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Choosing the right course

There are many study options available to aspiring community workers, with courses ranging from certificate to Masters level.

The relevant certificate III and IV qualifications focus on areas of community services like aged care and individual support. These courses can be a good way to get a feel for the sector and graduates normally find work as support and personal care workers. The ageing population and increasing need for workers in disability support roles see these job seekers in high demand.

Most community workers, however, start with or go on to study a diploma qualification. The Diploma of Community Services is the most common of these as it provides students with the knowledge and skills they need to work with variety of clients across different settings. This gives students an advantage in this sector which is known for overlapping practice fields and clients with complex needs. For example, you may have a client with a mental health issue who is also experiencing homelessness.

Other diplomas focus on specific community services fields such as alcohol and other drugs, youth work or counselling. Specialisations are an advantage if you have a firm idea of where you want your career to go.

Diploma courses should involve 400 hours of fieldwork placements (the professional standard) to let students put their skills into practice under appropriate supervision. This is one of the reasons that courses delivered solely online are discouraged.

Degrees such as the Bachelor of Human Services and Bachelor of Community Services also provide a pathway to employment. Certain states like New South Wales and Queensland, for example, place a high value on bachelor degrees and this can be a distinct advantage for employability. Other states like Victoria and Tasmania, stipulate a ‘good’ diploma as the main entry level qualification.

People with previous experience in the sector can explore recognition of prior learning (RPL) which allows your experience to be counted towards a formal qualification. We don’t recommend using RPL for any more than 40% of a course.

Gaining the edge

Naturally, everyone wants to give themselves the best possible opportunity for employment by undertaking a good quality course. ACWA accredits community services courses that meet industry expectations and are set to produce work-ready graduates. Don’t get caught out by tricky terminology - sometimes providers add a statement to their website saying they are ‘accredited’ or ‘nationally recognised’ but this does not mean the course is ACWA accredited. Regulatory accreditation has an emphasis on educational standards and is mandatory whether the field is medicine or music. Our accreditation goes beyond this and specifically looks at whether the course meets community sector standards.

Members of the public also have expectations of practitioners in that they demand professionalism, ethical practice, and demonstrated skills and knowledge. Employers, in turn, need to feel confident in their choice of staff, particularly in entry level positions. Employers, when hiring new employees who have graduated from ACWA accredited courses, trust that these workers have the requisite theoretical underpinning and supervised fieldwork experience necessary for the role.

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

Importantly, graduating from an ACWA accredited diploma or degree is also a pathway to full membership. Learn more about how being a graduate of an ACWA accredited course and ACWA membership can help you get you the job you want here. Once you have enrolled in a course, you can apply for student membership with us.

To find a list of ACWA accredited courses please use the course finder.

Shopping around for quality

Don’t just sign up for the cheapest or quickest course, find one that will give you the best chance of employment after graduation.

ACWA accreditation is the easiest way to identify a credible course however, it is not the only way. There may be good quality courses on offer through providers that haven’t sought our professional accreditation.

The best advice is to do as much research as possible. Course cost, duration and location may all limit your personal options but before enrolling in a course find out the answers to these questions:

  Questions to ask   
 Words of wisdom
How is the course delivered? We don’t recommend courses that are 100% online. There are certain components in community services (like basic counselling) which need to be taught face to face. If this type of course is not a realistic option for you, blended learning is preferable – a course taught primarily online but with mandatory on campus components.
How long will the course take? Be wary of any diploma that is less than 18 months in duration and any bachelor degree less than 3 years when studied full time. Unduly short courses don’t leave enough time to cover all the theoretical and practice components in the level of detail needed.

It’s also a good idea to find out how many contact days per week are required. A provider may try to get duration standards by offering an 18 month course but with only one class per week.
What is the ratio of teaching staff to students? A course with only one teacher is not recommended and keep in mind that teaching staff should also be accessible to students (within reason) throughout the course for those seeking assistance. Word of mouth or online reviews always need to be taken with a degree of scepticism (and keep in mind quality can improve and decrease over time) but it may help to find out what past or current students have to say.
How many fieldwork placement hours are required? For diplomas, the training package requires a minimum of 100 hours of placement, however, feedback from the industry is that this is not enough to adequately prepare students. We have set our accreditation requirements at 400 hours for both diploma and degree courses and wouldn’t recommend any less.
How are fieldwork placements found? A good quality provider will have strong links to industry and take responsibility for finding placements for their students. We strongly caution anyone from going with a provider who requires students to locate their own placements.
What is the quality of the placements? Some providers may place their diploma students in settings where diploma level skills are not practiced. For example, disability support work roles are appropriate for certificate level students but will not prepare diploma students to achieve their job outcomes.
How are placements managed? Make sure there is a liaison or fieldwork placement coordinator. Fieldwork can be intimidating and since it takes you out of your classroom it is easy to feel isolated and overwhelmed. It can make a big difference knowing there is a person from your course to talk to if the need arises.
What types of resources are available to students? Many providers are moving away from libraries to online depositories. Make sure you learn what resources will be accessible to you, this is particularly important if you are located in a remote or rural area.
What sort of support is available to students? Studying often involves juggling other responsibilities like family or work commitments, not to mention the unexpected, like health concerns. It’s a good idea to know up front what a provider’s policies are on such things as financial support or deferring study.
What are the student outcomes? High enrolment numbers, combined with low graduation rates can tell you a lot about a provider as can student destination data from graduate surveys.

Some providers will not give out this information, and that is perfectly within their rights, although you may want to ask as why not! Others will, however, happily share de-identified data so it doesn’t hurt to ask.
What are the job prospects for the specific course? Community services courses are normally broad to prepare graduates for different practice fields. However, some fields (like child protection, social work etc) have requirements that, while not mandatory as such, are so highly desired by employers that it becomes difficult for job seekers to find work within those sectors if they have not studied those specialties or electives.

If you know which field you want to work in make sure the course you choose will help you get there. If you’re not sure yet, it still pays to be aware of what occupations may be restricted to you without further specialisation or work experience.