Croakey is publishing a series of articles examining the health implications of the Federal Government’s planned changes to university funding.
Below, Donna Murray, the CEO of Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA), raises concerns about the implications of the changes for the Aboriginal health workforce, especially social workers, who have a critically important role.
Donna Murray writes:
Indigenous Allied Health Australia (IAHA) recently published a statement outlining our concerns about proposed changes to university funding. Under these proposed changes, which are yet to progress through parliament, student fee contributions would decrease for most allied health qualifications; however, costs for students in the humanities and certain other disciplines would increase.
As the peak Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander allied health workforce organisation, it was welcome to see that the proposal included more support for allied health, recognising both the need for this workforce and the strong employment opportunities that exist within allied health. IAHA work to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people pursue and succeed in health careers, in no small part because of these two factors.
However, IAHA, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, families and communities hold holistic perspectives of health and wellbeing and recognise the importance of rounded care, which is characterised by multidisciplinary teams and services. At IAHA, we count 29 different professional disciplines among our membership, including social workers, as well as recognising the value of traditional and cultural healing and our peers in the wider Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health workforce.
Much has been said about the number of people in parliament who have benefited from an education in the humanities. However, the humanities have real and significant roles to play in improving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health outcomes, promoting an equitable and just society, and enhancing our understanding of the world.
Leaders such as Professor Tom Calma and Professor Kerry Arabena, who continue to achieve so much in their work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, proudly come from social work backgrounds. Many IAHA social work members make enormous contributions to the health and social and emotional wellbeing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through their day to day work.
In our statement, we briefly profiled the work of Celeste Brand in the Australian Nurse Family Partnership Program with the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress. While just one example, this typifies the diversity of function within social work, working alongside other professions and contributing to client advocacy, assessment, referral and liaison.
On the back of multiple Royal Commissions into sectors such as aged care and disability services, the need for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander social workers remains high and continues to increase. The health inequities experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are well documented, with these embedded in the history of this country and compounded by intergenerational trauma and systemic and other forms of racism.
The outcomes, including rates of mental ill health and suicide, cannot be ignored. IAHA were one of a number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stakeholders who contributed to the National COVID-19 Pandemic Issues Paper on Mental Health and Wellbeing For Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Peoples calling for an increase in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander mental health workforce in response to the pandemic and the increased stressors that people, families and communities are confronting.
Social workers play an essential role in helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people access and navigate what is, often, a culturally unsafe health system and other services. They help people in need to deal with complex systems when they and their families are at their most vulnerable and most in need of support. They provide essential care and expertise in mental health and social and emotional wellbeing, a necessity in our communities both now and into the future.
But improving health and wellbeing outcomes is not confined to action within the health sector. Increasingly, the cultural determinants of health are being understood for their role in keeping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people healthy and well. This understanding is advancing and being formalised, in part, on the back of people like Professor Arabena and the Lowitja Institute. However, it represents something known intrinsically by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, that connection to culture, languages, practices and country are protective.
Around Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander nations are investing time and knowledge in a range of specific Nation building initiatives, living, leading and supporting culture centred ways of working. This is led by Indigenous teachings and perspectives, some of which are shared in humanities qualifications which inform a number of professions and career pathways.
Appreciation and respect for culture, and valuing and developing more sophisticated ways of understanding and working with difference, can be among the greatest assets a society can have. This is undervalued under proposed changes and happening at a time when discussions about social justice, inequity and race are occurring globally, in the context of topics such as Indigenous deaths in custody and the Black Lives Matter movement.
IAHA are calling for this legislation to be amended to ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students are not dissuaded from enrolling in these essential qualifications and that future social work students do not incur significant university debts. This may also have a negative impact on communities and the workforce through the distribution and need into the future if fewer Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are able to undertake social work and other key professions that are based in humanities.
While enrolled students would not be impacted by increased student contributions under the proposed legislation, this amnesty should be considered for any existing university students, to enable them to change their enrolment if they choose to. University can be a time of challenges and growth for our students, and their experiences can lead them then to pursue a different pathway, be that in health, the humanities, law or something else. Students should not feel ‘locked in’ to a particular pathway or disadvantaged should their interests, skills and life course steer them elsewhere that they and their families may determine as an essential need in Indigenous communities.
Most importantly, we should acknowledge and value the contribution of the humanities, in health and wellbeing and in society at large.
Donna Murray is a descendant of the Wiradjuri nation of the Murrumbidgee River and of the Wonnarua nation of the Hunter Valley, NSW.