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Students: beware of dodgy course providers

ACWA Inc - Thursday, July 27, 2017
What to look for and what to avoid when it comes to community services courses.

It happens to us time and time again. We pick up the phone and it’s another graduate of a ‘dodgy’ community services related course who has just discovered that it won’t qualify them for a career in child protection in their state. Or sometimes it’s a student midway through their course desperate for help to find a fieldwork placement because their provider doesn’t have links with the industry.

When choosing a course, it’s tempting to go with the cheapest or the shortest but mainly this does not equate to quality and in the long run you may struggle to use it to get a job. Sadly, it is a case of buyer beware: even the cheapest courses can cost a small fortune so you want to get absolute value for money.

As the professional body that sets standards for community services education and practice, the training of community workers is our priority. In recent years, we have seen more and more private providers entering the market and a notable increase in the number of courses offered online. While increased competition and study options are a positive for accessibility, they haven’t translated into better outcomes for students. In fact, there is a significant discrepancy between the number of people enrolling in community services related courses and those completing them. Take 2014 for example; there were 15,759 enrolments in the Diploma in Community Series Work (CHC50612) but only 2,371 individuals completed the course¹. This means almost 85% of students failed to finish their training and gain a qualification.

There are several factors behind this phenomenon but some of the common complaints we hear from students are:
  • A lack of support and supervision from teaching staff
  • Being rushed into fieldwork practice before the theory has been taught
  • Being responsible for finding their own fieldwork placements or being placed in inappropriate roles (for example, diploma level students placed in aged care or disability support roles)
  • Insufficient placement hours
  • Unethical providers providing students with assignment answers to ensure high pass rates (may be tempting – but it doesn’t help in a job interview or in a job)
We’re working hard to turn this around. As well as heavy involvement in industry reference groups and consultative forums, we have our own set of standards that, if met by education providers, ensure graduates are ready to get to work. ACWA accredited courses have been assessed by us to meet industry, consumer and public expectations. For this reason, ACWA accredited courses are officially recognised by many of the large employers. This means students can confidently enrol knowing it will position them to be work ready upon graduation and that they will also have access to increased employment and fieldwork opportunities (more on this later).

When we accredit a course we look for a number of things: course content, fieldwork placement availability and quality, course duration, student resources and the professional currency of teaching staff to name a few. Some of these requirements are set above the training package ones. Our website includes an ACWA accredited course finder and aspiring students should visit it before signing up with a provider. Additionally, ACWA course accreditation requirements are publicly accessible so students can benchmark unaccredited courses.

The importance of face to face learning in community services

Although online courses certainly make it easier to keep working whilst studying and are more accessible to those living in regional and remote areas, you will notice from our course finder that we have not accredited any 100% online courses. This is by design. Community work, at heart, is about people. Practitioners work with and for the best interests of their clients so communication, including culturally sensitive skills, are paramount.

By its definition community work is not something that lends itself to online learning. How can you learn counselling skills without taking part in face to face role playing exercises? Being taught the theoretical side online is one thing but before you get in front of a client hearing feedback on your body language, tone of voice and even eye contact is essential.

This is also the reason why fieldwork placements are so important to the learning process and should not be rushed. People often confuse fieldwork placement and standard employment in a workplace, but they are not the same. Fieldwork placement is related to learning outcomes and is in effect putting your theory into practice under supervision. When you are an employee, it is naturally assumed that you are armed with certain skills and supervision is more to do with ensuring you meet organisational expectations.

Having said this, we do not dismiss online learning for all students. If you are an aspiring student already working in the field, returning to community services after time away or simply upskilling then an online course may be just what you need. But if you are new to the sector or have only worked at a certificate skill level (aged care or disability support work, for example) the diploma will serve as your entry qualification into a successful career so you need to make sure it counts.

Shopping around for quality

With so many options available, the choices can be overwhelming. Your first and best option is to use the course finder on our website to find a course and provider we have determined meet industry standards. This is not about drumming up business for us; ACWA is a not-for-profit professional association established nearly 50 years ago to work in the best interests of the profession.

Here we’ll add a word of warning – many providers have a statement on their website saying they are ‘accredited’ or ‘nationally recognised’ but this does not mean the course is ACWA accredited. All education providers must seek accreditation with the relevant regulatory body (ASQA, TESQA or a state-based body) before offering a qualification. This is mandatory whether the field is engineering, medicine, or graphic design. ACWA is third party accreditation that goes above and beyond this and specifically looks at ensuring community services courses prepare graduates for the workforce. If a course is ACWA accredited, it will say so.

Attending an ACWA accredited course ensures you don’t miss out on placement and career options. The Department of Health & Human Services (DHHS) in Victoria for example, only provides VET-level work experience placements to students from ACWA accredited courses. A range of occupations within DHHS, Territory Families in Northern Territory, Department of Health in Western Australia and Queensland Health also require either an ACWA accredited qualification or full membership of ACWA to be considered for the position.

We strive to accredit courses in every state and territory, however, in some states the diploma course is not being taught at the minimum national standards and is not recognised for entry into the profession by major employers. In these instances, there are normally ACWA accredited bachelor degrees being offered that meet industry expectations.

If attending an ACWA accredited course isn’t an option in your circumstances you should shop around. Don’t just sign up for the cheapest or quickest course, find one that will give you the outcome you want – the bank of skills needed to make you employable and ensure ethical practice.

When researching courses make sure:
  1. There will be some mandatory face to face classes even if you do choose to study online. There are providers that offer a Diploma and Bachelor courses via distance education with face to face workshops for appropriate components (often called blended learning).
  2. Any diploma level course is at least two academic years (18 calendar months) in duration as anything less will not fully prepare you for the workforce. Rushing through content may get you your qualification faster but that doesn’t mean you will be work-ready any quicker. Knowledge takes time to absorb and the faster you learn the more likely you are to forget.
  3. That there are fieldwork components. Good practical placements are an essential opportunity for you to work with clients under close supervision. All ACWA accredited courses include two skill level appropriate placements in different settings totalling at least 400 hours. 
  4. That it will be the training provider’s responsibility to find you suitable fieldwork placements. Finding placements by yourself is not easy, you can ask anyone who has tried. A quality provider will have relationships and agreements in place with local employers who are happy to host you for your on-site learning.
One of the great attractions of community work as a career is that once you have the basic skills and competencies, the job possibilities are endless. Youth work; children and families; mental health; Indigenous and multicultural support; housing services and community development are just a few of the fields within which you can work.

So don’t get stung by a dodgy provider, do your research before you enrol to ensure the course will set you on your way for a rewarding career. Saving time and money upfront may seem advantageous but if you’re competing for jobs with those with industry-respected credentials it’s unlikely to pay off for you. Remember: a course is an investment in your career.

Visit the ACWA accredited course finder: http://www.acwa.org.au/course-accreditation/approved-courses

¹ NCVER VOCSTATS, Program enrolments and completions 2003 - 2015 by Industry Skills Council and year, accessed July 2016.

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