COVID’s impact on social work degrees

The pandemic has highlighted some of the precarious aspects of social work placements.

Social work degrees are notably hands-on and interactive, equipping students with interpersonal skills and the empathy that translates to job readiness. But what happens to a degree that requires 1000 hours of unpaid labour during COVID-19? And how has the pandemic uncovered and reinforced the privilege required to complete a degree in social work? Amidst greater pressure on, and precarity for, social work students, it is clear that a social work skillset is needed now more than ever as we deal with the devastating impacts of COVID-19 on mental health and the community.

In August, the National Tertiary Education Union published La Trobe Social Work academic Emily Bieber’s analysis on the impact of lockdowns on staff and students. Social work degrees have a unique set of requirements that are particularly hampered by online learning. Bieber reveals that course delivery holds the development of deep relationships at its core, but this is impeded by online classes. 

Kate Cartwright, a first-year social work student at Western Sydney University spoke to Honi about the differences in course delivery when online rather than in person. “I found the degree in the first semester to be very practical,” she stated. “In workshops and tutorials, we always had a task to do, or we recreated a scenario which cemented our knowledge of theory. Whereas now in Zoom classes, we are given a theory and are placed in breakout rooms to discuss and explore it.” Considering placements are practical, younger students fear they will not be adequately prepared without the requisite teaching in first and second year. 

These same fears are shared by University of Sydney first-year Mia Tsirekas, who notes that “the social work degree is very people-oriented and we have lost a lot of our first-hand learning experience.” In first-year, a core unit of study is “Social Justice Practice”, coupled with growing strong sociological theoretical knowledge. This practical unit of study involves extensive group work and a report on local social justice, all of which are impeded by restrictions. This report notably involves on-the-ground fieldwork experience, gathering available information from activists and workers. These connections forged in person could pave the way for future employment and facilitate understanding and growth in a way that is less replicable online. Social work student Josephine McLeod reiterates, “group work is inherent to the degree and its outcome; social dynamics are key to social work practice, and the inability to study in environments that best facilitate this collaboration has been a challenge for students and academics alike.” 

Units in the final year of social work were also affected by COVID-19 last and this year; some units are only taught in intensive mode, and were entirely transported online. Notably, the key domestic violence and child protection unit, which underpins many students’ desire to do social work, was held online in 2020. Social work content is uniquely distressing for many students, and the isolated environment of 2020 worsened the experience for many.

Arguably the beating heart of the social work degree is the required placements completed in third and fourth year. Honi spoke to three social work students at USyd and found an array of different situations into which students were plunged. For some, placement work resumed online and students never felt the same reward or satisfaction. For others, placement work was cancelled and rescheduled many times. This affected the certainty of degree progression, and placed further barriers on graduating. 

The nature of social work placements also changed based on community need, and this often placed students in precarious situations. Some students were sent to a COVID-19 testing clinic in order to aid the community before the vaccination rollout, and others were helping at emergency rooms in hospitals, forced to wear PPE all day. Rural placements were suddenly cancelled, so students were forced to abandon plans to settle elsewhere for three months. 

For some current final-year students whose placements were never able to launch last year, they are now faced with the insurmountable task of completing two placements this year in order to graduate. This equates to 1000 hours of unpaid, emotionally and physically taxing labour. For student Jazzlyn Breen, “the pandemic has highlighted some of the precarious aspects of social work placements… that are incompatible with the social justice goals of social work.” In general, the degree requires that students devote thousands of their hours to unpaid labour, which for many proves impossible given many other economic and emotional demands. As the university recovers from the pandemic, critical discussion is needed surrounding how all students are financially and emotionally supported during the invaluable experience of placements.

Despite the many challenges unique to social work degrees, especially when precarity is worsened by COVID-19 and cuts to staff, social work students articulate their deep love for their degree, and the hard-working academics and tutors who have wrestled with adapting a hands-on degree for online delivery. This degree is often undertaken by students incredibly passionate about supporting the community, and out of a pure love for social justice. It is important that through all circumstances, each student’s love is similarly nurtured.