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Social work cost hike ‘to drive students away’

Published: 22 June 2020

By Tim Dodd, Higher Education Editor

Welfare sector leaders have ­attacked the Morrison government’s plan for a 113 per cent fee hike for social work degrees, saying the increase will turn young people away from a critical profession where pay is low but quality workers are in high demand.

A spokesman for Education Minister Dan Tehan confirmed on Monday that new students studying social work would pay $14,500 for their degree, which is alongside business, law, economics and humanities courses at the top fee level in the university funding plan announced last ­Friday.

Brotherhood of St Laurence executive director Conny Lenneberg said the $14,500 annual ­tuition fees for a social work degree bore no relationship to future earnings for social workers. “We are forever struggling to employ quality social workers — there’s a huge demand for them and they are not highly paid,” she said.

Anglicare SA chief executive Peter Sandeman said more than doubling the cost of a social work degree, from $6804 to $14,500 a year, would “provide a significant disincentive to young people entering the profession”.

“This will have a significant deleterious impact on the capacity of the non-government sector to support the most vulnerable in our community in the areas of child protection, disability services, homelessness, mental health and suicide prevention — just to mention some of the areas in which we work,” he said.

Legislation to pass the changes must be passed by parliament and he urged the Senate to reject the hike for social work degrees.

Higher demand for social workers is being driven by several factors, including the growth of the NDIS, increasing aged-care needs, growth in aged care and a greater awareness of mental health and child protection.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn are also increasing the need for qualified social workers.

In his speech announcing the new funding plan for university degrees last Friday, Mr Tehan said his aim was to make degrees cheaper in areas of expected employment growth.

“We will also incentivise students to make more job-relevant choices that lead to more job-ready graduates by reducing the student contribution in areas of expected employment growth and demand,” Mr Tehan told the ­National Press Club.

Social work courses are highly vocationally oriented, with structured work experience included in the degree, which aims to make students work-ready when they graduate.

Government data shows that social workers, in the early years after graduation, earn comparable salaries to teachers and nurses, each of which pay only $3700 a year in fees for their degrees.

At the same time as the government is raising the cost of social work degrees, it plans to slash the fees for degrees in clinical psychology — another profession critical for vulnerable people — by 46 per cent from $6804 a year to $3700 a year.

Australian Association of ­Social Workers national president Christine Craik said social workers had been deemed essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the university fee increase for social workers went ahead, she said it was likely there wouldn’t be enough qualified, professional workers to assist vulnerable ­people. “We’ve had royal commissions into aged care, disability, mental health and family violence, and what keeps coming up is you need quality, professional workers in these fields,” she said.

Ms Craik said the AASW was to speak to Mr Tehan’s office about the fees on Tuesday.

First published in The Australian

AASW - Australian Association of Social Workers