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1. What’s the problem?

The transformative potential of higher education should be available for all.

People with criminal records can face numerous challenges accessing higher education. Poor university policy & practice alongside existing unfairness in wider society can form barriers to access that can feel overwhelming. We hear from people every day who are left feeling that higher education simply ‘isn’t for them’.

Widening access and participation plans encourage admissions and success for groups of people who are typically underrepresented in higher education. They rarely reference people with criminal records, despite work by both Office For Students and UCAS highlighting the need for support for this group.

Improving access to higher education for people with criminal records is likely to improve access to higher education across numerous widening participation groups (see chapter two for a further exploration of disproportionality in the criminal justice system).

Unlock hears every day from people with criminal records. We believe people want to lead a positive life and when opportunity unleashes their potential they contribute great things. For many, long-term discrimination means the end of a sentence is only the beginning of a life with a criminal record. For people with criminal records, higher education can offer a bridge to a positive future.

The view from Unlock

We operate a helpline that offers specialist criminal records advice. We conducted a review of the helpline for the year 2022-2023 for records relating to higher education and identified a series of common themes and challenges. They mirror what we’ve heard over years of working alongside people applying to higher education with a criminal record.

We noticed that:

  • People feel unsure whether they will be able to access higher education and felt vulnerable asking for guidance. Many feared they would be discriminated against on the basis of their criminal record and worried about the opportunities they might miss.
  • Those who had made an application were not sure what parts of a criminal record they were being asked to disclose. Questions were confusing or did not provide enough detail, so people were left guessing about what information they were expected to share.
  • Many people had received their criminal record as a young person, highlighting the systemic barriers some applicants may have already faced before considering higher education
  • The average length of time since a caller had received their criminal record was 13 years. This is clear evidence of the long-term impacts a criminal record can have, and suggests that more questions might be asked about how relevant this information really is for access to most courses.


People with criminal records can access our helpline confidentially if they choose, so it would not be appropriate for us to share personal stories from our records. Instead, the following are a series of examples of the types of experiences we hear about regularly:

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12 million people have criminal records in the UK. We need your help to help them.

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