Universities play important roles in understanding and advancing the world in which we live. Universities can nurture amazing talent and aspiration in people who go on to change thinking and shape the world for better. However there are longstanding calls for universities to welcome talent from a broader range of backgrounds and do more to increase social mobility.
One of the theoretical interests that has informed the development of Learning Together, is the intersections between the sort of learning that is individually, institutionally and socially transformative, and the skills, connections and environments that support people to move away from crime. We’re finding that the sorts of community in which people are enabled to learn well – in ways that are transformative – also often fulfil many of the needs and functions that help people to desist from offending. Yet, too often we find that people with criminal convictions are unable to join university communities, or else face substantial obstacles in so doing.
In this blog, I outline the results of some Freedom of Information requests we made to universities in England about their policies and practices for applicants with criminal convictions and, through this data, consider whether our universities could do more to welcome people with criminal convictions.
What did we ask?
We wanted to know how many people who apply to study at university declare they have criminal convictions; whether application levels differ by course; what percentage of applicants with criminal convictions have served custodial or non-custodial sentences; and how many offers universities make to people with criminal convictions. We also wanted to look at different universities’ policies and procedures for responding to the disclosure of criminal convictions. In an attempt to answer these questions we worked with Jacob Dunne (@JacobFreeman) to send 20 Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to ten different pairs of universities (20 universities in total). Each pair of universities was located in the same city or region. We used the University League Tables for 2016 to chose one of each pair, matching one from the top twenty with one from the bottom twenty of the top 100 universities. Sixteen universities responded to our request. In the rest of this blog, we share what we found among those responses, reflecting on current practices and the potential significance of UCAS’ recent announcement to remove the request for declaration of criminal convictions in admissions applications for most higher education courses.
How did universities respond?
Only three universities responded to all 11 aspects of our FOI request. Gaps in responses were often justified by statements that the relevant data was not held centrally, or was not held at all, or that the provision of such data would be more burdensome on the institution than is considered reasonable and so need not be provided to comply with the Freedom of Information Act. In some cases, the provision of detailed information was refused on the grounds that numbers of relevant individuals were so low that publication of the information would risk identifying the students. The different responses and different justifications for lack of responsiveness painted a patchwork picture of disjointed practice.
Despite all 16 universities having policies that made the question of criminal conviction relevant to admission decisions, many universities told us that they did not have records of the number of applications in which convictions were disclosed. The percentage of applicants declaring criminal convictions (in the thirteen institutions which provided this information) ranged from between 5.5 percent and 0.2 percent of total applications. For six of the sixteen institutions, there was a specific caveat in their response to our second request – ‘In the last three academic years (2013-14,14-15,15-16) how many applicants declared criminal conviction(s)?’- because they said many of the declarations were, in fact, in error.
Taking this into consideration, across the 10 institutions who responded to this point only four universities also gave data for how many applicants were successful. Of these four, one only provided these details for graduate and post-graduate applicants. One institution reported that 69% of applicants declaring criminal convictions were successfully admitted, but this appeared rather anomalous because the next highest offered a place to only a seventh of its applicants declaring criminal convictions. Considering that some of those admissions are possibly from applicants who were discovered to have declared a criminal conviction in error, the percentage of successfully admitted applicants with convictions is likely to be still lower than 7% of those who applied and declared their convictions.
Only 3 institutions responded with data about the total number of undergraduate applicants declaring criminal convictions, with one further university supplying only graduate and post-graduate data for applicants with convictions. Each of the three universities to respond declaring the total number of applicants, those who declared convictions and successful candidates within this subset, were in the lowest ten of the top 100 Universities League Table 2016. One of the three had extended offers to over 50% of applicants declaring a criminal convictions (although this included applicants who declared in error). The second made offers to approximately 9% of applicants declaring criminal convictions, and the third offered places to less than 5% of their declaring applicants. Only two institutions, both from the lower part of the universities league table, provided a full response to the number of applicants who had declared spending time in custody. Across these two universities, eight applicants with custodial convictions had applied and six enjoyed offers – a 75% offer-translation rate.
Three universities went to lengths to provide some information on the types of courses that people with convictions tended to apply for. These were provided in the form of spreadsheets in which, in one case, over 270 courses were listed. These figures, potentially, contained multiple applications from one person and so could not reliably reveal whether specific faculties were favoured by prospective students in any one instance. However, there were no faculties that were not represented at all. Applications from people with convictions were evident across wide range of subjects and formats of learning.
What might this mean?
It is difficult to make distinctions about whether the universities at the top of the league tables were more or less accommodating than those at the bottom. This is because the responses to the FOI requests were inconsistent, with Universities refusing to disclose different information for a variety of reasons. There are, perhaps, three conclusions we could arrive at through the data obtained: Firstly, many people who apply to university with a criminal record are rejected. Secondly, there appears to be no standardised way of collating and using the information universities collect about applicants who declare criminal convictions. Finally, applicants declaring criminal convictions do not appear to have any bias towards particular subjects or faculties. This could go some way to illustrating the diversity of talent and drive among people with criminal convictions.
In recent months, a convergence of developments, has prompted a review of how universities manage and communicate decisions around applications from people declaring convictions. Among these, UCAS, the UK’s main universities admissions body, has changed how applications from people with criminal convictions are fielded. Until the most recent application cycle, UCAS application forms included two questions about criminal convictions. The first asked for details of any unspent, relevant convictions, and the second was about enhanced disclosure checks, which may be required for particular courses that include community placements, such as for medicine and teaching. This position has now been altered to remove the first question about criminal convictions from the application. As from the opening of the 2019 application cycle, only the second question will remain part of UCAS’ online application process.
For anyone who is thinking of applying, UCAS’ changes could have some positive, tangible impact. Having made significant efforts to push forward and engage in further or higher education, it will no longer be the case that universities will automatically see an applicant’s criminal convictions merely as a result of receiving an application from UCAS. This would be revealed only if it has specific relevance to the requested course of study. Questions remain about how individual universities will respond to the removal of the overarching request to declare unspent criminal convictions, and our data highlight substantial differences in how engaged individual universities are with these issues and how they are responding. If the positive potential of the UCAS change to limit discrimination on the grounds of previous criminal convictions is to be achieved, the response to our FOI requests suggests further work is needed. To really herald change in this arena it will take more than publicity of the UCAS decision to remove the initial criminal records declaration box. Publicity of this decision may encourage people with convictions to apply to university, but universities will need to build on this by developing policies and practices to guide informed decision making about applications from candidates with previous criminal convictions, and to put in place the rights sorts of support to enable people with criminal convictions to flourish at university. The demonstration of fair and reflexive application, enrollment and support practices could build confidence in, and the perceived legitimacy of, institutions aiming to change social thinking and shape the world for better.
Gareth Evans – Mentoring and Alumni Coordinator – Learning Together Team
 Armstrong, R. and Ludlow, A. (2016) Educational Partnerships Between Universities and Prisons: How Learning Together can be Individually, Socially and Institutionally Transformative. Prison Service Journal, vol. 225, p. 9-17. Crime and Justice, UK.