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UoW giving female inmates learning opportunities

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The University of Waikato is giving inmates at the country’s biggest women’s prison the chance to change their lives through education.

It is working with RAW, the charitable social venture set up by Annah Stretton to work with recidivist female offenders to replace criminal activity with education and work.

The paper, STMGT110 The Entrepreneur, is being taken by 18 inmates at Auckland Region Women's Prison in South Auckland.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Academic Professor Robyn Longhurst has been overseeing the project, and she says it is a circuit breaker for the women.

“Introducing them to another way of being, thinking and imagining themselves in the world, as a person who is educated and can achieve. If even half of the women succeed in passing just this one paper, then it is an enormous achievement.

The pilot is a fully online first-year degree course, which teaching fellow Gina Millar is co-ordinating. The women are all serious repeat offenders, who have been convicted of crimes ranging from attempted murder to methamphetamine dealing.

A lot of them are from lower socio-economic backgrounds, and never finished high school, with ages ranging from 18 to mid-40s. Gina says the course aims to give them the skills to plan, create ideas within a framework, and look at new venture creation using a business model.

By the end of the paper each woman will have a written business plan and the blueprint to bring their ideas to life.

“We are looking into different ways to get them to go back out into society and redirect their skills. Most of them have children, and they want to get them back. They know they need to have a legitimate way of earning money.”

The course is delivered on iPads, which may seem simple but in a prison environment any kind of technology is potentially problematic. All Waikato digital course delivery services are on-line, so the challenge was to provide an online service in an environment which is not only offline, but which actively blocks any kind internet activity.

The iPads are physically removed from the prison once a week, loaded with updated material and assignments are sent back to the Waikato servicer for marking.

RAW founder Annah Stretton says when she first approached the University to partner in developing a higher-level learning platform at the corrections facility her primary goal was to create visibility and opportunity for the women.

“As it transpires, the benefits have been so much richer. Through this stage one paper we have managed to challenge conventional wisdom about what’s possible at an individual and institutional level, disrupted anti-social norms and group dynamics and, best of all, demonstrated the value of diversity in a learning environment.”

So far all of the inmates are not only passing, but achieving to a high standard.

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