Midlands university risks carrying out ineligible checks

Lawrence contacted us about a post advertised at a university in the Midlands. The job, Head of Business Programmes, involved working with departments within the university and developing relationships with external partners. Lawrence was surprised then to see that the job description said the post would involve an enhanced DBS check. It wasn’t clear why this would be necessary but applicants were warned that any ‘false declarations or any findings from the disclosure could affect the suitability for employment’.

Lawrence says:

‘I contacted Unlock for help as I thought challenging the university myself would make them suspicious. I have a single caution for possession of cannabis eight years ago. I know it has no bearing on my ability to do the job, but I suspected it would be enough to see my application thrown in the bin’.

There was nothing in the job description that indicated the role would be eligible for an enhanced check. Furthermore, the application form only asked about unspent convictions. If Lawrence had not declared his caution on the application but later consented to an enhanced DBS check it would appear that he had made a ‘false declaration’.

Unlock wrote to the university asking them to:

  1. Clarify the level of check required in both job descriptions and application forms
  2. Consider banning the box

In response, the university agreed that the post was not eligible for an enhanced DBS check and amended the job description to reflect this. In recognition that this may have put off some applicants, they also extended the closing date.

Unfortunately, they were unable to commit to banning the box at this stage but we are continuing to work with them and others as we believe universities have an important role in influencing public opinion.

Commenting on Lawrence’s experience, Christopher Stacey, co-director of Unlock, said:

‘Quite often we see universities use the ‘vulnerability’ of their students as a reason to carry out higher level criminal record checks. It’s important to recognise that eligibility for these checks is determined by law and the definition of vulnerable is much narrower than assumed. Safeguarding is important for universities but we’d like to see this made clear in practices that genuinely keep people safe, rather than relying on higher level checks for staff who don’t work directly with students.’


Very few roles at a university will be eligible for an enhanced DBS check. The rules around eligibility are quite strict and HR should be aware that requesting a higher check than the role is eligible for is itself a criminal offence.

In addition, HR and line managers should work together before advertising a role to understand what the risks are and how they can be managed. If it is decided that a DBS check will be required, the level will be determined by the role and the purpose of the check can then be made clear to the applicant. Part of GDPR compliance is being clear to individuals about why their data is being collected.

Finally, all employers should consider whether they can really justify asking about criminal records on application forms. It puts applicants off and exposes the employer to breaching the GDPR by collecting excessive data. Is that really necessary?

Further information

What to consider before asking about criminal records

Everything you need to know about carrying out DBS checks

Thinking of becoming a Ban the Box employer?

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