Section I. Contextualising the Landscape of Social Work Field Education

Outlining the Context: Australian Social Work Field Education


Field education and university-sector collaborations provide rich opportunities for student learning, and in many different ways, students contribute to the labour force of the sector. Australian social work field education is delivered through 30 accredited schools of social work in urban, rural, and remote locations. The Australian Association of Social Workers regulates social work education, a feature that distinguishes Australian social work education internationally (Healy, 2019). Field education is a significant component of Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work (Qualifying) curricula offered in various modes - on campus, online, and distance education courses. Movement towards reconciliation with Australian Aboriginal and Tones Strait Islander people is a priority reflected in social work education and, equally important, in field education where learning about practice with Aboriginal and Tones Strait Islander peoples and cultures is being embedded.

Neoliberalism has significantly changed the Australian higher education and policy infrastructure that delivers health and human services, creating a culture of risk aversion. It is the editors’ stance that Australian social work field education similarly has been impacted by this neoliberal risk context, as field education is situated within higher education and is crucially dependent on the human services sector across education, health, and welfare. As such, we offer a conceptual frame to deconstruct and analyse the effects of neoliberalism on Australian social work field education that consists of three domains: the economic imperatives within higher education, constraints in the industry sector, and the broader regulatory, social work education environment. This chapter locates Australian social work field education using these three domains and outlines the overall structure of the book.

The Context for Examining Australian Social Work Field Education

Neoliberal beliefs, values, and practices that align with free-market economic principles have dramatically changed Australian higher education (Gursansky &

Le Sueur, 2012; Neden, Townsend, & Zuchowski, 2018; Olssen & Peters, 2005; Roberts, Dunworth, & Boldy, 2018), the effects of which are well documented (Ferguson, 2017). In this neoliberal era, higher education is “represented as an input-output system that can be related to economic production function” (Olssen & Peters, 2005, p. 324). It has led to dramatic increases in student enrolments, increasingly straitened financial contexts for universities (Norton, Cherastidtham, & Mackey, 2018), and has resulted in a new govemmentality, called New Public Management (NPM), that rests on principles of “flexibility, clearly defined objectives and emphasis on measurement of results achieved” (Olssen & Peters, 2005, p. 324).

Neoliberalism has also pervaded the health and human services sectors, evidenced in the ascendancy of competition, marketisation, NPM, and the reconceptualisation of “client” as consumer (Lawler & Bilson, 2010; Meagher & Goodwin, 2015). While government remains the primary hinder of social services, and expenditure has continued to increase (Goodwin & Phillips, 2015), “the organisational mix” and “modes of coordination have changed significantly” (Meagher & Goodwin, 2015, p. 1). Shifting the direct provision of services from governments to the non-govemment and private sectors and using competitive tendering and purchaser-provider mechanisms to deliver services has subsequently and dramatically altered the variety, range, and size of placement supply for social work education (Goodwin & Phillips, 2015; Neden et al., 2018).

The swing to neoliberal-informed public policy has seen a simultaneous shift of focus away from addressing fundamental economic and social trends such as increased inequality and reduced social capital investment. This has served to narrow the focus of the social work profession away from social advocacy and action for structural change (Garrett, 2019; Hyslop, 2018; Longhofer, Floersch, & Soydan, 2012; Morley, Macfarlane, & Ablett, 2019; Pawar & Thomas, 2017; Webber et al., 2014). It may have also mitigated against ensuring sufficient range and supply of placements.

Notwithstanding these functions, the felt impacts of neoliberal values, beliefs, and practices have also seen an increasing focus on risk aversion and mitigation in social work field education. In this book, as editors and field educators, we believe applying a risk lens is helpful for exploring and understanding the current vulnerability of social work field education. This book attends to risk, to the extent that risk and uncertainty are inherent for all stakeholders in the delivery' of field education. While risk is a contested construct, it is one that we believe provides the opportunity in field education to also focus on change. This perspective aligns with Mythen’s conceptualisation of risk as including danger, uncertainty, futurity, probability, and opportunity (Mythen, 2014, p. 14). Each of these elements can variously be applied to field education activity and each of the field education stakeholders. For the 500-hour placement period when students are engaged in placement agency activity, they are subject to the same risks of danger or harm as agency employees (Mythen 2014, p. 14) such as workplace safety issues and client safety.

With risk comes uncertainty (Mythen, 2014) and this is evidenced in field education where the number of placements required and placement availability continually changes. For most agencies, anticipating their capacity to provide placements in a dynamic environment is similarly uncertain. This uncertainty regarding placement sourcing is associated with ideas of indeterminacy and unfinishedness (Mythen, 2014) as to whether placement demand will be met, signifying “the essence of risk” (Adam, Beck, & Loon, 2000, p. 2). Inherent in field education work is a sense of not knowing what might happen next. This can be immobilising and may stifle creative and responsive problem solving, such as measuring the likelihood of particular events occurring or horizon scanning (Mythen, 2014). These circumstances further create reputational risk for the university as a whole and significant risk for student wellbeing that includes their uncertainty over their course progression. Delivering field education involves acting to pre-empt and prevent anticipated risks. However, this preoccupation with risk can mute the opportunities that risks present (Mythen, 2014, p. 14).

The ascendancy of risk, along with other associated effects of neoliberalism, have disrupted traditional modes of field education delivery (Neden et al., 2018). It is through thinking about field education differently, refraining situations of perceived risk as opportunity, which enables new ways of thinking to emerge. Bogo (2015) questioned the viability of an approach based largely on a 100-year-old educational model of preparing students within voluntary agency-based settings (Bogo, 2015). As Sterling (2008) further explains, “Instead of educational thinking and practice that tacitly assumes that the future is some kind of linear extension of the past, we need ... an anticipative education, [that] recognis[es] the new conditions and discontinuities” (Sterling, 2008, p. 64). This shift in thinking is vital for field education.

Historically, Australian field education has been resilient in overcoming challenges. In the 1980s, for example, the number of social work schools in Australia increased and pathways into social work courses in tertiary education stretched placement supply (AASWWE, 1991). The current situation differs from the past in that the scale and rate of increase in student numbers has occurred over a comparably short period (Norton et al., 2018). We maintain that applying a risk framework can help draw out ideas as to where opportunities for enhancing the sustainability of social work field education might arise (Gursansky & Le Sueur, 2012: Hanlen, 2011; Neden et al., 2018; Noble & O'Sullivan, 2009; Zuchowski, 2011, 2014). The current predicament has compelled university social work field education programs to respond in reactive ways that have included negotiating with the sector to increase placement supply (Crisp & Hosken, 2013; Morley & Dunstan, 2013; Hill et al., 2019; Rollins et al., 2017). With risk comes opportunity; many creative and innovative initiatives have emerged from these responses. These initiatives build knowledge and facilitate new ideas for placement planning and design, encouraging new ways of thinking about field education for social work. For this book we have developed a conceptual approach that views and considers Australian social work field education in its neoliberal context using three conceptual domains: economic imperatives, sector constraints, and regulations and standards.

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