Bloomsbury Institute Proudly Bans the Box for All

Wednesday 8th May 2019

Imagine having to tell a group of strangers the worst thing that has ever happened to you.

That’s what it’s like for most people when they have to disclose their past criminal convictions.

All criminal convictions are complex, nuanced and require context, and having to explain them endlessly to strangers is often too much for many.

When this question was routinely asked of potential students applying for higher education courses, many simply decided not to put themselves through this painful process, withdrawing their application regardless of their chances of being offered a place to study.

Given that those from black and minority ethnic groups are over-represented within the criminal justice system, it stands to reason that a disproportionate number of people from those groups have withdrawn from the higher education applications process.

We think that is unacceptable.

Of course, some people will talk about risk. At the extreme, universities worry about the safety of other students if a rapist or murderer is allowed through their doors. If someone has served their sentence and is now deemed safe to re-enter society, who are we to add further restrictions to their lives?

Much is made of the need to ‘risk assess’ applicants. But those carrying out risk assessments are often not qualified to do so, and it’s a notoriously difficult thing to do even for the experts. Much of the perceived ‘risk’ is, in reality, about protecting institutional reputation – you don’t hear these same institutions talking about the rise in sexual assaults by those who do not have any convictions.

There’s also good evidence to show that education and employment are the best route to successfully re-integrating those with convictions back into society. A large US study showed that students with previous convictions posed no greater risk than those without.  A further study showed that those with convictions who found employment reported a much lower rate of reoffending.

The prevalence of asking about convictions and carrying out DBS checks has, in my opinion, led to an abdication of responsibility from many institutions. It’s easier to say no than to make a proper assessment. To me, the risk argument does not hold water. Universities have an opportunity to make communities safer by offering opportunities for people with convictions to change their lives. Surely as a civilised and responsible society, that is what we want as opposed to just the revenge and retribution we seem fixated with now?

At Bloomsbury Institute London we believe everyone deserves a second chance, and that no-one should be defined by their past. For us, no conviction should not be a life sentence and we exist to unlock potential – which means helping, not hindering, the advancement of every individual with the potential and determination to succeed.

That’s why I’m proud of the fact we’ve Banned the Box for all – for every student who wants to study, and for every person who wants to work for us. We may be the first higher education provider to do this, but I hope and believe that we won’t be the last.

Dr Joe Stevens, Senior Lecturer in Law, Bloomsbury Institute.