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2. 2. The chilling effect

People with criminal records can be discouraged from exploring higher education long before the point of application.

What is the chilling effect?

For many, having a criminal record can feel shameful. Societal attitudes to criminal records can exacerbate this feeling of shame. This attitude is evident in negative press coverage and discriminatory policies from employers, housing providers, insurers and universities.

This messaging is pervasive and can lead people to internalise an expectation of failure. Seeking new employment, or opportunities for personal development, can feel pointless. Many assume that they will be judged purely on the basis of their criminal record, rather than for their skills, character or intrinsic value.

The experience of disclosing a criminal record can be embarrassing at best, and retraumatising at worst. The difficulty of disclosing a criminal record does not necessarily correlate with the seriousness of the original offence. We hear regularly from people who avoid disclosure for relatively minor infractions such as not paying bus fares or petty theft.

For some people, the period in their lives in which they received a criminal record was especially challenging. For many, a criminal record is related to a time in which they struggled with debt, experienced challenging relationships with drugs or alcohol, or were suffering abuse.

In general, open conversations about criminal records are rare. This can mean that those who hold them feel that they are alone. We know this is not the case; roughly one in six people in England and Wales have a criminal record.

It is understandable, therefore, that many people avoid situations in which they may have to disclose or contextualise their criminal record.


“The main one is embarrassment – it has put me off going for certain jobs and voluntary positions. Even though I know it shouldn’t count against me I don’t want to put myself through an awkward situation of having to go over a single incident that happened in my youth.”



Why does this matter in higher education?

We know that the chilling effect can discourage people from considering higher education. People with criminal records report assuming that higher education simply ‘isn’t for them’. This can all happen before someone even considers an application. For those who receive a criminal record in their youth, this assumption starts during their compulsory education years.

For those who do explore their higher education options, the process of application itself can be discouraging. A lack of clear, direct information for applicants with criminal records can make the application process a deterrent.

We know that many people assume that they will have to disclose their record in their application, but can’t find any information about this process. Prospective applicants are left wondering how the information will be received, and how it might be assessed. Applicants feel uncertain how their criminal record might affect both their access to, and their success during study.

Prospective applicants report feeling that their academic achievements will be considered secondarily to an assessment of their character, because they have a criminal record. Disproportionality in the criminal justice system can mean that applicants are navigating multiple, complex barriers of discrimination. We know that this means many applicants choose not to apply to higher education in an act of self preservation.

We refer to this chilling effect at various points throughout this toolkit. There are practical and simple ways to avoid posing this barrier to prospective applicants. Higher education providers should first ensure that they give information that is direct and accessible for people with criminal records. It should explain if, when and how a criminal record may affect access to that institution.

Higher education providers should make clear that people with criminal records are welcome. If there are instances in which a particular criminal record would pose an unnavigable barrier for access or success on certain courses, this should be clearly explained too.

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