3 February 2021

We need social workers more than ever

| Jenny Kitchin
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Woden Community Service CEO Jenny Kitchin.

Woden Community Service CEO Jenny Kitchin says the ACT needs social workers now more than ever. Photo: Supplied.

As a diehard social worker, I find the Federal Government’s intention to double university fees for social work, as part of restructuring the higher education sector, incredibly concerning and very short-sighted.

A social work degree provides one of the soundest bases for students wanting to work in the human services and helping profession. The primary tenet of social work is viewing people as part of a much broader social system. This lends itself to always keeping an eye on the impact on people of bigger picture issues such as income security, housing and social connection.

Community service agencies, such as Woden Community Service (WCS), are always looking for social workers to join our teams and we can never get enough of them. Whether these social workers are students, graduates or have years of experience, they bring so much to the work we do.

Our services cover homelessness, mental health, family support, youth engagement and disability support. We would love to have social workers across all of our programs, but rarely do. At any one time we have, on average, about three per cent of our workforce with a social work degree.

The community and government sectors constantly try to recruit more social workers. Invariably there are not enough to fill the many positions we could offer them. We should be looking at ways to attract people to the profession, not deterring them.

An increase in tertiary fees is highly likely to dissuade potentially great social workers from taking up study in this valuable and highly sought after profession.

The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) says: “Social workers have been deemed essential workers during the current COVID-19 pandemic. We have had recent and ongoing royal commissions into aged care, disability, mental health and family violence, and what keeps coming up is that quality, professional workers are required in these fields.

“Social workers are essential, frontline services that are currently under-resourced, with a predominantly female workforce. A disproportionately large higher education debt for a profession that is there to assist the most vulnerable in society – and which is not a high-earning profession – is highly problematic.”

A social work degree can equip a graduate for a career in so many areas: policy development, counselling, frontline support and management, among others. Across the community, government and sometimes in the corporate sector, you will find trained social work people. Their focus on social justice and a desire to see people’s vulnerabilities as a product of a wider social system inevitably adds value to a host of workplaces.

When I did my social work degree, I had to go to Sydney to study as it wasn’t offered in Canberra. On returning to Canberra, many of us worked long and hard to support the establishment of a social work school at the Australian Catholic University (ACU).

Since then, many ACU graduates and those from other institutions have built up the social work workforce across Canberra. The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the need for welfare support across the community. While this work can be done by workers with a wide variety of training, it’s social workers who can fill a key niche.

There appears no rationale behind the government’s arbitrary proposal to increase university fees for social work. During a time when support for vulnerable people is at its highest, why would the government make this decision?

Social workers, like many other trained people in the welfare sector, have so much to offer. Depriving students of a career choice that can lead, and support, our community is very worrying.

We can only hope this is not supported when our politicians get to vote on this issue.

Woden Community Service offers a wide range of services to the Canberra community, including food relief; mental health support; child, family and youth support; and disability services. If you or someone you know requires support, call WCS on 02 6282 2644.

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