Social Work degree program to address rural need

Published 10 July 2008

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The University of New England is stepping forward to address the current serious shortage of social workers in rural and regional Australia.

UNE is introducing a degree program in social work that will capitalise on the University’s regional location, and its expertise in preparing graduates for professional practice in rural areas.

The first students in UNE’s Bachelor of Social Work program will be enrolled at the beginning of next year. The course will be available to both on-campus and distance-education students.

The program will be unique in its focus on the practice of social work in rural areas. “It builds on UNE’s strength in providing rural-focused professional training in related and complementary fields including medicine, nursing and criminology,” said Professor Victor Minichiello, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of UNE’s Faculty of The Professions. “It is grounded on the philosophy that ‘those who are trained in the bush stay in the bush’.”

Professor Minichiello said that the new UNE program would prepare graduates for any professional social work position – in either government or non-government agencies or community services – while maintaining its special focus on rural areas, including Aboriginal communities.

Professor Alan Pettigrew, the Vice-Chancellor of UNE, said that the “strong rural focus” of the course represented “another major contribution that UNE will make to addressing critical workforce shortages in rural and regional Australia”. “We have received tremendous support from social workers – and agencies that employ social workers – in our area,” he said.

“The development of this new interdisciplinary Bachelor of Social Work program has been facilitated by the recent restructure of the University that has created opportunities for academic disciplines to work together,” Professor Pettigrew explained. “The accreditation body – the Australian Association of Social Workers – has specifically mentioned the interdisciplinary team approach as one of the obvious strengths of the program.”

Among the disciplines contributing to UNE’s social work program will be Counselling, Social Science, Law, Psychology, and Indigenous Studies.

Ros Giles, a reviewer of social work programs for the Association and Chair of its National Practice Standards Committee for Social Work, visiting UNE last week as part of the accreditation process, said the UNE program would “complement the current range of programs across Australia with its rural focus, and help in developing the rural workforce”.

She said that it was currently “impossible” to fill many of the positions for social workers in rural agencies, and that “training locals to stay local will address that”.

Professor Minichiello said the commonly-held view that rural communities are more socially cohesive than urban communities was – in general – “a myth”. “In rural communities the population is more widely spread and, as a result, social networks are more difficult to rely on,” he said. “The higher suicide rate is an indication of this.

“And, considering the likelihood of increasing economic difficulties, the need for social work services in rural communities will be enormous.”

A PHOTOGRAPH of Professor Alan Pettigrew (right) and Professor Victor Minichiello with Dr Myfanwy Maple, the Course Coordinator for the Bachelor of Social Work degree program, can be seen by clicking on the image displayed here.