Diploma Dilemmas: Navigating the Future with National Standards
It’s imperative to make it clear from the onset of this article that until the national standards are fully developed and implemented, the information presented here is speculative.
The establishment of national standards, albeit still in the pipeline, holds promise for counsellors and the counselling field as a whole.
It is essential to acknowledge however, the palpable frustration among many diploma counsellors who are concerned about the future, particularly in relation to the establishment of pathways for counsellors to access employment opportunities and other associated benefits with government recognition.
Often change ushers in a sense of uncertainty. This uncertainty is deeply felt by many diploma counsellors as discussions between The Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia, The Australian Counselling Association and the government, continue to revolve around the formulation of national standards. The government’s recommendation to PACFA and ACA in 2020, advocating for a minimum qualification of AQF7 or above (a degree) for counsellors, and the subsequent budget allocation of $300k, are significant catalysts for these ongoing dialogues.
While the precise contours of the national standards are yet to be outlined and their full implementation may span several years, parallels may be drawn from the UK’s ScopED experience, offering an invaluable perspective into a similar process of transformation within the counselling domain. For those interested in a more in-depth understanding, this episode of Counselling Tutor is well worth a listen.
Following are the main concerns existing diploma counsellors are raising. Whilst some therapists may see these discussions as ‘scaremongering’, as a Clinical Supervisor & Private Practice Business Coach, I personally feel it is important to consider the future of our field, particularly so for those who are thinking about becoming a counsellor.
Advancement in Credibility and Confidence:
One of the biggest gripes counsellors have is that we are not afforded the same benefits as social workers and psychologists. The government has stated that they want to see a higher level of training. To become a full member of the Allied Health Professions Australia, 90% of an association membership needs to hold an AQF7 (degree) or above. PACFA recently joined AHPA as a full member, and is already benefiting from full membership as they are increasingly invited to allied health activities that they previously were not invited to.
It’s crucial to understand that any improvements in counselling’s credibility will benefit ALL counsellors, regardless of their training level. The forthcoming standards will correct imbalances, advancing the counselling industry as a whole.
Regulation and Terminology:
The term “counselling” is unlikely to become regulated, allowing counsellors (including diploma counsellors), to continue using this title. However, distinctions do already exist; for example, PACFA has trademarked Registered Clinical Counsellor, a title and badge reserved for their clinical membership.
Transparency Amongst Counselling Associations and Registered Training Organisations (RTOs)
One of the many complaints that I am seeing in counsellor Facebook groups, is that many diploma counsellors feel mislead in regard to the career prospects available to them after completion of their course. The national standards could potentially instill a degree of transparency among associations and Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) that currently aim for ‘bums on seats’, rather than a genuine desire for betterment within the industry and the future career prospects for their students. This will serve prospective counsellors in their study pathway choices and provide them with a realistic view of their career progression.
Changes in Scope of Practice and Upskilling:
Historically, the scope of practice for the Diploma of Counselling suggested that the qualification was for support counselling, an extremely important role. While the reasons for this change are unclear, some speculate that relationships between particular counselling associations and Registered Training Organisations (RTOs) played a role.
Many therapists who started out with a diploma and later pursued a counselling (or psychotherapy) degree emphasise the value of further training, noting, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” However, it’s essential to recognise that pursuing additional training can be influenced by factors such as age, time, caregiving responsibilities, and financial constraints. Nevertheless, upskilling counsellors to be on the same minimum requirement as social workers, psychologists, and other allied health professionals can significantly expand knowledge, skills and confidence to practice.
Starting or Continuing in a Private Practice:
Running a private practice, like any small business, requires a lot of effort, time, and financial resources. New and existing qualified diploma counsellors can successfully build thriving private practices with the right attitude, business acumen, and marketing skills.
Establishing a thriving private practice is an achievable goal for anyone, regardless of their training level, however, as a Private Practice Business Coach and Clinical Supervisor, those with more in-depth training and experience tend to find it easier to build a practice, this is often down to the counsellor’s capacity for ‘holding’ clients, something that is often learnt through being held in their depth training, their own therapy, throughout their placement and so forth. It is therefore important that your diploma course contains these elements.
National standards are not likely to impact whether diploma counsellors can work in private practice. However, there will likely be some benefits (for those who wish to access them) to upgrading to meet national standards in terms of referrals from GPs and government employment opportunities. Accessing Medicare (if that ever happens!), however, being a part of the Medical Model then comes with its own challenges and is something many counsellors do not want to participate in.
Recognising Professional & Lived Experience:
Many old school diploma counsellors have accumulated years of experience, both in the counselling field and through lived experience. This wealth of experience, sometimes spanning 20 to 30 years or more of professional development, is invaluable. Those working in non government organisations (NGOs) and in private practice can take comfort in knowing that their many years of experience remain highly valuable and relevant.
For newly qualified diploma counsellors, there are many diploma level employment opportunities for counsellors and as credibility grows, so will job opportunities. You will also still be able to work in private practice as mentioned above. It is, as always, important to stay abreast of any government changes however.
If you wish to meet the new standards (whatever they will be), your experience may make you eligible for recognition of prior learning, leading to clinical level membership or credits toward a degree.
Insurance Company Requirements:
The impact of national standards on insurance requirements remains uncertain. While many insurance companies currently require clinical membership, some do not. Staying informed about these developments is vital.
Private Health Insurance for Counsellors and Their Clients:
Most health insurers require counsellors to be clinical members, a requirement that will unlikely change to benefit diploma counsellors.
Degrees, Clinical Membership, and Medicare Access:
In the context of government benefits, such as employment in government roles and access to schemes like the Medicare Better Access Scheme, the evolving counselling landscape underscores the importance of aiming for the highest level of training possible. This principle applies not only to aspiring counsellors but also to individuals with existing degrees in fields like social work and psychology who consider transitioning into counselling. For those with an existing degree, pursuing a Master’s would be the wisest choice, rather than a Diploma of Counselling, as the Master’s is likely to gain more recognition and value in an evolving counselling field. Please note that ACAP announced in October 2023 that they will be phasing out their Graduate Diploma and are encouraging a Master’s Degree.
The integration of counsellors into the Medicare Access Scheme may take time (if ever!) once the national standards are implemented, and only counsellors meeting the minimum standard and possessing clinical membership may become eligible for inclusion.
The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS)
The NDIS sets certain qualification requirements for professionals who provide services to NDIS participants. The NDIS is designed to ensure that participants receive high-quality and effective services. Currently, the NDIS generally allow diploma-qualified counsellors to support clients. However, as the national standards are developed and implemented, this could change so it is essential to stay updated with the latest guidelines and regulations.
The transformation within the counselling field, driven by the establishment of national standards, is not about questioning the abilities of diploma counsellors, as their diversity of experience and expertise is acknowledged and deeply valued. While the exact outcomes remain uncertain, it is also acknowledged that diploma qualified counsellors with a depth and breadth of experience may be able to access mechanisms such as grandfathering and recognition of prior learning within these standards.
It is important to remember that as counsellors, we work with highly traumatised and the most vulnerable of people. Clients of counselling deserve a deeply reflective, capable, knowledgeable, and competent therapist. This is precisely what a national standard seeks to achieve. While it can’t guarantee competence, it aims to enhance it to the greatest extent possible, all for the benefit of clients.
The implementation of national standards holds the potential to level the playing field for counselling professions in government positions, much like the preference currently given to social workers and psychologists. Beyond this, it streamlines the hiring process for employers and fosters a unified understanding of the counselling profession. These changes aim to strengthen the counselling field as a whole and advance the industry, ensuring the well-being of both therapists and clients alike.