Topic briefing

People with criminal convictions

Published 27 July 2020

The issue

People with criminal convictions face a number of barriers in accessing and participating in higher education.

Participation in higher education is beneficial to these students as well as providers, there is emerging evidence that prison education may contribute to better employment prospects after release.

Key facts

  1. Less than 10 per cent of people that receive a criminal record are imprisoned.
  2. People with convictions also often represent other groups who are underrepresented in higher education. For example, some prisoners are also care leavers, from minority ethnic groups or disabled.
  3. 60 per cent of prisoners leave without identified employment, education or training outcome.
  4. People with criminal records can face obstacles to accessing higher education. Those in secure detention facilities face additional issues such as being able to access online information and make applications.
  5. There are a number of challenges relating to the admissions process that can act as barriers to accessing higher education.

Underrepresented groups

The Ministry of Justice’s review of prison education linked prisoners with other groups that are underrepresented in higher education:

  • 24 per cent of adult prisoners report having been in care at some point in their lives, compared with an estimated 2 per cent of the general population.
  • Approximately 25 per cent of the prison population are from a minority ethnic group, compared with 14 per cent of the general population.
  • 42 per cent of adult prisoners report having been permanently excluded from school.
  • Nearly one third of prisoners self-identified as having a learning difficulty and/or disability.

The Lammy Review highlights ‘blind spots’ for some groups - for example the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller population form just 0.1 per cent of the general population but are estimated to account for 5 per cent of male prisoners.


Barriers that people with criminal convictions face in accessing higher education include:

  • a lack of confidence to access and succeed in higher education
  • stigma and discrimination from others
  • possible lack of financial or family support
  • restrictions relating to their offence (for example restrictions relating to use of social media, which can be problematic where students are encouraged to use it for group work)
  • timing - most convictions become non-disclosable after a certain time. However, a young person’s criminal record is likely to still require disclosure at the time when many of their peers go to university
  • enhanced criminal record checks for some courses, which may limit the options available.

Admissions challenges

Challenges relating to the admissions process include:

  • the status of the applicant is disclosed if a prison address is given on an application form
  • admissions staff may not have received adequate training or support regarding applications from this group
  • there can be a lack of transparency regarding how application decisions are reached, and whether these are on academic or risk assessment grounds
  • there may not be an admissions appeals process.
Published 27 July 2020

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