A sense of belonging at University can play a significant role in student success. Yet, many students with criminal records report feeling isolated.
Strong relationships – with fellow students and with an institution as a whole – can encourage confidence, resilience and satisfaction during study. We know that isolation can be a persistent challenge for people with criminal records.
It’s important to destigmatise conversations about criminal records. Despite the fact that 12 million people in the UK have a criminal record, these experiences are not widely understood or discussed. Having open conversations and myth-busting preconceptions of people with criminal records can support students to feel more included.
You might consider publishing a blog post, or adding a day for people with criminal records into your institution’s equality, diversity and inclusion calendar.
”I started to worry about what people would think of me, would they gossip about my conviction, would I be ostracised, would I be ‘watched’ just in case I broke the law again?”
Appoint a named contact
It is obvious from our work with universities that there are some great examples of support being offered to some students with criminal records.
We hear predominantly from staff in criminology and law departments. They explain that students approach them to discuss how their criminal record relates to their studies, and how it affects their higher education experience. Many of the staff that we hear from are welcoming of these conversations, and are happy to support students where needed. However, it appears that none of this work is recorded, offered consistently, or has any resources dedicated to it.
What this tells us is that there is an unmet need for a source of confidential support for students with criminal records in higher education. Criminology and law departments appear to be approached because it is assumed that they are less likely to hold prejudices about criminal records. Conversations about criminal records are normalised in these subject areas, so students feel freer to speak.
However, this model of support requires students to ask for help without knowing if any is available. This requires a high degree of confidence from the student. This necessarily creates barriers for less-confident students or applicants. In addition, this support is contingent on staff capacity, and has no formal process for data protection. So, this poses a series of questions;
- What about those students who don’t feel confident trying their luck?
- Who else would benefit from non-judgmental support?
- Does this informal system mean that only those who are studying a related field (eg criminology) can access support?
- How can institutions record their support for these students, without knowing which staff are offering it, or how often?
Our recommendation is to appoint a named contact for students with criminal records. This post could look similar to the model for care-experienced people, with an ongoing offer of support throughout study. Or, it could be more informal than this, and offer a simple signposting service for students.
Fundamentally, what a named contact can offer is a roadmap through other services in your institution. We know that many students would like to access careers, wellbeing or academic support services, but are deterred by fear of discrimination if they have to disclose their criminal record. A named point of contact can provide a confidential means for students to find out how their data will be treated by other higher education services.
The important thing to note here is that this some of this work may already be happening in most institutions. But the informal nature of this provision means that it will not reach all student groups. This informality means that staff are not recognised for the contribution they are making. Additionally, there are no overarching policies to guide staff on conducting this work with regard to data protection.
“We [in the criminology department] have always offered support for students with criminal records throughout their studies , because we know how isolating it can be to study after release [from prison]. But, this work is informal – we do it because we are passionate about it, we aren’t assigned any time for this in our roles. So when our academic timetables are busiest, student support gets deprioritised and can be inconsistent”
Opportunities to use their experience positively
We also hear from some students who wish to use their experience of the criminal justice system positively. It may be valuable to consider what you can offer in this context.
You might, for example, explore developing a case study of that student’s experience of applying to and studying at your institution. We know that this can be a powerful way to support prospective applicants or other students to feel less isolated, to hear from someone who has navigated similar challenges. Or, you might consider how a student with a criminal record can co-design resources or programmes hoping to support other students with criminal records.
Support in numbers
It is unlikely that any institution will be able to know exactly how many of their students would benefit from this support. You may have a rough idea of numbers if you ask about criminal records at application. Or, some providers may gather this information for diversity monitoring purposes.
However, these methods of collection may not provide a full picture. You may only be asking for applications to regulated courses. Or, students may not feel confident declaring their criminal record in diversity monitoring forms. Other students will have spent records and are studying subjects for which they did not need to disclose this.
So, students in these groups may not be known to the provider as a person with a criminal record. Yet, their criminal record may comprise an important aspect of their experience of other disadvantage. This might mean that students are not accessing support for a wide range of needs, not just those which exclusively relate to their criminal record.