This is the long version of an article appearing in the upcoming issue of Agenda, NTEU's women's journal.
By Justine O’Sullivan, Social Work Clinical Coordinator at UWS, and NTEU NSW Women's Action Committee member.
The germ for this article began with a group of women who expressed concerns on what seen as the significant but largely unacknowledged pressures being experienced by participants in professional courses of study within the tertiary sector. It seemed that there was a shared concern but different perspectives in evidence.
These professional course pressures were being noticed by all those involved: those teaching into the courses; those successfully completing the required components typically beyond the lecture hall; and those designing and resourcing sufficient quality opportunities to meet the demand. Beyond this there were also pressures being experienced by the organizations providing the professional experiences as well. We began exploring this pressure zone by considering the shared experiences of women involved in the delivery of ‘professional courses’ offered within tertiary education.
The term ‘professional courses’ refers to courses with a significant study and workload of professional experience built into meeting the requirements of the undergraduate course. Successful completion of these requirements leads to the award of a degree that also acts as a professional qualification.
These courses are designed to prepare people to enter the workforce at a graduating level of confidence and competence in the performance of those professional skills identified for each of those professions in addition to the graduating attributes expected of all successful graduands. Our enquiry was focused on those courses educating graduates to enter the feminised industries of Nursing, Teaching, Social Work, Community Welfare, Psychology, Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, Medicine and similar.
There are however marked differences between entering highly commercialized sectors such as engineering and the law compared with entering service sector industries - often highly feminised workforces and further, dogged by being perpetually under-funded areas by government, leading to significant inequities in pay and conditions in comparison with the commercial sector. In this category are health, education and welfare service sectors. Interestingly tertiary qualifications in child care, which is seen as a highly commercialized sector, and yet this has not led to a reduction in concerns about pay and conditions, so this broad categorization may need further development in order to understand and work to challenge these pressures.
The provision of health, education, welfare and child care services by these organisations – and these graduates - are also notably focal points of how a society generates social justice for its citizens.
An initial view
Women involved in the areas identified above are concerned about the pressures impacting on these professional courses. The high level of demand and the low level of resourcing leads to serious questions being asked as to the quality of educational practices and experiences.
Our initial assessment is that this perception of a quality-gap is due to an entrenched level of under-resourcing from University management across the country and the inadequate recognition by federal bodies funding the universities to provide these courses.
Let’s take a look at the different participants in this pressur-ed ‘pact’! Firstly, from the Students perspectives, what else do we need to know? The people who often enrol in these courses - Community welfare, social work, nursing, education, human services, psychology, etc - are often Women!
Women, who are not always but often the breadwinners and carers in their families, find it extraordinarily difficult to make available sufficient time to study successfully and further to take up the extra load placed on their lives to meet the requirements of the professional practice components. These components are typically unpaid, these requirements are highly demanding.
Consider the following: 30% of students (UWS Homepage, 2011) are working more than 20hrs per week. What happens for their basic survival needs when they need to take significant blocks of time to meet professional experience requirements that do not attract remuneration? Although Nursing and Education attract reductions to HECS fees, other professional courses do not. Students give up paid work to do the professional practice component and then… going onto what is often low-paid work once graduated! The demands of becoming part of this service sector workforce are seem to be excessively onerous. Does it need to be so unsupportive?
Academics involved in teaching into these professional courses anecdotally identify the following issues. The unique nature of individual students engaging in a wide range of different professional experiences often across several contexts means that there are assessment and support requirements for each individual student. In addition, each location where those professional experiences are taking place requires a ‘duty of care’ and a collegial monitoring and responsiveness by the academic. This means a higher workload for each student cohort coupled with time intensive systems to be managed. The opportunities for research probably exist only in a tiny market amongst that individual profession. Given this higher workload, there is also a lack of opportunity to engage other academic staff and similarly it becomes a struggle to make time available to take up professional development leading to difficulty in demonstrating meeting the traditional academic range of criteria suitable for promotional opportunities. Increasingly higher numbers of students are being enrolled in these courses without the concomitant increase in resourcing this complex area of educational practice. Given this context within the tertiary sector the other dynamic is that it is highly competitive between the universities to locate and nurture quality educational experiences for an ever-increasing numbers of students being enrolled in these units;
In summary then what often happens is that the role of academic in the provision of professional practice educational experiences is seen as a 'poison chalice', particularly in the current environment that is the Australian tertiary sector.
There is a need to explicitly know more about the ways pressures on academic within these courses are being experienced. For example: Some report pressure to reduce direct teaching hours: from 3hrs small group workshops x 13 weeks reduced to 1x2hrs lecture for 13 weeks & 1hr on-line for 13 weeks. Most professional courses argue against lectures being the primary way students are introduced to professional practice. The pressure to introduce on-line courses in what would formally have been professional skills workshops involving smaller groups of students are a particular example of this. The smaller groups in the particular area of professional skills development are seen as generating distinct benefits for more effective practice once working in the sector are seen by University management as leading to bigger casual budgets.
At every university and every program general staff appear to have been allocated a diverse range of responsibilities with respect to professional courses and their practice components. This in itself is both a difficulty and a benefit. Historically, the growth of each professional program at individual universities may have taken a very specific form in that particular local context and due to the high intensity of the workload and straddling academic, administrative and external professional accrediting bodies, as it does, this accumulation of push-pull factors seem to defy plans to reorganise or stream line the administration of these professional course experiences.
There is a particular complexity generated by bringing in practitioners with a professional qualification – either as general staff or as academic staff - to manage the professional course practice components and to work closely with other general staff who have a career as administrators, albeit without those particular professional qualifications. The staff in these situations experience different pressures and seek to institute different priorities. The general administrative staff are expected to respond to the requirements of the professional associations as well as those of their university masters.
As yet we do not know enough about the concerns of the professional practitioners who are staff in the organizations that host students on their professional experiences. Some are paid to take students however, many are not! Some others have previously been in workplaces where someone else was paid to work with students – Nurse preceptors - but are currently experiencing changes in these systems and reduction of resources available for organizations to educate students on site. It is unclear how the quality of these professional experiences can be enhanced whilst there is not a uniform recognition of the workers in these host organizations as educators. e.g. in Hospital wards, fewer nurse preceptors are provided leading to staff incorporating student teaching into their work in an ad hoc fashion.
In social work and community welfare, staff have typically not been paid to take on the role of student educator. As identified by the ASU campaign for fair pay, this sector’s workforce are largely underpaid, taking on the role of student educator continues to be unpaid, albeit occasionally being part of some people’s position description to support an organisation’s staff establishment in their professional development.
An Example of what is happening inside many educational units within the university sector:
Federal funding inequities exist in courses within same educational unit. Professional course funding remains insufficient to support the more intensive level of contact required to ensure quality learning experiences for students. External forces – for example professional associations responsible for accrediting universities to host that professional course - are seen as dictating the business environment for University to the micro level of School budgets. These external forces having such an impact are seen as an exercise in the power of the Professions. A chasm is being created between the resourcing of profession based and discipline based courses such as Sociology, Criminology, etc.
Two Professional courses within the same Educational unit having different resourcing, simply due to one professional association being more powerful than another in dictating terms for course accreditation to the university.
New issues keep arising as each institution in the clambering to engage the professions into their institution. Thus in an effort to gain market share universities undermine the skills and knowledge of Academics. For example:“Professors of Practice” being integrated into the Academic staff pay structure, without meeting Academic performance criteria.
Slow erosion of face to face hours over the years, experienced as less and less opportunity to engage students through feedback and critical reflexivity to build competence and confidence in their professional skills. Indeed, Academics have been asked to make further cuts to ‘f2f’ through using blended learning in order to meet the costs of meeting professional accreditation requirements. Professional associations in this instance actually reduced the educational quality of the course.
There seems to be NO link between the numbers of students, resources and staffing – why is this so?
One wonders what might be priorities for unions to take up a role to more effectively support where these graduates are employed as well as those unions in tertiary education and those professional associations seeking to dictate terms for the tertiary sector in offering the professional courses.
e.g. Australian Services Union, Teachers Federation, Nurses Association?
Some suggestions that arose in the Women's Action Committee Conference held in August this year were to:
Interested in sharing your thoughts? Let’s talk! Email Justine and we can have a discussion about ways forward: email@example.com