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Anne – Should a criminal record prevent someone from being awarded a PhD?

Anne contacted our helpline when she required advice and support around an appeal hearing she was going through with her university.

Anne had been studying for a PhD. She passed her oral examination subject to some minor corrections just over two years ago and a submission date for the completed thesis was set for a couple of months later.

During the course of her study, Anne had been arrested and charged with conspiracy to supply drugs, assisting an offender and perverting the course of justice. Her trial started before she’d submitted her completed thesis and the anxiety and stress arising from this meant that she was unable to submit before the deadline. Anne was convicted and sentenced to prison.

Anne told us that during her time in prison she has been able to reflect on the past. Last year she moved to an open prison and started a voluntary role shortly after. As a result of these positive changes, Anne started to feel able to look to the future and began to consider what she would do upon her release from prison.

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

Given the amount of time that had passed, it was necessary for Anne to reapply to the university and on this occasion had to disclose her criminal convictions. She was told that her application needed to go before the Student Conduct Council who would consider the relevance of her criminal record.

Anne was prepared for there to be 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.

Last month, Anne received the university’s decision. In her Dad’s words, the University decided:

‘To expel you from the University with immediate effect. Explusion from the University is compulsory, permanent withdrawal from the University and means that the student is no longer eligible to be registered for a programme of study or a component of a programme of study; or to be awarded a degree or exit award from the University 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 time in the future ,Anne 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 us for some additional help and support.

In their letter to her, the University had 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 anybody with a criminal conviction would be excluded from gaining an education.

We agreed to assist Anne’s appeal by writing a letter of support. This highlighted the value of education in preventing re-offending and the very unlikely publicity which would result from awarding the PhD since any media interest in Anne’s case would have significantly waned. We are awaiting the results of their decision.

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

Anne stated:-

‘I’d like to thank Unlock for the help and support they have provided. I am hoping for a positive outcome and I’ll let you know as soon as I hear anything.’


Notes about this case study

This case study relates to our case work and policy work on university admissions.

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

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