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Category: Projects

Call for evidence: university admissions

Have you applied to university with a criminal record? Had to disclose? Been successful or rejected?

We’d like to hear from you.

Since 2018 we have been working with universities to develop fair admissions for students with criminal records. We want to hear the experiences of applicants and students with criminal records so we can help universities and colleges improve their approach. If you were treated unfairly, tell us about it. We also want to hear positive experiences of disclosure and support. Our fair admissions pledge is a way for universities to let applicants know they will be treated fairly – but we’d like to hear from people who have applied.

We want to hear from people with criminal records who have applied for any university course in the last three years. Please tell us:

  • The courses and universities you applied to
  • Did you have to disclose an unspent or spent conviction?
  • What happened next – were you asked for more information, was there an admissions panel?
  • What was the decision?
  • If you were unsuccessful, did you apply somewhere else?
  • If you were successful, did you need and/or receive any support throughout your course?
  • Were you given careers advice that was relevant to your conviction?
  • Anything else you’d like to tell us

The information you provide will not be shared without your permission, and will help us to improve access to education for people with criminal records.

Email us in confidence at

New report highlights impact of criminal records on women

While women overall are less likely to have a criminal record than menthose women who do are more likely to face barriers when accessing employment according to the report, Angels or witches”: The impact of criminal records on women, published on International Women’s Day by Unlock. 

The report, which brings together the voices and experiences of women with criminal records alongside data on employment and criminal record checks, highlights the need for dedicated strategies to address the post-conviction problems women face.  

The vast majority of women surveyed as part of the research (86%) cited employment as a problem, with 63% saying it was the biggest problem they faced. One woman said:

“I’ve been struggling to get work. I can’t work in finance or admin roles for local government like I did previously as I need an enhanced DBS. I now work in low paid cleaning jobs but struggle to find cleaning work as all school cleaners, doctors surgeries need enhanced DBS checks.”  

By analysing data on the number of criminal record checks that disclosed convictions, the researchers found that, although less likely than men to have a criminal record, women are almost twice as likely to have their criminal records disclosed on a DBS check. One possible explanation for this is the higher level of checks required for traditionally female-dominated roles, such as care work and education. 

Over half of women surveyed felt that being a woman made their post-conviction problems worse, with many citing additional stigma face by women with convictions. One respondent said: 

Women are still treated as either angels or witches, there is no in between. Women with convictions are demonised in ways that men never have been 

What is also clear in the report is that for many women, their convictions exist alongside significant trauma; nearly two thirds (59%) of women surveyed reported having experienced domestic abuse at some point in their lives. A tenth said they had been a sex worker at some point in their lives, and 31% had experienced addiction or substance misuse. And yet there is a dangerous lack of support or understanding to enable these women to move on positively in their lives – they are simply handed the stigma that comes with a criminal record. 

Dr Rachel Tynan, Practice and Policy Lead at Unlock, said:

“These findings clearly demonstrate that women face specific barriers and challenges because of their criminal record – and that these aren’t properly understood. That’s why we’re calling on the government to conduct a full root and branch review of the criminal records system, including the proportionality and impact on women and people with other protected characteristics.  

“We also need to see a dedicated employment strategy that recognises and responds to the specific challenges faced by women leaving prison and on probation. If women are being locked out of the jobs they have trained for because of minor convictions, how are they supposed to make a positive contribution to society?”

This report was produced as part of Unlock’s Unlocking Experience project. Find out more about the project and the previous two reports, focussed on the experiences of young people and BAME people with criminal records. Our thanks to Barrow Cadbury Trust for funding this work.

Settled status – New information on what you need to know if you are an EU citizen and have a criminal record

The EU Settlement Scheme protects the rights EU/EEA citizens and their family members currently have in the UK, through the process of applying for settled or pre-settled status. 

As part of the applications process, there are questions about criminal records and checks are carried out by the Home Office. 

It is difficult to give clear information on how the Home Office will treat applications from people with criminal records. We do not know how the Home Office is applying its own guidance so this information cannot tell you categorically what to expect, although the Home Office appears to be taking a very long time to make decisions in many applications from people with criminal records. 

The vast majority of applicants with a criminal record should find their criminal record is not a barrier to settled or pre-settled status. That said, you may still be refused settled or pre-settled status because of the suitability criteria. 

That’s why today we have published information about the EU Settlement Scheme for applicants with a criminal record, as well as details of organisations that can provide specialist advice. You can read the information online 

What you need to know about applying for settled status

  • Having a criminal record should not put you off applying 
  • It’s important to apply as soon as you can. The deadline is 30 June 2021, but you should apply as soon as possible 
  • If you have lived in the UK for five years or more and have no unspent convictions, it is unlikely that your criminal record will be a barrier 
  • If you have unspent convictions, or you have a criminal record and have lived in the UK for less than five years, you should get specialist advice. 

We’ve also published a one-page summary which can be downloaded as a PDF – which organisations providing advice to individuals can use as a way of raising awareness amongst those who need to apply and might be concerned about their criminal record.  

We’re continuing our work on settled statusto help secure the rights of EU nationals to settled status in the UK by ensuring that a criminal record does not unfairly exclude them 

More information

  1. The information is available to read on our information site. 
  2. There is a one-page summary which can be downloaded as a PDF 
  3. You can find out more about our work on settled status  

New report highlights potentially hundreds of unlawful criminal record checks by employers each year

Unlock, a national advocacy charity for people with criminal records, has today published Checked out?a report on so-called ‘ineligible’ criminal record checks, submitted by employers and processed by the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).

The Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 allows some criminal records to become spent after a crime-free period. This means they are no longer disclosable – for example to employers – enabling people to move on and positively and contribute to society. For jobs working with children and vulnerable adults, spent criminal records must still be disclosed.

In 2019/20, the DBS carried out more than 4 million checks at the higher levels of enhanced or standard. Unlike basic checks, these disclose cautions and spent convictions and are legally permitted only for specified jobs and professions such as teaching, social work, accountancy or law. Carrying out a check at a higher level than permitted can be a criminal offence and a breach of data protection laws – exposing employers to financial and reputational risk. It unnecessarily prevents people with spent criminal records from gaining employment.

Despite the introduction of basic checks in 2018, Unlock’s helpline has seen a 25% increase in calls about ineligible checks. The report highlights the significant impact ineligible checks have on the lives of law-abiding people with criminal records – it estimates that over 2,000 people a year have to deal with the consequences of a caution or conviction unlawfully disclosed to an employer.

Responsibility for ensuring eligibility rests with the employer and the DBS trusts employers to request the right checks. The law is complicated, employers are rarely trained, and many show a blatant disregard for selecting the appropriate level of check. There is almost no chance of accountability and law-abiding people with criminal records are needlessly kept out of the workplace.

The report makes recommendations for government, the DBS and employers to prevent ineligible checks. These include amendments to the Police Act so employers and the DBS share liability for ineligible checks, legal protection for spent convictions and an urgent review of DBS processes for preventing ineligible checks.

Commenting on the report, Rachel Tynan, Unlock’s policy and practice lead and co-author of the report, said:

“Law abiding people with criminal records are struggling to find work as some employers are breaking the law to find out whether potential employees have ever broken the law. Ineligible checks are usually only carried out after offer, meaning the candidate has been chosen as the best person for the job, only to be rejected for an old or minor criminal record they are entitled to withhold.

“That’s bad news for them, their families and the economy – it’s got to change. This report sets out a number of recommendations to government, the DBS and employers that would turn the tide, prevent ineligible checks and improve compliance.”

For more information about the report, please contact Rachel Tynan. Email


  1. Unlock is an independent national advocacy charity for people who are facing obstacles, stigma and discrimination because of their criminal record
  2. There are over 11 million people in the UK that have a criminal record.
  3. Unlock’s main website is
  4. Download the report here: Checked out?
  5. The report has been published as part of Unlock’s fair access to employment project.


  • In 2019/20, the DBS carried out 5.9 million criminal record checks – 3.86 million enhanced and 326,000 standard checks, along with more than 1.7 million basic checks. Basic checks are available to any employer (provided they set out their lawful basis for checking). Standard and enhanced checks are only available for professions or roles exempt from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.
  • A basic criminal record check reveals convictions and cautions that are unspent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. A conviction or caution is unspent for a period of time, determined by the sentence. Once a conviction or caution is spent, it no longer appears on a basic check. However, higher levels of checks (standard and enhanced checks) continue to disclose spent convictions and spent cautions. Only when a conviction or caution meets an additional set of strict technical rules can a conviction or caution be removed from a higher level of check, in line with the ‘filtering rules’.
  • The term ‘ineligible check’ refers to checks carried out at a higher level than permitted in law. This could mean an enhanced check where only standard is permitted, but the more common problem is requesting a standard or enhanced check where only a basic is permitted.

Case studies


Darren’s minor convictions were from 30 years ago and long spent but, as there was more than one conviction, they were not eligible to be removed (or ‘filtered’) from his enhanced check. He contacted us for advice when a job offer from his local council was withdrawn following what he believed to be an ineligible enhanced DBS check.

During our correspondence with the council it became clear that there was a misunderstanding of the type of work that would be eligible for an enhanced check. They said:

“Although the DBS is saying we only need a basic check, there may be opportunities that the team may have contact with children or vulnerable adults in their work and the fact that the majority of the team currently have enhanced DBS checks, then it may be a good idea to stay at this level. For example, a car parking officer may have to approach a car where a young child has been left alone”.

We went back to the council to confirm that approaching a car which has young children in wouldn’t make this type of role eligible for an enhanced check and explained the purpose of these checks. The council reviewed the role and agreed that a basic check was more appropriate but by the time the review was complete, Darren had taken another job.

Darren said: “Had the correct level of check been done in the first place, I would have been able to start the job. It took so long for them to acknowledge their mistake and I couldn’t keep waiting without a job. It’s disappointing that a big organisation like the council didn’t understand what type of checks they could do.”


Dennis was a driver for an out of hours doctor’s service, driving doctors to appointments and waiting whilst they attended to a patient. Rarely, he chaperoned whilst the doctor carried out a procedure on the patient – this had only happened twice in the previous year.

After several months in the job, the employer decided to carry out an enhanced DBS check for his job. Dennis did not believe the job was eligible but felt he had no choice but to agree. Before the check was submitted, Dennis disclosed details of his criminal record and was suspended by his employer.

On reading the job description, we agreed that his job would not appear be eligible for an enhanced DBS check. To be eligible, he would need to be performing chaperone duties once a week or more, or at least four days in a 30 day period. In any event, Dennis was always accompanied by a medical professional who had been DBS checked and had overall responsibility for the patient. We provided Dennis with information and advice on challenging the check and offered to speak with his employer.

The employer carried out an investigation into Dennis’s concerns and confirmed that the job was not eligible for an enhanced check and they would update their policy to reflect this.

Dennis said: “I knew the job didn’t require an enhanced check and I’m pleased that [his employer] recognised that. I wanted to share my story so other people might feel they can challenge bad practice at work too.”


Danny contacted us for advice when his employer, a company selling disability aids, requested an enhanced DBS check for his role as a driver/technician, stating that he would be required to instruct and train ‘vulnerable’ adults in the use of the equipment he was delivering. Danny hadn’t received training in using equipment and, in the few weeks he had been working there, had only delivered pillows, walking sticks and wheelchairs. He felt the job would probably only require a basic DBS check and wanted to know how he could challenge the company. He had a spent conviction which he had not disclosed when applying for the job, as he was led to believe that it was a delivery driver job which would not be eligible for an enhanced check.

Danny had no choice but to agree to the enhanced check and then raise it with the DBS. He told them other drivers doing the same job were also undergoing enhanced checks. The DBS confirmed that they had put his application on hold whilst they investigated the eligibility of the check but could not do the same for the other drivers.

The DBS told Danny that his employer had given his job title as an Outreach Support Worker. This did not match his job description, qualifications or experience. He was told that the DBS did not question job titles with requesters and, on the job description provided, the role was eligible for an enhanced check. Danny decided that the only option open to him would be to arrange to speak to his employer about his conviction – who immediately terminated his contract.

Danny said: “I wouldn’t have applied for a job as a support worker – I’ve got no experience or interest in that type of work. As far as I was concerned, it was a driving job, dropping things off at the front door. None of the other drivers trained anyone either.

The DBS would not investigate why Danny’s employers provided a different job description to the one being performed. Had they investigated the other drivers’ roles and found all of them raising the same objections, they might have reached a different decision.

Government responds to Supreme Court ruling with plans to change criminal records disclosure regime

Responding to government plans to change the criminal records disclosure regime to address the Supreme Court judgment in the case of P and Others v SSHD & SSJ (the ruling on the filtering system and the disclosure of criminal records), Christopher Stacey said:

“We welcome the government’s intention to fully comply with the Supreme Court ruling on filteringUnlock intervened in that vital case because we know thousands of people are unnecessarily anchored to their past due to an arbitrary regime which forces the disclosure of old and irrelevant information. The changes announced today are a crucial first step towards achieving a fair system that takes a more balanced approach towards disclosing criminal records.


“However, ware still left with a criminal records system where many people with old and minor criminal records are shut out of jobs that they are qualified to do. Reviews by the Law Commission, Justice Select Committee, Charlie Taylor and David Lammy MP have all stressed the need to look at the wider disclosure systemThe government’s plan for jobs should include a wider review of the criminal records disclosure system to ensure all law-abiding people with criminal records are able to move on into employment and contribute to our economic recovery.”



On 30 January 2019, the Supreme Court directed the Government to fix the broken Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) system. Four claimants had challenged the blunt and punitive rules, that require them to disclose multiple offences, no matter how historic or minor, and to disclose cautions received in childhood. Every year about 25,000 youth cautions are disclosed in criminal record checks, around 75% of those cautions were for incidents that happened over 5 years ago.

The Court, agreeing with two lower courts whose judgments the Government had challenged, said the Government needed to fix the rules to allow people to move on from past mistakes.

Planned changes 

This change affects spent convictions that may continue to be disclosed on standard and enhanced checks. It does not affect unspent convictions which will continue to be disclosed.  

A Statutory Instrument is a way of amending existing law. It means changes can be made in a shorter timeframe than passing new primary legislation. The planned changes to the filtering rules are set out in Statutory Instruments relating to the Police Act 1997 and Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (Exceptions) Order 1975

The Statutory Instrument’s remove the automatic disclosure of: 

  • youth cautions, reprimands and warnings (an out of court disposal issued to young offenders that were replaced by youth cautions in 2013); and 
  • all spent convictions where the individual has more than one conviction (except where disclosed under the other rules) 

What will not change 

Convictions resulting in a custodial or suspended sentence will still be disclosed.

Convictions or adult cautions for an offence that can ‘never be filtered will still be disclosed. 

The time that must pass before filtering applies remains the same – 11 years for a conviction (5.5 years for convictions under the age of 18) and 6 years for adult cautions (youth cautions will no longer be disclosed). 

In addition, enhanced criminal records certificates may also include any information which a chief officer of police reasonably believes to be relevant and in the chief officer’s opinion ought to be included in the certificate.

What does this mean for you? 

It’s important to note that these changes are not yet law.

You will no longer have to disclose reprimands, final warnings or cautions received under the age of 18 on application forms for regulated jobs or university courses. These will no longer be disclosed on a standard or enhanced DBS certificate. 

Multiple childhood convictions will be filtered after 5.5 years unless they are for a specified offence and did not result in a custodial or suspended sentence. 

Multiple convictions acquired after the age of 18 will be filtered after 11 years, unless they are for a specified offence or resulted in a custodial or suspended sentence. Adult cautions have not changed. 

Find out more about the impact of these planned changes.

Useful links

  1. The government announcement can be found here.
  2. The letter to Unlock from Victoria Atkins explaining the changes
  3. Unlock’s response to the judgment on 30th January 2019, including case studies and a background to the case, is available here.
  4. More information about our policy work on the DBS filtering system is available here
  5. #FairChecks movement – calling for a fresh start for the criminal records system


  • Press & media
  • Unlock is an independent national charity that provides a voice and support for people who are facing stigma and obstacles because of their criminal record, often long after they have served their sentence.

Bad policies and practices by employers

As part of our fair access to employment project, we work with employers to develop fair policies and practices and highlight good practice. We know that employers don’t always follow their own policy, and that sometimes decision making is subjective. We’re gathering evidence of bad practice and challenge this where we can – and we need your help to do this.

We want to hear your experiences of bad practice. In some cases, we will challenge employers directly. In other situations, we press for action to be taken by others including the DBS or the ICO. Where we’ve been successful in achieving changes in practice, we write the example up anonymously and post it on our website for employers to help employers learn where others have gone wrong. Ultimately, we want to see all employers operate fair and inclusive practices towards people with a criminal record.

Bad practice could include:

  • Asking about spent convictions for a job that is covered by the ROA.
  • Blanket policies of not recruiting people with unspent convictions
  • A ban the box employer asking questions on application
  • Carrying out DBS checks for roles not eligible for them
  • Requesting applicants provide a copy of their ‘police record’ (also known as ‘enforced subject access’)
  • Failing to give applicants an opportunity to explain their criminal record
  • Sharing information about criminal records without your consent (for example in references)

Take a look at some of the examples we’ve posted on our website for employers.

What we need from you

If you have experience of bad practice by employers, contact us at using the subject header ‘Call for evidence: bad practice’. Please include:

  • Your name
  • Contact details (email and telephone) and how you’d like us to contact you
  • Details of your experience (please include the name of the employer and of any staff you spoke to, include emails/screenshots etc if possible)
  • What you think should change.
  •  Whether you’d be willing to take part in media coverage on this issue in future (this is for our reference only, we won’t share your details with others)

Any information you provide will be kept in line with our confidentiality policy. Any personal information provided to us will not be shared externally without your consent.

Find out more about how we handle your data.

Find out more about our work with employers.

Blog – Looking to the future: incentivising employment of people with convictions

It’s fair to say 2020 has been a year of major change – and we’re only halfway through. Whether you’ve been adapting to home working, learning a new skill, or embracing your natural hair, we’re all dealing with change. That can be challenging but there’s a sense that this moment is a portal to the future.

Unlock’s helpline receives calls every day from people who want to change their future by applying for a new job, or a promotion. No matter what skills, qualifications or experience they have, they know that once they tick the box to say they have a conviction, there’s a good chance they’ll never hear from the employer again. Sometimes people get as far as the interview before being told ‘oh no, you can’t work here – we’ve got a policy about that’.

This week, Unlock have published a briefing calling on the government to use financial incentives to improve employment prospects for people with convictions.

There are more than 11 million people in the UK with a criminal record. Most have never been to prison and most will never commit another crime. Yet 75% of companies admit discriminating against applicants who declare a criminal record. In a 2016 survey, 32% of employers had concerns about this group’s skills and capability, 45% were concerned they would be unreliable and 40% were worried about the public image of their business.

These might seem reasonable concerns – but they’re just not accurate. Employers who pro-actively recruit people with convictions report positive experiences. Polling from 2019 shows that 81% of employers say hiring people with criminal records had a positive impact on their business, while 75% of consumers would buy from a business that hired people with convictions.

Exclusion from the job market has a significant effect not just on individuals and their families but also their communities. People from some ethnic backgrounds – particularly Black and Gypsy, Roma, Traveller – are over-represented in the justice system and face this additional barrier when looking for work.

Keeping people out of the work place because of a criminal record is unnecessary – and it’s expensive. People with convictions want to support themselves and their families, but unemployment has a scarring effect that can last a lifetime. Reoffending costs £18bn a year but targeted opportunities just for people leaving prison could reduce that by around 10%.

Financial incentives can be a powerful force for change. In Belgium, subsidies have improved employment prospects for disabled people, while a 2018 study in the US found that 80% of employers said a tax credit on a worker’s wages would encourage them to hire someone with a conviction.

None of us can predict what the future will bring but it’s going to need a collective effort. The more people in work, the quicker the economy can recover. Do we want to live in a country that excludes people because of their background, or one that sees what people have to offer and gives them a chance?

Download the briefing here.

Contact us for more information.




Unlock’s guest post for the Cabinet Office’s Life Chances blog

Going Forward into Employment is a government wide scheme providing employment opportunities in the civil service for people from a range of backgrounds. Prison leavers are one of the groups that can benefit from the scheme, and so far more than 30 people have taken up a civil service post after release. The Going Forward into Employment team have launched a blog series to share information on their work.

Unlock have contributed a guest post on the scheme’s work with prison leavers. Let us know what you think, or share your experiences of applying to the Civil Service by email  or social media.

Rights groups condemn government’s failure to fix broken DBS system

  • Supreme Court ruled one year ago that disclosure and barring service rules breach rights
  • DBS system continues to unlawfully breach rights of people with multiple minor convictions and childhood cautions.

A year after the UK’s highest court found current rules on criminal records checks breach human rights laws, Unlock, Liberty and Just for Kids Law have denounced the Government for failing to fix this broken system.

On 30 January 2019, the Supreme Court directed the Government to fix the broken Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) system. Four claimants had challenged the blunt and punitive rules, that require them to disclose multiple offences, no matter how historic or minor, and to disclose cautions received in childhood.

The Court, agreeing with two lower courts whose judgments the Government had challenged, said the Government needed to fix the rules to allow people to move on from past mistakes.

A year later, the Government has done nothing, and this injustice continues.

Christopher Stacey, Co-director of Unlock, said:

“Thousands of people with old and minor criminal records have had their cautions or convictions disclosed in the last year because of the government’s delay to reform the system. Unlock intervened in the Supreme Court case because we know people are unnecessarily anchored to their past due to an arbitrary regime which forces the disclosure of irrelevant information. We strongly urge the government to put an end to this unfair lifelong sentence by immediately mending the broken filtering rules alongside committing to carrying out a root and branch review of the criminal record disclosure regime. It’s time for a fresh start for the criminal records system.”

Sam Grant, Policy and Campaigns Manager at Liberty, said:

“It is a disgrace that after years of failed wrangling in the courts, the Government continues to drag its feet and refuses to fix a clearly broken system. A blunt bureaucratic system continues to subject people to unfair treatment for mistakes they made long ago. If you make a few mistakes, you should be able to move on without it tarnishing you for the rest of your life. The Government must finally put this right.”

Enver Solomon, CEO of Just for Kids Law, said:

“There is no excuse for the delay in implementing the landmark judgement. Every year about 25,000 youth cautions are disclosed in criminal record checks, most of which are for incidents that happened over 5 years ago. All these people are being unlawfully stigmatised by the government dragging its feet and failing to change the law. It must now act immediately to ensure no child who is given a caution ends up with a lifelong criminal record that robs them of the chance to be fully rehabilitated.”

“P” and “G”

Liberty’s client, known only as “P”, committed two minor offences in 1999 – stealing a 99p book, then missing her hearing at a Magistrate’s Court. She had an undiagnosed mental illness. P has committed no crime since these convictions. She aspires to be a teaching assistant, to make the most of her previous teaching experience.

Under current Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) rules, P is required to disclose her convictions when applying for jobs and voluntary positions. This leads to conversations about her medical history, and she has been frustrated in her attempts to work.

Just for Kids Law’s client, known as “G” received two reprimands when he was 13 years old. These reprimands appear on standard and enhanced DBS checks until he is 100 years old. The Supreme Court found that disclosing such reprimands to employers is directly contradictory to their purpose. Just for Kids Law argued that reprimands (now called youth cautions) are designed as a rehabilitative measure, and not a punishment for life.

Unlock, which campaigns on behalf of people with criminal records, intervened in the case.

Unlock estimates that between 2007 and 2017, over 1.7 million people received a minor conviction that was not their first offence. All of these will now be spent but will still appear on DBS checks.

Going by records from previous years, Unlock estimates that around 25,000 standard or enhanced DBS checks will have resulted in the disclosure of cautions received in childhood since the Supreme Court ruled this to be unlawful.

Earlier this month, Unlock and Transform Justice launched the #FairChecks movement. People make mistakes, particularly when young. A criminal record should not hold people back from fulfilling their potential. Join the movement if you think we need a fresh start for the criminal records system.


  • Unlock’s response to the judgment on 30th January 2019, including case studies and a background to the case, is available here.
  • More information about our policy work on the DBS filtering system is available here
  • Unlock is an independent national charity that provides a voice and support for people with convictions who are facing stigma and obstacles because of their criminal record, often long after they have served their sentence.
  • Liberty challenges injustice, defends freedom and campaigns for everyone in the UK to be treated fairly, with dignity and respect. We’re an independent membership organisation, and our principles are guided by evidence and expertise – not political agenda, profit or popular opinion. We use our voice in courtrooms, in the news, on the streets and in politics to demand and deliver lasting change to benefit the many and most vulnerable. Since 1934 we’ve inspired and empowered people to defend their rights, and the rights of their family, friends and communities. Join us. Stand up to power.
  • Just for Kids Law is a UK charity that works with and for children and young people to hold those with power to account and fight for wider reform by providing legal representation and advice, direct advocacy and support, and campaigning to ensure children and young people in the UK have their legal rights and entitlements respected and promoted and their voices heard and valued.

Blog – How can people with criminal records access higher education?

Evidence shows that some groups are disproportionately criminalised: care leavers, people from low income households and some ethnic groups.

Despite education being widely recognised as a key factor in successful rehabilitation, admissions policies to date have presented psychological and practical challenges to access. When UCAS removed the criminal convictions tick box for applicants to non-regulated courses, universities had the perfect opportunity to re-evaluate their approach.

Now the Universities of Liverpool, Southampton and Nottingham have joined others in pledging to offer a fair chance to students with a criminal record. These universities have recognised that widening participation means looking at the range of barriers under-represented students face – including a criminal record.

Unlocking talent

Over the last 12 months Unlock, supported by the UPP Foundation, have worked with partner universities on their approach to applicants with criminal records. The project had three objectives: to get policies in place at each of the partner universities; a toolkit for other universities to use to develop their admissions policies; and a pledge for universities to sign up to.

The project was designed to focus on admissions, whilst recognising that this is only the first stage of the student journey. Accommodation, visa compliance and voluntary placements might require asking about criminal records but for admission to non-regulated courses this is almost always unnecessary. Admissions decisions should focus on an applicant’s ability to fulfil their potential. A fair chance means looking at ways to include rather than exclude those people who are trying to move on positively with their lives.  People like Connor.

Connor applied for a post-graduate degree, disclosing his unspent conviction at that time. The university decided that as his offence was ‘serious’ his application could not be accepted. Determined not give up, Connor submitted information about his conviction and letters of support from previous tutors and others people in his life. Eventually, the university overturned its decision.

Concerns about safeguarding or capacity to complete the course could be managed by engaging with the applicant themself. Offering applicants the opportunity to disclose conditions or restrictions that could affect their ability to succeed on their programme means universities can advise on adjustments or alternatives, addressing their concerns. Applicants can feel confident to ask for support at the earliest stage and throughout their course.

Primarily this is a widening participation issue. Admissions decisions for students with convictions can and should be in line with the principles of fair admissions, as set out in the Schwartz review.

It’s also an issue of legal compliance; any organisation that processes criminal record data must have a lawful basis under Article 6 and a condition under Article 10 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s difficult for a university to identify an article 10 condition for non-regulated courses. Where a DBS check is needed for a placement based programme, universities have a legal obligation to check criminal records. For non-regulated courses, this doesn’t apply. Asking a voluntary question about restrictions or conditions means universities can rely on consent when processing criminal records data.

What have we learned?

Three key themes have emerged from the project and we encourage any university looking at this issue to bear these in mind.

First, focus on inclusion: ask ‘how can we safely include’ rather than ‘how can we legitimately exclude’. Applicants with criminal records are a diverse group and fit into traditional widening participation groups. Excluding people because of their past is likely to result in exclusion of under-represented groups

Second, take a ‘whole institution approach’: Identify what information is necessary – or not – at different stages in the student lifecycle; bringing decision makers together, as well as looking at support for students

Third, words matter: Policies of all kinds reflect the values and culture of the university. An inclusive culture begins with inclusive language. If a university is committed to widening participation and including all under-represented groups, the language used to address them is the starting point.

Students with convictions have usually overcome significant barriers already. They are determined and hardworking and, while they may need support to succeed, their inclusion ultimately benefits us all. Recidivism already costs the economy £18bn a year. Education, employment and opportunity are strongly associated with a reduction in reoffending. Can we really afford to ignore those who are working hard to get their lives on track?

What’s next?

Pledging to offer a Fair Chance to Students with Convictions means:

  • Asking applicants about criminal records only if – and when – it is necessary
  • Asking targeted and proportionate questions during the admissions process
  • Making the policy transparent and accessible to all applicants
  • Offering applicants a chance to discuss their case in person before a decision is made
  • Considering flexible adjustments and alternatives for applicants
  • Ensuring staff are trained to make fair and impartial judgements about applicants
  • Supporting students with criminal records to help them achieve academic success
  • Communicating positively about the benefits of a fair admissions process

Signatories include Universities of Nottingham, Lincoln, Kent, Southampton, Essex and Liverpool, UWE; Birkbeck, University of London; London Metropolitan University and the Bloomsbury Institute. We look forward to more universities signing the pledge in the coming months and working with them to make improvements to their practices.

Our toolkit for higher education providers provides a blueprint for universities to make sure their admissions processes are fair and inclusive. We worked with the Office for students on their effective practice guide to working with students with convictions.

Our longer term focus is on the retention and success of students with convictions – how universities can support them to achieve their potential, and to successfully transition into employment. This includes academic and pastoral support and links with employers. Education can be transformative, and universities have an opportunity to help transform the lives of individuals with convictions and their communities.

This blog was written by Rachel Tynan and originally published by Wonkhe

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