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Applying to university



Aim of this information

This information aims to set out the university application process and points to consider if you’re applying for a course with a criminal record. It’s part of our information on universities, colleges and education.

Why is this important?

Access to education and training can be crucial for those with a criminal record who want to move on with their lives. It’s important to know whether you need to disclose your criminal record and if you do, what impact this might have on your being offered a place.

Making a university application through UCAS

Most higher education institutions will ask questions around criminal records at some point during the application process. Full time undergraduates will usually need to apply through UCAS.

From 2019, applicants for courses through UCAS are no longer required to declare whether they have any relevant unspent criminal convictions when completing their UCAS application for the majority of higher education courses. Instead, applicants tend to now be asked later in the enrolment process. This varies from University to University. Some won’t ask at all, except for regulated courses/roles.

What question does UCAS ask about criminal records?

UCAS only asks about criminal records if you’re considering a course which is closely linked to a profession which would be exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (those which would involve working with children or vulnerable adults). For these types of courses the university you’re applying to will usually undertake an enhanced Disclosure and Barring check. These courses will usually involve a placement where students will be engaging in regulated activity or will be working unsupervised with children or vulnerable adults. Examples of likely courses would be those in health science, teaching and social work.

In this case, you will need to disclose all cautions, warnings and reprimands together with both unspent and spent convictions unless they are eligible for filtering.

If you’re applying for these types of courses, UCAS state the following:-

Criminal conviction declaration

This course has entry requirements which may require you to disclose further information regarding any spent or unspent convictions or any past criminal activities, and may                also require a criminal records check. Further checks may also be required under the Disclosure and Barring Service.

If you have spent or unspent convictions from a court outside Great Britain, additional checks may be carried out depending on the records available in respect of the applicable country. A criminal records check may show all spent and unspent criminal convictions including (but not limited to) cautions, reprimands, final warnings, bind over orders or              similar and, to the extent relevant to this course, may also show details of any minor offences, fixed penalty notices, penalty notices for disorder, ASBO’s or VOOs.

Please tick if you have any spent or unspent convictions or other punishments that would show up on a criminal record check.”

You can find more information here about the process with UCAS.


How will the university handle my application if I disclose a criminal record?

If you disclose a criminal record, you should not automatically be excluded from the application process.

Despite applicants not having to disclose any relevant unspent convictions on the UCAS application form, the majority of universities do ask for disclosure of relevant unspent convictions at some stage within the application process.

If you are asked to disclose a relevant unspent conviction at the application stage the university will normally write to you asking for additional information to enable them to carry out a risk assessment.

Details of your criminal conviction will usually be passed to an appointed person at the university who should then consider it separately from your academic qualifications  and achievement information. You may be asked to provide additional information to the university to assist them in the decision making process.

Universities will use the process of assessing your criminal convictions to determine whether:

  1. Based on the evidence provided, it is judged that you pose an unacceptable risk to the university
  2. You are able to meet the particular professional or statutory requirements that exist for some courses.

If they are satisfied with the information you have provided, your application will be processed in the usual way although, it may be decided to add additional conditions to the offer.

If your application is refused, you will be notified of the decision and you should be provided with details of how to appeal it.

What is a relevant conviction?

This will vary between universities. You should be given guidance as to what an individual University considers ‘relevant’ Generally, if a university asks you to disclose relevant unspent criminal convictions, this would usually include convictions, cautions, orders or similar that are not spent or filtered involving one or more of the following:

  • Any kind of violence including (but not limited to) threatening behaviour, offences concerning the intention to harm or offences which resulted in actual bodily harm.
  • Offences listed in the Sex Offences Act 2003.
  • The unlawful supply of controlled drugs or substances where the conviction concerns commercial drug dealing or trafficking.
  • Offences involving firearms.
  • Offences involving arson.
  • Offences listed in the Terrorism Act 2006.

If your conviction involved an offence similar to those set out above, but was made by a court outside of Great Britain and that conviction would not be considered as spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, you should also disclose it.

What if I receive a conviction after I have applied to the university?

Most Universities have policies explaining what to do in this scenario. They are sometimes found in ‘student conduct’ or ‘student discipline’ policies. Each University will take a slightly different approach, so do ask for the right policy and determine what you need to do from this. Most Universities will expect you to disclose any criminal record received after application or during your studies. . You may be asked to provide additional information.

Appealing a university’s decision to allow you to study

There is no automatic right to appeal the outcome of an admissions decision. However, if you can provide additional relevant information to support your application which you did not originally submit, then many universities will be happy to take this into consideration and may reconsider your application.

When making a final decision, the panel should consider:

  • The nature of your offence and whether it is relevant to the course you’ve applied to study
  • If there is a pattern to your offending behaviour
  • The recommendations of any of your referees
  • Any mitigating or aggravating factors
  • Any comments about your risk of re-offending that was mentioned in any pre-sentencing or other official documentation.

When appealing a decision, you should:

  • Provide evidence that you’ve taken responsibility for your choices and you’ve sought to address your offending behaviour
  • Describe what you’ve done since the time of your offence – for example any new skills or qualifications or work experience
  • Reassure the university that you don’t pose any risk to their students, staff, visitors etc

Some other points to consider:

If the university has an official appeals process it may be the case that your appeal has to be submitted within a certain time period (i.e. within 14 days) and usually in writing. If you wish to provide further evidence which you’re unable to obtain in time, send off your letter and state that the additional evidence will follow within the next few days.

Many universities have admission teams that may be able to help you with the appeals process. They might help you find the relevant guidelines and regulations which could improve your chances of a successful appeal.

Make sure you give your letter a clear structure, presenting the facts without waffling. Write in a formal and business-like manner and avoid being adversarial, hostile or overly emotional. If possible, get the opinion of a trusted person to proof-read your letter prior to sending it. The Unlock advice team can do this, too – you should be mindful of the time sensitive-nature of an appeals process.

Remember that your letter needs to persuade the panel that your case satisfies their decision making criteria and that you are suitable to study on your chosen degree course. Your letter is going to be far more persuasive if it only contains strong points, so try not to dilute your good arguments by including weak ones.

Put yourself in the position of the university and make sure that where you can, you provide evidence to back up your argument.

The outcome of an appeal can be unpredictable but, a well-drafted and persuasive appeal can improve your chances of being successful.

Some students have unrealistic expectations about what will happen if they are successful. Be prepared for the university to place some additional restrictions on you.

Some degrees awarded by a university will lead to a professional qualification and you will need to demonstrate that you have the appropriate skills and attitudes required for entry into the profession. Where there are concerns about your suitability to gain entry into a profession, the university may wish to put you through a Fitness to Practise procedure. Your university should provide you with details of this process and explain how they will go about this.

Getting a placement

Some courses will require students to complete a placement which effectively means that they will be ‘working’  partner organisations (i.e. schools or NHS) whilst completing their course.

Some universities will have concerns that as a result of an individual’s criminal record, it will be difficult for the university to secure a placement for them. However, many health and social work organisations now have specific programmes designed to encourage applications from people with lived experience of disadvantage. Organisations with these in place may be more receptive to people with criminal records.

Some students have managed to secure their own placement, independently, and show this as evidence to the university, and this can often help in persuading the institution.

Other issues a university may consider

A university may be willing to accept a student with a certain conviction but might believe that the individual would be unlikely to be able to practice within the relevant professional occupation at the end of the course. They may feel therefore that it would not be appropriate to offer the individual a place. They may be able to provide the applicant with an alternative, more suitable course.

More information

  1. Practical self-help information – More information on universities and colleges and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act.
  2. To discuss this issue with others – Read and share your experience on our online forum.
  3. Our policy work – Read about the policy work we’re doing on promoting the fair admission policies by universities and colleges.
  4. Questions – If you have any questions about this, you can contact our helpline.

Get involved

Help us to add value to this information. You can:

  1. Comment on this information below.
  2. Send your feedback directly to us.
  3. Discuss your views and experiences with others on our online peer forum.



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Photo of Head of Advice, Debbie Sadler
Debbie Sadler
Head of Advice

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