Opinion: We should make higher education accessible for people with convictions, not deter them from applying

By Ian D. Marder, Ciara Bracken-Roche, Joe Garrihy, Claire Hamilton, Gemma Lynch and Rose Ryan Maynooth University

The overwhelming majority of us have committed a crime at some point in our lives. If you were lucky enough not to be caught, you probably never need to worry about how your indiscretions might affect you in the future.

However, the experience can be rather different for those who were caught. Criminal records present a barrier to employment, housing and education, despite their role in helping people stop offending. The stigma following you is even stronger if your conviction led to imprisonment, which is more likely if you come from a marginalised group. This is why campaigners globally promote 'Ban the Box’ and similar initiatives so that employers, universities and other services do not ask applicants to disclose convictions unnecessarily.

In Ireland, Unlocking Potential aims to tackle one piece of this puzzle by making higher education more accessible for people with convictions. In February 2020, RTÉ viewers were captivated as James Leonard told Tommy Tiernan of his experience overcoming addiction and imprisonment to complete a Masters in Criminology at UCC. Our podcast series includes interviews with numerous students who similarly excelled in their degrees after convictions or prison.

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While these cases show how life changing higher education can be, unfortunately they are anomalies. Most people still enter and leave prison without a Leaving Cert – never mind believing that they could pursue a degree.

Higher education institutions do not do enough to help those with convictions onto courses that could reduce reoffending, transform their thinking and open the doors that would enable them to contribute positively to society. Some retain outdated policies, requiring applicants to disclose convictions that are irrelevant to the courses they wish to study. This deters people with convictions from applying, as they fear rejection at the first hurdle.

This is why Unlocking Potential is needed. Some of us are criminologists who produce evidence to help policymakers prevent crime and reduce barriers to reintegration. Others of us work in access, helping students from disadvantaged communities see university as a realistic prospect. Our mutual interest lies in ensuring that convictions are not barriers to a degree.

People who are more likely to be targeted by the police and treated harshly by the courts come from the same disadvantaged groups that are less likely to access higher education

Higher education institutions requiring blanket disclosures may believe this keeps staff and students safe. Yet the international research provides no evidence to suggest that students with convictions are more likely than others to commit offences on campus. In fact, the criminal justice system has already deemed that they are suitable to engage in community life, an assessment that third-level institutions need not and cannot replicate. Given that, for most students, their criminal history is irrelevant to their course, universities and college also risk breaching GDPR laws by attempting to do so.

Moreover, convictions are not distributed equitably. People who are more likely to be targeted by the police and treated harshly by the courts come from the same disadvantaged groups that are less likely to access higher education, such as people from deprived areas, Travellers and other ethnic minorities. By creating barriers to higher education, convictions perpetuate this inequality. This is why the next National Access Plan (2022-2026) must include people with convictions as a target group.

Society, too, would reap the rewards of a fair approach to admissions. Despite populist journalism and political rhetoric decrying the provision of services for 'criminals’, the relationship between education and reduced rates of recidivism is strong, resulting in less crime and fewer victims. In other words, our system can permanently exclude those who commit offences from society, or it can support them in ways that make future offending less likely, but it cannot do both.

As we learn more about the struggles faced by the entirely innocent families and children of the people we imprison – who often lose the main breadwinner in their home as a result – it is clear that enabling more people to undertake degrees can have a direct benefit in communities. It should not require a desperate shortage of labour, or a widespread belief in conspiracy theories before policymakers see the economic benefits of an inclusive workforce, and the social benefits of an educated populace.

Fair admissions to higher education can help ensure that the talent from all sections of Irish society is effectively mobilised. Third level institutions should develop bespoke, transparent policies that encourage applications from people with convictions, and allocate resources to support them throughout their degrees. They have a social responsibility to widen participation and engage all sections of our community.

We can also learn from progress elsewhere. In the UK, for example, UCAS (which is similar to the CAO) has removed questions about convictions from its application form (see its good practice guidance and information for applicants), while many universities have signed a Fair Admissions Pledge not to require the unnecessary disclosure of convictions.

Higher education institutions in Ireland should commit to review and develop their approach to applicants with convictions, in partnership with each other and the justice sector. This will help us reduce stigma, change policies and cultures and diversify the third-level student population, benefitting those individuals, and society as a whole.

The Unlocking Potential project is funded principally by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's Public Service Innovation Fund, with further financial support provided by partner organisations including the Probation Service, Irish Prison Service, Maynooth University Innovation Lab, Pathways Centre and Irish Penal Reform Trust.

Dr. Ian D. Marder is Assistant Professor of Criminology at the School of Law and Criminology at Maynooth University. Dr. Ciara Bracken-Roche is Assistant Professor of Criminology at the School of Law and Criminology at Maynooth University. Dr. Joe Garrihy is Assistant Professor of Criminology at the School of Law and Criminology at Maynooth University. Prof. Claire Hamilton is Head of Criminology and Professor of Criminology at the School of Law and Criminology at Maynooth University. She is also Chair of Unlocking Potential. Gemma Lynch is Outreach Officer on the Maynooth University Access Programme Outreach Team, with particular responsibilty for DEIS schools and the Mountjoy-Maynooth University Partnership. Dr. Rose Ryan is Director of Access at Maynooth University with responsibility for leading strategic change in relation to access and widening participation in higher education.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ