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Tell us about … applying to higher education with a criminal record

Applying to higher education can be an exciting and nerve-wracking time, especially if you’ve been out of education for a while. If you have a criminal record, awaiting the decision after disclosing can create even more anxiety.

Unlock would like to hear from you about your experience of applying to higher education.

  • Was it clear why you were being asked about your criminal record?
  • Did you feel you were treated fairly?
  • What was the outcome?
  • Is there anything you’d change about the process?

Let us know at

We will use your responses (anonymously) in our work with higher education providers. We want to make admissions fair.

Read more about our project Unlocking students with conviction.

Learn more about applying to university with a criminal record.

Are you a higher education provider wanting to offer a fair chance to students with convictions?

Your right to be forgotten

Think back to the last time you applied for a job. Did the application include a tick box question on criminal convictions?

Last year Unlock published research showing that three quarters of national employers still ask about criminal records on application forms. This can be off-putting to applicants with convictions and we don’t think it’s necessary for employers to ask this question so early on. Employers are responsible for deleting unnecessary information – whether its from applicants who don’t take the job, or employees who have left. This post looks at how you can request that your data is deleted when it’s no longer needed.

Deleting criminal records information

Where an organisation (known as a data controller) wants to process data about criminal convictions, they must have a lawful basis for doing so under Article 6 and a condition of processing under Article 10 of the GDPR. As a result of GDPR, organisations need to consider what information is necessary, and when. Here we’ll focus on employers but the same rules apply to any organisation that collects personal data – housing providers, colleges or universities, insurance companies. If you’re being asked to disclose information about convictions, you should be able to access the employer’s privacy policy which will tell you how long your data will be retained. Employers should delete information within these timescales.

However, a CIPHR survey found that this is not always happening as it should. 137 HR professionals were asked if they had published retention periods, and whether data was being deleted at the right time.  83% had published retention periods for data, but only 69% had actually deleted the information as they should have. More than half used paper notes or calendar reminders rather than automated systems to let them know when data should be deleted.

Where data protection breaches are proven, enforcement action could have serious consequences for organisations. The 30% of HR teams who admitted they had not deleted data as required were exposing their companies to significant financial penalties – the maximum fine now is £17.5 million or 4% of the company’s annual global turnover (whichever is higher).

What can you do?

The GDPR gives individuals rights over their data – we recently published guidance for individuals on this. When your information is no longer necessary, it should be securely destroyed. This is known as the right to erasure or the ‘right to be forgotten’ and means you have more power to hold data controllers to account. Where might you want to use your right to erasure?

If you have:

  • ticked the box on an application form for a job, for housing or a place at college or university
  • disclosed more detailed information during the recruitment process
  • provided your employer with a DBS certificate
  • disclosed an unspent conviction that has become spent
  • left a job where your criminal record information was collected during recruitment.

If any of these apply to you, consider asking the data controller to #deletemydata. You can download a template here.

Already done this? Tell us about it.

If they are unable or unwilling to resolve your concern, you can raise the matter with the Information Commissioners Office within three months of your last meaningful contact with them.

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 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.

Unlock comment: Positive changes by UCAS to university application process for students with criminal records

Commenting on news that UCAS, the university admissions service, will no longer ask applicants to declare criminal convictions when they apply for most courses, Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, said:

“Unlock very much welcomes the removal of the main criminal conviction box from the UCAS form. This is a significant change that has the potential to help many people with convictions see a university education as a positive way forward in their lives. For far too long, universities have operated arbitrary, unfair admissions practices towards those who ticked the box. Unlock has seen first-hand how people have been put off from applying to university as a result.


“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 shouldn’t feature in their assessment of academic ability.


“Many institutions are now rightly looking at how to amend their policies and practices. We look forward to working with UCAS and individual universities in developing fairer admissions policies towards students with criminal records.”


The move by UCAS was reported in a Guardian article published yesterday. UCAS also posted details on its website.

Unlock is working on university admissions as part of our Unlocking students with conviction project.


Unlock has worked alongside the Prisoners’ Education Trust and the Longford Trust to push for this change by UCAS.

Nina Champion, Head of Policy at Prisoners’ Education Trust, said:

“A week after the Justice Secretary encouraged businesses to employ people with convictions, Prisoners’ Education Trust (PET) warmly welcomees the decision by UCAS to promote second chances when it comes to higher education. The charities PET, Longford Trust and Unlock have been working with UCAS to address some of the arbitrary and discriminatory practices that have gone on in university admissions processes, which have prevented many talented and qualified people from studying at university level.


“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 we can to support them. The chance to go to university helps people to move fully away from crime, build careers and contribute to our communities. Their presence is also hugely beneficial for universities, which gain highly committed students, who help create a more diverse and inclusive learning environment for everyone.”


“We look forward to working with universities at revising their own admissions procedures in light of UCAS’ decision, ensuring fair chances for every student.”


Peter Stanford, Director of the Longford Trust, said:

“The Longford Trust wholeheartedly welcomes the removal of the criminal conviction box from UCAS forms. Among the many obstacles that serving and ex-prisoners have to face when they decide that studying for a degree is the best way of continuing their rehabilitation, this box on UCAS forms has loomed particularly large for many of those we work to support. To many it simply says, ‘we don’t want people like you’ and they decide not to apply. For others, it can be an ordeal by fire, with no consistent practice, even between faculties at the same university, no transparency, and no right to appeal judgements that they feel are unfair. Those who ‘get through’ are left feeling stigmatised, which is hardly a good basis on which to embrace the world of higher education, and share in all the benefits that life on campus offers.


“We would therefore urge that, whatever arrangements universities now decide to put in place around risk assessment for those with criminal convictions, they do so in a manner that learns from the mistakes of the recent past, and enables the widest possible levels of participation”




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