A strong, inclusive mindset is needed: unless you are proactively including, you are probably accidentally excluding. Unlock is working with Ucas and others to support this work, and I hope to see a number of universities step forward and make changes to ensure fair admissions policies for students with criminal records.

Christopher Stacey is co-director of Unlock, a charity for people with convictions. Their new report ‘University admissions and criminal records: Lessons learned and next steps’ is available here