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New paper published: University admissions and criminal records – Lessons learned and next steps

Today Unlock has published a paper, University admissions and criminal records: Lessons learned and next steps.

For the last two decades, access to higher education in the UK for people with a criminal record has been seen to be much more difficult. This is, in part, because of the way that the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has required all applicants to disclose whether or not they have a certain criminal record when completing the standard UCAS application.

But that is now changing. UCAS has announced that it is removing the requirement for applicants to disclose if they have relevant unspent convictions on the application form.

That is why this paper is so timely; it brings together three short essays that look at the lessons that can be learned from the US, and what is next for university admissions and criminal records in the UK.

Drawing on newly published research (by Bradley Custer), sharing lessons from the US (by Dr Alexandra Cox), and looking at the UK context (by Christopher Stacey), this paper provides some useful insights that will be helpful in the work that will now need to be done to ensure that the changes announced by UCAS are followed through by individual institutions to remove unnecessary barriers to higher education for students with a criminal record.

Commenting on the paper, Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock and author of one of the essays, said:

“These three short essays collectively show why the change that UCAS announced last week is the right way forward. The starting point should be that criminal records should not be a part of a university’s assessment of academic merit. The change by UCAS sends a strong signal to universities that they should not be collecting criminal records from all potential students at application stage, and I expect to see the majority of institutions decide not to ask about criminal records for admissions purposes for most courses.”

Bradley Custer, from Michigan State University and author of one of the essays, said:

“Research on the use of criminal histories in university admissions in the UK and the US casts serious doubt as to whether the practice yields any net benefit to campus safety, as intended. Rather, more signs point to the process being harmful barriers to prospective students who seek second chances and opportunities to pursue higher education. Dropping the criminal history question was the right move by UCAS, and thousands of people with criminal histories can now access higher education because of it.”

Dr Alexandra Cox, from University of Essex and author of the one of the essays, said:

“Universities should not create any extra barriers to participation in higher education beyond those that relate to legally enshrined aspects of a criminal conviction.  At State University of New York, we recognised that there would be a number of degree programs, from nursing to law, which involved career paths that would require criminal background checks and, in some cases, exclude applicants with convictions.  However, should an individual with a conviction apply to a law program, for example, we felt that they should not be barred from participating in a program even if the barriers to entry in the profession were high. It also recognises the evolving common sense about risk and public safety in the professions.”


Download: University admissions and criminal records: Lessons learned and next steps

Unlock is taking forward many of the areas discussed in the paper as part of its Unlocking students with conviction project.


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Debbie Sadler
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