Professionalism and academia

The Australia safety industry is being pushed by OHS regulators to improve its professionalism.  Upgrading of qualifications in any discipline always generates conflict between the educated and the competent.  OHS is no different.

In The Age newspaper on 20 July 2009 was an interesting article that provides a brief overview of postgraduate studies.  The article makes no mention of workplace safety courses but provides an interesting illustration of the dichotomy above.

The full article deserves reading as it illustrates cost and time issues but there were several points made that seem pertinent to recent moves in the OHS profession.

The president of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations, Nigel Palmer, is quoted as saying

“It’s clear that we’ve seen a dramatic increase in fees. Whether or not there has been a corresponding increase in the quality of those courses remains an open question”.

Most postgraduates undertake their studies while employed.  This makes it much easier to manage time, if the company provides study leave options, and it provides a ready source of material for business studies, in particular.  Some companies also assist with the payment of fees.  This is not the case for those who are seeking employment or who are self-employed.  The costs in money and time almost makes postgraduate study an impossibility.

The postgraduate courses themselves are often hard to define.  Professor Richard James of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education admits that most institutions would have difficulty defining a master’s degree.

Holly Alexander chose to study outside the universities after completing a Bachelor of Arts degree.  She found the practicality of her course immensely useful and the article identifies a crucial differentiation between academics and practitioners.

“Of critical importance to her was the fact her teachers practised their craft and provided invaluable industry contacts.”

The OHS profession in Australia is developing a “core body of knowledge” which seems to be vital to the profession but noone has explained why, even though hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on the task.  And still there remains those experienced OHS professionals and practitioners who wonder why after twenty years of successful consulting and advice they need to benchmark themselves to “prove” their professionalism.

Outside the core body of knowledge, Holly Alexander’s point above is very important.  The academics and educators in any profession need to have an industry network that functions in the real world and their professional skills must be able to be applied practically, otherwise the qualification is meaningless.

Kevin Jones

Categories business, education, OHS, Professional standards, training, UncategorizedTags

5 thoughts on “Professionalism and academia”

  1. I think that there is merit in seeing all occupations as having practitioners and professionals. Both have their roles and there is considerable overlap.

    I think that the current Australian push for improved \”professionalism\” (the move is getting almost to accreditation in the UK) is dismissive of those who have excellent and polished safety skills, rather than being inclusive. I don\’t think the community can afford to be separatist and I hope for a model that acknowledges qualifications and experience, and one that provides coaching and mentoring to new graduates, health and safety representatives and others who choose safety as a career.

    I also use a certified tax agent but the certification was not considered. I accepted a recommendation from a friend. Her advise has been invaluable, her patience probably moreso, but I was happy with her competence from the recommendation and my dealings with her. Twenty years later I have no idea of her insurance or indemnities but her business card, that I obtained only three months ago, has told me she is certified.

    The strongest advocates for an improved safety profession in Australia are yet to spell out the reasons for the program. They say there is a need for it but offer no proof. Australia is likley to be better for having a \”proper\” OHS profession but I think we need to know why.

    Some OHS professionals have whispered that bad OHS advice from ex-inspectors and poorly-skilled consultants have caused the interest and that too much investigation will reveal embarrassing background. I have no evidence for this conspiracy rumour.

    The career I have chosen is in communication and safety. I don\’t believe the regulators or professional associations have communicated enough on their plans.

  2. You raise some interesting points – I suspect the key one is how do your define professionalism??
    I think though to some degree, you have your wires crossed. If I was looking for a painter for my house – I don\’t care if he has completed an apprenticeship or a masters in fine art, I want my house well painted. I make this assessment generally based on recommendations and viewing of their previous work (friends etc). Just because the painter has been in the industry for 20 years – doesn\’t mean they are a good painter.
    If I am going to have my tax done for the family trust, self management super fund and the business I am not going to go the ITP or like tax agent. I will select as a minimum a company/practitioner who has a recognisable qualification and then use other criteria to determine whether they are able to meet my needs.
    Lets take this into the OHS field – and I acknowledge that I do have post grad qualifications. The outputs of a poor OHS practitioner are potentially disasterous for the organisation they work for and the people within those organisations may sustain injury/death. Unfortunately the world is full of people in OHS roles who lack the skills and knowledge to adequately fulfill their roles, all of them nice people, but most with no idea. I am still yet to meet an OHS practitioner who has not undertaken formal teritary studies in this field, who can adequately perform at the levels of professionalism required in today\’s world. The day\’s of the safety officer with cipboard and tick and flick checklist are well and truly gone

  3. Jeanette
    You make a good point. Most courses provide the basic skills and them build them into context.
    I prefer the path from shopfloor to staff, practitioner to professional, because through this process, the management practices will almost always consider how these would be applied.
    Its a bit like studying pure or applied mathematics.
    I think a lot of the OHS professionalism moves are trying to have one size fits all and that \”all\” is academic.
    If OHS is going to be more that just \”safety underwear\” – covering one\’s a–e – one needs to think more broadly on what knowledge a safety person needs to apply safety.
    Coincidentally, just after I wrote the article I received notification of a new OHS degree available through the University of Queensland. More information is available at
    I have yet to go through the five-minute(?) video of people riding dolphins (?)

  4. I find it rather odd that a Cert IV and diploma in OHS is all about management systems, but if I decide to go on and get a degree in OHS, only THEN do I have to study and math, physics and chemistry. Basically it looks like we\’re going to have managers with certifications you can get in a 10 day intensive with the real workers being those that slogged through a University degree. How can this possibly make sense???

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