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Anne – Should a criminal record prevent the award of a PhD?

Anne contacted our helpline when she was looking for advice and support around an Appeal Hearing she was going through with a university.

Anne had been studying for a PhD; her research being based around the effects of long prison sentences on young people. She’d completed her oral examination (subject to some minor corrections) in late 2013 and a submission date for the completed thesis was set for early 2014.

During the course of her study, Anne was arrested and charged with conspiracy to supply drugs, assisting an offender and perverting the course of justice. Her trial started before the submission date of her thesis and the anxiety and stress arising from this meant she was unable to submit her thesis at the appropriate time. Anne was convicted and sentenced to a custodial sentence in the spring of 2014.

Anne told us that during her time in prison she’d been able to reflect on the past. She’d moved to an open prison and started a voluntary role and, as a result of these positive changes, Anne started to look to the future and began to consider what she would do upon her release.

Deciding that her future may lay in academia, Anne, with the help of family and friends, set about completing the corrections to her thesis and updating it to reflect changes to legislation.

Given the amount of time that had passed, it was necessary for Anne to reapply to the university for readmission. At this time, it was necessary for her to disclose her criminal convictions and, as a result of this disclosure, she was told that her application needed to go before the Student Conduct Council who would consider the relevance of her criminal record.

Anne told Unlock that she was prepared for some reluctance from the university. She felt they may put conditions upon the acceptance – i.e. not allowing her onto the university campus or not awarding her the PhD whilst she remained a serving prisoner.

Anne awaited the result from the panel which, when it arrived, gave the following decision:


To expel her from the university with immediate effect meaning that she would no longer be eligible to be registered for a programme of study, or to be awarded a degree or to reside in university accommodation.


Anne was devastated by what appeared to be a particularly harsh and permanent decision. Although her convictions would become spent at some point in the future she believed that the university were not just punishing her for her past mistakes, but fixing this punishment for life.

Anne decided that she would appeal the university’s decision and due to the university’s clear focus on her criminal record, decided that she would contact Unlock for some additional help and support.

The university’s letter to Anne stated that:-


A PhD represents a senior membership of the university in a world-renowned department. Given the circumstances of the case, it would be inappropriate for you to continue.


Anne felt that this comment alone demonstrated that the university’s decision was not made purely on any element of risk but on the reputation of the university. She felt strongly that if all universities were to take this approach, then everybody with a criminal conviction would be excluded from gaining an education.

We helped Anne’s appeal by writing a letter of support to the Student Conduct Panel. This highlighted the value of education and the very unlikely publicity which would result from awarding the PhD since any media interest in Anne’s case would have significantly waned.

The Student Conduct Committee met early in 2015 and in their written reply to confirm their decision, they stated:-


Having considered all of the additional evidence presented to this Committee of Appeal that the original Committee were not able to consider, this Committee has not been able to find any additional evidence of mitigating factors that would allow the Committee, within its limited powers, to reduce the penalty. The Committee recognises the positive steps that you have taken with your rehabilitation and the trust that you have earned since the start of your custodial sentence, however, this provided no further evidence in terms of mitigating factors for consideration in relation to an appropriate penalty to reflect your actions that led to the conviction, which in turn led to the breach of regulation. It is very unfortunate that there has been an additional consequence of this penalty for you but the Committee can see no evidence that the University should change its view that your actions and the level of criminal activity undertaken were sufficiently serious to terminate your membership of the University, whatever the consequences may be of that decision. The Committee takes the view that the penalty of expulsion from the University remain an appropriate penalty.


This issue was of particular interest to us because in November 2014, we had responded to the review of education in adult prisons led by Dame Sally Coates. One of the points that we had highlighted was that good work done by individuals to educate themselves in prison and the risk that this comes crumbling down due to the attitudes and practices of further education and higher education providers in the community towards people who have been in prison.

Although Anne had studied for five years for her PhD prior to going into prison, the attitude of her particular university adds weight to this point. Anne had already completed the majority of her study and the award of her PhD was, in this instance, more of a bureaucratic process.


Although Anne’s case has not ended well, we felt it was important to draw attention to this case in the hope that it will add to the evidence base of poor practice by universities in dealing with criminal records.


Our response to the review of education in prisons can be found here.

Practical information on applying to universities is available here.

Notes about this case study

This case study relates to Unlock’s case work.

Names and details have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.

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