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What challenges to people with criminal records face when applying to University? A review of Unlock’s helpline

Unlock's policy officer (projects) Ellie Grudgings explores what our helpline data tells us about barriers facing prospective students


Unlock’s confidential peer-led helpline provides information, advice and support to anyone in England and Wales with a criminal record. Last year our helpline received over 8,000 enquiries about issues ranging from employment to housing, education and travel. As well as helping people to overcome the barriers they face, the helpline provides vital evidence, allowing us to take what we hear from people on the frontline and feed it into our work with government, employers and higher education institutions.

We conducted a review of the Unlock helpline for the year 2022-2023 for enquiries relating to higher education and identified a series of common themes and challenges. They mirror what we’ve heard over years of working alongside people applying to higher education with a criminal record.

We noticed that:

  • The average length of time since a caller had received their criminal record was 13 years. This is clear evidence of the long-term impacts a criminal record can have. This may also invite questions regarding the relevance of such information; is a criminal record from 13 years ago likely to be relevant to the majority of university courses (such as history, computing or literature degrees)?
  • Many people had received their criminal record as a young person, highlighting the systemic barriers some applicants may have already faced before considering higher education.
  • People felt unsure whether they would be able to access higher education and felt vulnerable asking for guidance. Many feared they would be discriminated against on the basis of their criminal record and worried about the opportunities they might miss.
  • Those who had made an application were not sure what parts of a criminal record they were being asked to disclose. Questions on application forms were confusing and there was little guidance available, so people could not determine what information they were expected to share.
  • Some people are receiving advice about their criminal record at University that is simply incorrect – putting them at further disadvantage unnecessarily.

You can read the review in full here and as an infographic here.


Written by:

Ellie Grudgings is Unlock’s Policy Officer (projects), and leads our work with employers and universities


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Debbie Sadler
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