Social Work at the University of Sydney

Seven decades of distinction

NW corner of the Quadrangle. First home of the school of Social Study and Training.

Public housing in Welfare St, Homebush West, circa 1940.

Fisher Library stack 1971. Social Work was located in its basement from 1969–1980.

Lecturer in Social Work, Mary Lane, with clients at RPAH in 1988.

Former students returned from across Asia for the 50th anniversary in 1990.

Social Work staff and fourth-year students meeting in 1992.

The University began training social workers in 1940, when it adopted administration of the Board of Social Study and Training from the National Council of Women. Twelve years earlier, the University had advised the council on the theoretical aspects of the course, whose practical aspects, including issuing of certificates and organising field education, had then passed to the board.

Ultimately, because of concerns over course content as well as the lack of 'sufficient' academic status of the course's female director, the NSW Government declined to fund the private training of social workers and the Education Minister instead advised both the executive of the board and the University's vice-chancellor of the government's willingness to finance the "proper machinery at the University, under the control of the Senate" for the training of social service workers for hospitals and as child-welfare officers.

The executive committee of the board voted in early 1940 to surrender its role administering the course to the University, which had already resolved to appoint an academic board to commence a new course as soon as possible.

Neither the director, nor the secretary from the antecedent course were offered positions within the University but the private course's newly arrived tutor from Canada, 33-year-old Elizabeth Govan, was appointed its first acting director and, three years later, its director.

Miss Govan was a graduate of the universities of Oxford and Toronto and held a Canadian Diploma in Social Service, yet was only confirmed in her role after the war prevented the successful applicant – a male economics lecturer – from leaving England. The next appointment of a female director trained in social work was Associate Professor Jude Irwin in 2001 more than six decades later.

Student unrest leads to academic changes

A student strike in 1978 led to the creation of a chair in social work and a major change in the direction and control of the program. Nevertheless, resource issues continued to hamper its development and did so until 2003, when Social Work joined Education in the newly named Faculty of Education and Social Work.

The merger reflected the close association between the two disciplines and the often shared areas of research and teaching, particularly in the area of policy and practice, which already had its own school within the Faculty of Education, staffed partly by social-work academics.

In the meantime, a bold pedagogical change had introduced issues-based learning into the program, bringing it to the forefront of educational innovation.