Boxed In? Applying to university with a criminal record

The road to graduation is a challenging one, but many ex-prisoners face significant obstacles to simply starting out. We speak to three of our learners, who hold four BAs, three MAs and one-and-a-half PhDs between them, about how a ticked box can threaten to stall an academic career before it has begun, and cause difficulties even when study is underway. 

Jason Warr – BA in Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method; criminology-related PhD

"I slept in my car after I was refused accommodation." 

Jason completed a number of philosophy-based Open University courses in prison, and used credits earned through these as entry-level qualifications to apply to university after release. He disclosed his criminal record on his UCAS application and was then contacted for further information about his conviction. After supplying this he was rejected by all six universities to which he had applied.

Jason had, as an added measure, written separately to the heads of each of the departments he was applying to explaining his background, supplying samples of work and indicating what benefits he could bring to a department. Shortly afterwards, he heard back from a professor at a Russell Group London university offering him a place.

Jason encountered more difficulties when it came to accommodation. A week before he was due to start there, the university retracted its offer of accommodation (usually provided to all first-year students as part of the admissions contract) on the basis that they felt Jason’s background meant he posed a risk to others. Jason was forced to find accommodation in London at very short notice and with no help from either the university or a criminal justice agency. The university eventually agreed to compensate Jason for the financial hardship caused by this decision, but did not reverse their decision.

The university press office also asked Jason to adopt a pseudonym for his period of study and asked him not to discuss his history with peers or to have any contact with the media.

After graduating Jason was admitted to study a Masters in criminology without any problems, but he again met hurdles when it came to securing accommodation. His Oxbridge college refused to house him, and he spent the first three weeks living out of his car before departmental staff secured him temporary accommodation whilst the student liaison intervened with the Dean of the College.  

Since leaving university, Jason says he has applied for 800+ jobs but has only received three interview requests. One of which was from Lincoln University, where he now holds a lectureship. Even here, he had to wait six months before taking up his post while the police first obstructed and then completed an enhanced DBS check.

Jason believes students should not be forced to disclose criminal records at the early application stage, but should be asked to notify the university separately at a later date.

“We should do away with blanket rules of disclosure, and there should be more understanding and less risk aversion among universities,” he says. “At the moment the attitude towards students with criminal records seems to be based on subjective experience – only once a university has had a positive experience with one individual are they are likely to accept more people with similar backgrounds.”

Tariq – BSc Politics and International Relations and MA Law, currently undertaking a law-related PhD

"The university withdrew my offer after a visit from probation."

After serving his prison sentence, Tariq was accepted to study politics at a London University. However, after the university was approached by the police and probation service, the offer was suddenly withdrawn.

“It was all very frustrating,” says Tariq. “They allowed me to put my foot through the door only to slam it shut. What made it worse was that I wasn’t given any explanation, but was left to assume it was based on my past conviction.”

Tariq unsuccessfully challenged the decision. It was ultimately a personal connection who put him in touch with a senior professor at another London university. The professor, (“a most wonderful man”), then organised the application process from inside, including arranging meetings between staff and police.

“The staff here, and some probation officers, have been very encouraging and supportive,” says Tariq. “But I’m aware that this whole experience has been due to a chance encounter, otherwise I have no idea what I’d be doing now. Universities seem most concerned with protecting their reputations, which is understandable, but I wish they were honest for their reasons in turning people down. Who knows who else may have been put off for good.”

Junior Smart – Degree in youth work; Master’s in youth crime and criminology

“A staff-member disclosed my criminal record.”

Junior was invited to interview for a place at a university in Greater London through contacts made through the youth work diploma he was taking at the time. He was therefore able to bypass the usual application process and had not been asked to disclose his criminal record at the point of entering university.

However, Junior later experienced problems when the university insisted that he provide his passport, which was still in possession of the Home Office.

Junior says: “At one point this was raised by a staff member when I was in a seminar. I took him aside to explain that I didn’t have my passport because I’d been in prison recently. He then repeated this really loudly so the whole class heard. I stormed out - I was so upset. In youth work we are told that confidentiality is everything, so I felt it was really unprofessional and potentially damaging for him to behave like that.”

One of Junior’s course mates complained about the incident. After that, says Junior “the university was really keen that I didn’t raise it as an issue and I didn’t have to disclose again”.

Junior is now working at the charity St Giles Trust, leading its gangs intervention project. Here he has seen difficulties faced by some of his clients, including for example a young woman with a drink driving conviction whose university application was refused after a DBS check.

“She came to us really upset. I challenged the university based on the fact that, low and behold, their policy ‘discouraged discrimination’,” says Junior. “I pointed out this girl was convicted of a one-off offence, and would be no more likely to taint a university’s reputation than any other student. They agreed to interview her and later she was offered a place there.”

A spokesperson for UCAS says universities are autonomous in the operation of their admissions processes and policies, and the "considerations made about an applicant will differ across the sector". However, it has recently worked with the Supporting Professionalism in Admissions programme (SPA) to create guidelines for universities to follow to ensure people applying with criminal convictions are considered fairly. This good practice guide can be seen here.

Going forward, says the spokesperson, "UCAS is undertaking a wider range of activities, including training for the sector, enhancements to our information and advice and collaborating with charities that represent individuals with criminal convictions. As part of our wider technological developments, we are also reviewing how the questions relating to criminal questions are positioned within UCAS Apply to ensure applicants are able to respond appropriately and in an informed manner."