News that Ucas is removing the requirement for applicants to declare if they have relevant unspent convictions when applying to university is a significant step forward. It recognises how, for the past two decades, access to higher education in the UK for people with a criminal record has been perceived as very difficult and has deterred many people from even applying.
The move from Ucas 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 to indicate that they have a previous criminal offence. Unlock, a charity for people with convictions where I’m co-director, has seen first-hand how people have chosen not to apply to university as a result of this box. The higher education sector now has a unique opportunity to question whether criminal records should feature at all in admissions.
Most European universities do not ask about criminal records and neither do the 23 state universities in California or the 64 institutions in the State University of New York system. Research from the US has found no evidence that admitting people with criminal convictions leads to a higher rate of crime on campus. It is also consistent with the ban the box campaign to remove the question about criminal records from job applications that is spreading among employers. In a paper Unlock has published this week, we bring together new research and 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.
It’s important to understand why Ucas has dropped the need for applicants to declare relevant unspent convictions; it has recognised that the question at the application stage could deter people from applying, and wanted to reaffirm that higher education is open to everyone.
What can universities do to be consistent with this message? 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 the majority of institutions to decide not to ask about criminal records for admissions purposes for most courses. Criminal record disclosure (of, say, certain recent offences) may feature in other parts of the university experience, such as when applying for university accommodation, but that’s further down the line and a separate process from that of admissions. It’s also unclear, in light of GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018, what lawful basis universities would have for requesting criminal record details for admissions purposes for most courses.
In considering concerns about people recently convicted of serious offences, the role of others outside universities is important. While both those in prison and those serving sentences in the community represent the minority of potential applicants with a criminal record, criminal justice agencies should be involved in the decision-making phase because of their own responsibility to both the individual and the wider public. Prison and probation staff are experts in risk assessments so are best placed to manage risk, and may in specific situations share information with an institution. Universities shouldn’t try to do the same job simply based on what information the individual provides.
Questions about past criminal records may be needed at some stage in the process for courses that involve regulatory requirements or placements that mean that enhanced disclosure and barring service (DBS) checks are needed. Medicine courses are an example, where active placements in the profession are required. However, for these types of courses, the process of criminal record disclosure can be done after a student has been accepted on their academic merit. A lot more work is needed to better understand what the specific professional or regulatory requirements are for certain courses. The vast majority of courses won’t require placements, and only a small proportion of people with a criminal record are barred from regulated activity. Any assessment of a criminal record for these purposes should include targeted questions relevant to the course.
Work remains to be done to ensure that there is a proportionate approach to assessing the relevance of the applicant’s criminal record. It’s a sad fact that enhanced DBS checks can reveal cautions and convictions that are decades old and could easily be ruled out as irrelevant for most courses. However, if rejection is on balance quite possible, a face-to-face meeting with the individual to find out more information is crucial to ensure that a fully informed assessment can be made. Throughout all this, universities need to have a strong, inclusive mindset. Unless you are proactively including, you are probably accidentally excluding.
Many institutions are now rightly looking at how to amend their policies and practices. We are working with Ucas and others to support this work, and I hope to see a number of universities step forward and make changes to ensure fair admissions policies for students with criminal records.
Christopher Stacey is co-director of Unlock, a charity for people with convictions.