Guest blog: Bloomsbury Institute becomes the first higher education institute to Ban the Box for staff and students

Bloomsbury Institute London (formerly the London School of Business and Management) has become the first higher education institute in the UK to Ban the Box for students and staff. 

Founded in 2002, Bloomsbury Institute is built around an academic community that values diversity, curiosity and hard work and they dedicated to welcoming anyone who has the potential to succeed. In this guest blog, Senior Lecturer in Law Dr Joe Stevens explains why this matters:

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 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within the criminal justice system, it stands to reason that a disproportionate number of people from those groups have withdrawn from the higher education applications process.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 and 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. 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 the criminal justice system has deemed them safe to re-enter society, who are we to add further restrictions to their lives?

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. Studies from around the world show lower rates of reoffending for those who find good quality employment – higher education is key. 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 look at the bigger picture. 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, a conviction should not be a whole 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 will only ask about criminal records where there is a legal need to do so. We may be the first higher education provider to do this, but I hope and believe that we won’t be the last.

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