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Senator Louise Pratt (centre-left) receives over 6000 petitions calling for the protection of the social work education sector. Photo: Supplied

Social work campaign awaits significant senate decision

The Save Social Work Australia campaign will be anxiously awaiting a decision from the senate today in response to the government’s job-ready graduates package for higher education.

The campaign organisers initially wrote to education minister Dan Tehan about the group’s concerns about the bill. However, the minister did not respond to the group’s letter.

“We write to you to urge the Australian Government to recognise the important role that social workers play in our society and protect the necessary tertiary funding to train job-ready professionals,” the letter said.

“Every day, social workers help Australians in crisis navigate the most difficult times in their lives. Social workers provide critical support for victims of family violence, the homeless and recently helped those affected by the Black Summer bushfires and residents of the towers locked down due to COVID-19.

“We urge the Australian Government to classify and fund social work to accurately reflect the important role social workers play in our society and the unique course requirements involving intensive training placements.”

When the package was initially announced, the costs for social work courses were set to skyrocket to $14,500 per year (double the current amount) and commonwealth contributions would be cut by 91 per cent to $1,100 per year.

While there has been a recent amendment to the job-ready graduates package (creating a new “professional pathway social work” funding band that would improve government contributions), no clarity was given as to what social work units would be covered.

The campaign

In response to these concerns and the education minister's failure to respond, members of the Save Social Work Australia campaign wrote to all 76 senators. As at 2 October, the campaign had sent 77,444 e-letters to senators seeking amendments and clarification that will protect social work education courses.

Last Friday, the group hand delivered a petition signed by 6,500 people to Senator Louise Pratt at Curtin University. Pratt is the Deputy Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Education and Employment, and the group’s cause and determination clearly resonated with her.

"Social workers are critically important to the community and have been on the frontline during COVID-19," she said.

"We should be encouraging people, not penalising people who are committed to serving."

The campaign is underpinned by evidence supporting the need for social workers in Australia’s future. For instance, the need for social workers is expected to grow by 29 per cent by 2024, according to the government’s JobOutlook website.

Save Social Work Australia also provided the following reasons to support the demand for social workers in Australia’s future:

  • Social workers work closely with the healthcare system to provide essential services to those most in need, providing a safety net.
  • Social work actually operates as an allied health profession and had been “historically misclassified”.
  • A June 2020 National Rural Health report listed social work as an allied health profession that plays an active role in improving the health and wellbeing outcomes of regional populations.
  • Social workers played a critical role in supporting those most vulnerable in our community, particularly during the 2019 bushfires and the COVID-19 global pandemic.
  • Rigorous training, including a minimum accredited four-year Bachelor or two-year qualifying Masters degree both with 1000 hours of supervised training placements, is required to become a social worker.

Such intensive training and education requirements provide Australians with first-class support, “but it also means that social work degrees cost more and there is no clarity in the proposed bill that funding for future generations of social workers will be protected”.

Academic and expert views

The campaign has garnered a wealth of support from both academics in those employed in the social work sector. Professor Beth Crisp, President of the Australian Council of Heads of Schools of Social Work, said "we need a guarantee from the Government that funding for social work education will stay in line with other allied health professions into the future”.

Crisp also shared concerns about the amendment mentioned earlier, saying “We also need an answer as to whether 'Professional Pathway Social Work’ funding will apply to all or selected units within social work degree – it’s just not clear."

Professor Donna Chung from Curtin University underscored the importance of bolstering social worker numbers in the future.

“Over the next 5 years there will be a 29 per cent growth in the need for social workers. This won’t be met if fees increase significantly, regional and remote areas will be particularly hard hit and would experience continually high vacancy rates. High vacancy rates place individuals and families at risk,” she said.

"The Government needs to be making it easier to study social work, not harder, as there are high rates of graduate employment.

“Social work has a large number of students who are first in their family to study at university, their opportunities for this rewarding career will be blocked with large fee increases.”

Another supporter of the group’s cause, Aboriginal social worker Will Hayward, highlighted the support social workers provide to the public every day and addressing socioeconomic divides between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians.

"Every day social workers like me provide much needed support and connect vulnerable Australians to healthcare networks,” he said.

“Future Aboriginal Social workers are fundamental addressing socioeconomic barriers adversely hindering Aboriginal people reaching their full potential as Australians.

"Aboriginal Social Workers are essential to culturally secure services which are highly reflective and responsive to vulnerable Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including children and families and the Government needs to recognise this in its classification and funding of social work degrees.”

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