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University admissions: what’s changed?

Following the decision by UCAS to remove the question about criminal convictions for all applicants, universities had to consider if, when and how to collect this information. UCAS still ask applicants to regulated programmes – for example medicine or teaching – to declare criminal records. Having worked with UCAS and universities for some time, we felt this was an important opportunity to support universities to develop fair admissions policies for applicants with previous criminal records. This blog details the work we have been doing in the last year or so, what we have learned so far and our plans for future work in this area, and has been written to coincide with the recent UCAS Admissions conference, at which our co-director Christopher Stacey appeared.

In September 2018 Unlock began work with three universities – Southampton, Cardiff and Goldsmiths – on a year-long project to develop best practice admissions policies for applicants with criminal records. The three universities were selected to reflect different size, location and student body, and because they had an interest in the subject – Southampton and Cardiff were involved in the UCAS working group from an early stage, and Goldsmiths have hosted the award-winning Open Book for over a decade.

Unlock’s approach to universities has always been to recognise that different functions have different needs: this means recognising the various parts (admissions, accommodation, Tier 4 visas, careers) require different information and different management. When UCAS collected criminal records information from all applicants, universities had access to this at the outset and could share it across departments. The removal of this question – and the constraints of the GDPR – mean that universities must carefully develop new ways of collecting and sharing necessary information. The first task is to identify whether criminal records information is really necessary. The project was designed to focus on admissions, whilst recognising that this is only the first stage of the student journey.

Supported by the UPP foundation, the project has three objectives: fair admissions policies in place at each university; a toolkit for other universities to use to develop fair admissions policies; a fair admissions pledge for universities to sign up to. To date, each of the partner universities have published their new policies and – well, two out of three isn’t bad.

Southampton and Cardiff were both represented at this April’s UCAS Admissions conference where they set out their approach in detail. In summary, neither are asking a mandatory question about criminal convictions for non-regulated courses. Instead, applicants are given the opportunity to disclose licence conditions or restrictions that could hamper success. This helps applicants feel confident that they will be treated fairly. Where students might find it difficult to complete the chosen programme because of restrictions, the university can advise on adjustments or alternatives.

Goldsmiths elected to follow their existing policy – asking all applicants to declare unspent convictions. This will happen at enrolment stage (in August) and applicants to non-DBS courses will be risk assessed before a final decision to admit (or not) is made. It’s not clear whether the applicant will be involved in this process. Unlock’s position is that asking all potential students about unspent convictions, potentially asking them to provide references from criminal justice practitioners or others, is unnecessary and unfair, and that concerns about safeguarding or capacity to complete the course could be managed by asking about restrictions. It is unclear whether students will be offered support or whether adjustments or alternatives will be offered. Furthermore, asking at such a late stage means that applicants may turn down other offers only to be rejected by Goldsmiths. Disappointingly, Open Book merits only a cursory mention in the published policy.

You can read more about each of these universities approaches on our project page.

What have we learned?

Three overarching ideas have emerged over the course of the project so far, and we encourage other universities who are considering if, when and how to ask about criminal records to bear these in mind.

  1. 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
  2. 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 fir into traditional widening participation groups. Excluding people because of their past is likely to result in exclusion of under-represented groups
  3. Words matter: Policies of all kinds reflect the values and culture of the university. An inclusive culture begins with inclusive language. Compare the following opening paragraphs:

‘The University is committed to widening participation, and ensuring that all students with the potential to succeed, regardless of their background, are encouraged to apply to study with us. This includes welcoming applications from individuals who have previously been convicted of a criminal offence.’ (Southampton)

Compared with:

‘To help reduce the risk of harm or injury to our students and staff caused by the criminal behaviour of other students, we must know about any relevant criminal convictions that an applicant may have. If you have a relevant criminal conviction you must let us know.’


‘We welcome applications from people from all backgrounds with the potential and determination to succeed on our programmes of study. Cardiff University understands that, for applicants with a criminal conviction, accessing education can be an important part of moving on and gaining the skills, knowledge and qualifications necessary to tackle the challenges of employment. Having a criminal conviction is not an automatic bar to enrolling on a programme of study at the University.’ (Cardiff)

Compared with:

‘The University is committed to the fair treatment of all applicants and having a criminal record will not necessarily bar an applicant from gaining admission to the University.  However, the University recognises its duty to protect its students, staff and others within its community and reserves the right to exclude an individual from a course of study, or from the University, where their attendance would pose a threat to the safety or property of staff, students, visitors, those coming into contact with the applicant during their studies, or others involved in University business; or would be contrary to the law or the requirements of any relevant professional, statutory or regulatory body.’ (Roehampton)

If your university is committed to widening participation an including all under-represented groups, the language you use to address them is the starting point.

Since the project began we have become aware of a variety of approaches. UCAS have surveyed all universities and it appears that about 60% of universities who responded are asking about criminal records at some stage. Westminster were first to make the decision to only ask a voluntary question about restrictions post offer; Birkbeck, Essex, the Open University and Newcastle are doing the same. The Universities of Brighton and Sussex, Winchester and Kingston will not be asking at all from an admissions perspective but we hope they will look at how they can provide support to students who may need it. The aims of asking vary – from ensuring students are able to complete their course to providing advice and guidance on careers and pastoral support.

What next?

Our principles of fair admissions will form the basis of our toolkit for universities and the fair admissions pledge. The next phase of the project is to publish the toolkit for other universities later in the spring, and launch a pledge for fair admissions by the end of summer.

We’re also building a map of what other universities are doing – there are over 160 institutions offering higher education in the UK, and we want applicants with criminal records to know what they can expect.

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.

If you’d like to know more about our university work or to find out about the support, contact us.

Written by Rachel Tynan.

New good practice resources for higher education providers

The piece below has been published as part of new good practice resources for universities, published by UCAS, which Unlock has supported.

Unlock very much welcomes the removal of the main criminal conviction box from the UCAS application. Having worked with higher education providers for a number of years, the previous approach presented a barrier to individuals with a criminal record, and the decision by UCAS is a significant change that has the potential to help many people with convictions see higher education as a positive way forward in their lives. Unlock has seen first-hand how people have been put off from applying to university as a result of the box on application forms.

With the changes that UCAS has announced, the higher education sector now has a unique opportunity to question whether criminal records should feature at all when deciding whether someone should be accepted onto a university course. If universities are committed to widening participation, they should be considering the widest number of potential applicants. The change by UCAS provides a strong signal to universities that criminal records should not feature in their assessment of academic ability. Many institutions are now rightly looking at how to amend their policies and practices.

When you look at who actually has a criminal record, you can see how there are real benefits to universities in being open and inclusive towards people with a criminal record.

  1. There are large numbers of people with convictions who could potentially be admitted to university who are not because they are being deterred from applying. The numbers of prison-university partnerships are growing. Less than 10% of people with a criminal record go to prison, yet there are over 11 million people with a criminal record and approximately three-quarters of a million people with an unspent criminal record.
  2. This issue should be seen through the lens of widening participation, which remains at the forefront of government policy in higher education. People of Black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background are disproportionately represented amongst those who are arrested and imprisoned; the racial disproportionality in the UK criminal justice system is actually greater than that in the US system. Just under three quarters of the prison population in England and Wales was from the white ethnic group. When compared to the general population, those who identified as BAME are over represented in the prison population; 13% in the general population compared to 26% in prison. People with convictions also often represent other groups who are disproportionately under-represented at university, including care leavers, people from low income households, mature students, people with learning difficulties and/or disabilities and first-in-family. Nearly a quarter of people in prison (compared with 2% of the general population) have spent time in the care system as children.

People with convictions who are applying to university are showing a huge commitment to turning their lives around. As a society, we should be doing all that we can to support them. The opportunity to go to university can help people to move away from their criminal past, build careers and contribute positively to society. Their presence is also hugely beneficial to universities themselves, which gain highly committed students who help create a more diverse and inclusive learning environment.

Whether universities should ask at all

It’s important to understand why UCAS have dropped the need for applicants to disclose relevant unspent convictions; they recognised that the question at application stage could deter people from applying, and wanted to reaffirm that higher education is open to everyone.

In Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands, universities don’t ask about criminal records. Most European universities do not ask, nor do Australian institutions. The 23 California state universities do not ask. The 64 State University of New York colleges and universities do not ask. Research from the US found no evidence that admitting people with criminal convictions led to a higher rate of crime on campus. It is also consistent with the ban the box campaign that is spreading amongst employers, removing the question about criminal records from job application forms.

How should universities respond to the change?

It is our view that 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 we expect to see the majority of institutions decide not to ask about criminal records for admissions purposes for most courses. Criminal record disclosure (of, say, certain offences) may feature in other parts, like when applying for university accommodation, but that’s further down the line and a separate process to that of admissions with different considerations.

In considering concerns about people recently convicted of serious offences applying to universities and not having to declare whether they have a criminal record, this is where a key understanding of the role of others outside of universities is important, and Unlock has produced a separate briefing on understanding applicants with a criminal record.

For courses that involve enhanced criminal record checks, the briefing also looks at how universities should approach applicants that have a criminal record. There remains work to be done to ensure that there is a proportionate approach to assessing the relevance of the applicant’s criminal record and that the right decisions are reached. While it’s right that individuals should be aware of what future challenges they might encounter, universities shouldn’t be preventing them the opportunity to try.

Throughout all of this, universities need to have a strong, inclusive mindset with student support at the heart. Unless you are proactively including, you are probably accidentally excluding. Many institutions are now rightly looking at how to amend their policies and practices. I hope to see a number of universities step forward and make changes to their processes following consideration of this good practice. Unlock will continue to work with UCAS and institutions to ensure fair admissions policies towards applicants with criminal records.

This was originally published in the Criminal convictions – Good practice guide, which is part of a wider set of resources published by UCAS.

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