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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.


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