New program on course to address rural social work shortage

Published 19 August 2009

bethanyHalf-way through the inaugural year of the ground-breaking course, both students and teachers in the University of New England’s Bachelor of Social Work degree program are excited about its success.

Ninety-two students are enrolled in the new course, with more than 80 per cent of them coming from regions outside the capital cities. “We’re particularly pleased that so many of the students from rural and regional backgrounds aim to return to the regions to work,” said the program’s convener, Dr Myfanwy Maple.

Dr Maple added that, when the students begin their work-place experience in 2011, they will be placed – where possible – in the regions that they come from: “So they’ll already be starting to give back to their local communities,” she said.

She said that the students were particularly enjoying the structure of the course, with its varied units from around the campus feeding into the core social work units. The students themselves confirm this assessment: “It’s a great mixture, while being a very structured degree program,” said Bethany McInnes from Tamworth. (Bethany is pictured here.)

This year, the students are taking units in Psychology, Sociology and Indigenous Studies as well as in Social Work, and in first semester they also took a unit in Politics. “At first we were all a bit hesitant about Politics,” Bethany said, “but then we realised how important it was.”

“The best thing about the course,” said Anna Richards (who also comes from Tamworth), “is that so much of the work we do is related to real life – looking at case studies through a problem-based learning approach. It asks us to think as if we really were working in the field, and where we would go to find the resources we need. It’s not just reading from textbooks.”

The program has a rural focus, with emphasis on Indigenous people and child protection, and is ideally suited to students who have a commitment to assisting families from disadvantaged backgrounds. Anna said she had transferred from Social Science to the four-year Social Work degree program because it offered a specific qualification for employment as a social worker. She added that she aims to work in a rural area.

“I wanted a career where I could work with people,” Bethany said, “and this degree offers so many options.”

Dr Maple said that the student cohort was a mixture of school-leavers and people with a range of experience in related fields. “It’s a nice balance of backgrounds,” she said.

The UNE degree program is one of the few social work degree programs offered by distance education. At least 70 per cent of the initial cohort is studying off campus.

Professor Victor Minichiello, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean of UNE’s Faculty of The Professions, said that he was “extremely pleased with the initial response to the Bachelor of Social Work degree program”, which was “attracting great interest from both school leavers and mature-aged students who are committed to addressing the social inclusion agenda so strongly reflected in government policies at both State and Commonwealth level”.

He said the response fulfilled the prediction of the NSW Minister for Regional Development, Phillip Costa, who, in officially launching the program in March this year, said that it would attract students from both rural and urban locations in large numbers.

“UNE Social Work graduates will soon be joining the workforce and making significant contributions to addressing the shortage of social workers in regional communities in Australia,” Professor Minichiello said.