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Unlocking Opportunity: The Impact of a Criminal Record on Access to
Higher Education

This blog has kindly been contributed by Charlotte Brooks, PhD Researcher (ESRC funded) at the School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham.

What is a Criminal Record?

In the United Kingdom a criminal record could include information about convictions and cautions, regardless of sanction. For professions and regulated education courses that involve regular contact with children and vulnerable adults, non-conviction information held on the Police National Computer may be disclosed as part of background checks. Previous research has indicated that a criminal record can have a devastating impact on a person’s life chances, even once the official punishment period has ended. For instance, people may be subjected to restrictions when accessing employment (Fletcher, 2001; Harris et al., 2020), housing and education (Unlock, 2021).

Criminal Records and Higher Education

For applicants applying to non-regulated degree programmes, UCAS no longer requires applicants to disclose criminal records that are unspent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (1974) on submitting a university application. Yet the UCAS application represents just one stage of the admissions process, and there are other stages where individual institutions can request information regarding an applicants’ criminal history.

In discussions about widening participation, there is a relative silence about the impact a criminal record can have on people pursing a university degree. This is despite there being over 11.8 million people in England and Wales that have a criminal record (Home Office, 2020).

In my PhD research, I am working with the charity Unlock, to explore the impact a criminal record has on access to higher education. As part of this research, I have analysed criminal records policies from 143 UK universities to explore if, how and why information pertaining to applicants’ criminal records is used to assess a person’s suitability to register onto a non-regulated degree.

The policy analysis has revealed that approximately three quarters of institutions are continuing to ask applicants to disclose unspent criminal records prior to them becoming a registered student.  It is often assumed that universities are legally required to ask about unspent criminal records, however this is not the case for non-regulated degrees. Indeed, there are nineteen UK universities that do not ask applicants to disclose their criminal records in order to become a registered university student.

Can you Support this Research?

The next stage of the research involves distributing a survey to university staff in a Head of Admissions role (or equivalent), to further explore how information about criminal records is used to assess an applicants’ suitability for admission. To support this research, I would be grateful if you could send the survey onto the Head of Admissions contact in your institution, or a person with a remit for supporting students with criminal records.

Learn More!

  • In collaboration with Unlock, I have developed a searchable online database that allows those applicants, and their advocates, to easily find out if a university asks about criminal records as part of the admissions process. If you think the information about your institution is incorrect, please do contact me so this can be amended.
  • Take a look at my blog for Wonkhe setting out the importance of considering the impact of a criminal record in relation to widening participation work.
  • Explore the fair admissions toolkit, developed by Unlock, to see how your institution could create fairer admissions policies for people with criminal records.

If you’d like to get in touch with Charlotte to find out more about her research, you can get in touch via lqxcb7@nottingham.ac.uk.


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