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Universities must be role models and champions for inclusion in a post-COVID world

Rachel Wells

For the past five years, Dr Marietta Martinovic, a Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Justice at RMIT, has been running the Australian Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, which brings together ‘insiders’ – incarcerated people – with’ outsiders’ – university students – to study together in a prison environment.

The impact on the lives of many of the insiders, who get the opportunity to complete a criminology unit – Comparative Criminal Justice Systems – at RMIT, is profound. The impact on the university students, who get to “see the human-side of incarceration,’ is equally powerful.

Since launching in 2015, more than 320 participants have completed the program and between 70 and 85 of the insiders have gone on to further studies, even though the vast majority of them never finished high school.

Dr Martinovic says the program, which is modelled on a US program, has taught her many things about the role universities can play in creating a better, more inclusive society.

“One of the key aims of the program is to reduce the likelihood of insiders reoffending,” says Dr Martinovic of the program, which now runs across five Victorian prisons.

“By giving them access to this kind of learning, they build their confidence and self-esteem. It gives them opportunities and hope that they can build a better future for themselves.”

At the same time, she says, the outside students develop insights and an understanding of the “human side of incarceration” that teaches them to be more empathetic and inclusive in their own careers and lives beyond university.

“This program prepares university students for life, not just for a career. it makes them better human beings, who are more likely to listen, to hear someone else’s story, and not to impose their own power and authority over other more vulnerable people.”

Dr Martinovic says by supporting such a program, which offers life-changing education opportunities to some of our most vulnerable people, “RMIT is being a really good corporate citizen.”

It is also being a positive role model for its students and fostering students’ own ability to be champions for inclusion in their own careers.

Vicki Smith, RMIT’s Senior Coordinator, Equity and Diversity Partnerships and Projects, agrees that “going out into the community and connecting with people who may not otherwise know our door is open to them is critical if we are going to increase diversity in our enrolments and our community.”

AS part of her role, Ms Smith is involved in the Schools Network Access Program (SNAP) which focuses on enhancing tertiary access and participation for students from low socio-economic communities.

The SNAP partnership reaches 200 secondary schools throughout Victoria and each year hundreds of students from these schools receive an offer to study at RMIT through the SNAP priority access scheme.

In addition, secondary students who attend SNAP schools in metropolitan Melbourne get the opportunity to participate in the I Belong program, where students from years 9-12 can visit RMIT and experience what university life is like.

I Belong is an extremely important program because for a lot of the students, it might be the first time they’ve visited a university,” Ms Smith says.

“Often, no one in their family has ever been to university and so they have little knowledge of what goes on there, so it can seem like a very unknown, other place.”

“But coming on to campus and meeting university students and teaching staff and having a really positive experience can bring about a real shift in thinking to ‘oh hang on, maybe this is something I could do.”

Ms Smith says one of the “silver linings” of COVID-19 has been temporarily moving the program online, which “has opened up opportunities to involve even more students from regional areas” in the program in the future, without the current barriers of distance and cost.

Dr Rachel Wilson, a Senior Lecturer in Media, who has has played a key role in developing RMIT’s ‘Belonging Strategy,’ alongside, Special Projects Director of Communication Design, Bronwyn Clarke, says while providing access to education is crucial, so too is ensuring students and staff feel a sense of belonging and inclusion once their higher education journey begins.

Dr Wilson says the Belonging Strategy. which was created to consider how RMIT could foster a stronger sense of belonging across the University, including through a range of curriculum specific belonging initiatives.

“We have really come to this  strategy with a contention, which we’ve proven over many years of research, that students and staff really want to belong to their program and their discipline and their profession, which is why embedding a sense of belonging into the curriculum and the classroom, in addition to things like clubs and wider university activities, is really important,” she says.

“Belonging is a basic human need… and there’s a lot of evidence from across the world that students’ success is really linked to their sense of belonging. So students who are in  a place where they feel safe and included and can participate fully, are more likely to be engaged and finish their degrees and do very well in their studies.”

We are also “really interested in how we can create belonging as a student attribute.”

“You know, what would it mean for someone to be graduating with skills in building community and belonging? Because, in a post-Covid world, it’s going to be critical to have students and graduates who have a sense of inclusion, who are inclusive citizens and employees.”

RMIT’s Senior Inclusion Manager, Amy Love, agrees universities must be an exemplar and teacher of inclusion for their students.

“Our goals must include pushing the boundaries to role model to our students what is possible in an educational institution, a future that is fairer, equitable and respectful,” she says.

“If a student has skills to be confident… to express their identities, have greater expectations relating to social responsibility and be curious about the world, we will all be better because of that.”