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Bridging the Gap Between Experience and Academic Qualifications

5 May 2010

The contribution that community development makes to the rich social and economic fabric of society has been seriously undervalued – but this is slowly changing, according to University of Ulster lecturer Isy Hawthorne-Steele

Community Development is one of the many growth areas at the Magee campus. The BSc Honours degree in Community Development was introduced at Magee two years ago and Course Director Isy Hawthorne-Steele says they intend building on its success by offering a Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Development leading to a Masters Degree in Community Development.

The degree programme is aimed at community workers who want to complement their expertise with an academic qualification to increase their employability and thus enable them make a positive contribution to their local community.

Mrs Hawthorne -Steele said that with RPA (Review of Public Administration) based on the principal of community involvement, the experience and knowledge of well qualified people working in community development will be increasingly sought after.

The Community Development degree was transferred from Magee to Jordanstown some years ago but in response to the growing demand for courses from the local voluntary and community sectors to meet their education and training needs, it is now offered at Magee again.

Mrs Hawthorne-Steele explains that the course is structured to take cognisance of students’ prior experience.

“The Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning (APEL) programme appeals to experienced community workers. Instead of having to complete the first year of the programme, they can enrol on a short APEL course at Magee to convert learning from their community experience into university credits to gain direct entry to the second year of the degree programme.”

She adds that staff are conscious that most of the students on the degree programme have been away from formal education for some time, so lecturers have taken advantage of technological improvements to ease them back into the classroom. Support materials for the students are available online and they can email or text their tutors if there is anything they need to discuss.

A pre-requisite of the course is that students are currently engaged in community work, in either a paid or voluntary capacity. In Years 1 and 3 of the programme, they complete ‘in situ’ placements and in their second year, they have an external placement, which can be either at home or abroad.

According to Mrs Hawthorne-Steele, the benefits of the course are threefold.

“The students get an academic qualification which will help with their career progression; the community benefits from the students’ developing practical skills and applying theoretical knowledge to that practice and the academics engage with the community voluntary sector. From an academic’s point of view, engagement with students who are working at the ‘coal face’ brings a richness and diversity to the course.”

The Community Development degree introduces students to a range of skills and to a core body of knowledge and debate so they may become effective professional practitioners and/or activists in community development work. It explores the links between policy-making, poverty and social exclusion, and community development approaches to problem solving and also investigates the role of community development in addressing the legacy of conflict and its contribution to peace-building.

Both staff and students feel that the self-reflective nature of the course is very beneficial as it encourages them to question their core values and beliefs.

“It helps us all to connect theory with practice and understand the relevance of how and why different approaches work in different situations. It challenges us to be more aware of what we believe in and why we hold on to certain beliefs. It’s not a question of individuals having to change their viewpoint to be in line with others but of making everyone more aware of their own beliefs which in turn will inform how they engage with others.”

The Magee based course is matched to professional occupational standards and will be accredited by the English Standards Board and the All Ireland Professional Standards Forum, with an objective of having the School of Sociology and Applied Social Sciences recognised as a Centre of Excellence for Community Development.

The first intake of students reflects the local demography with a representative mix from the community and voluntary sectors from both sides of the border. Some of the ‘peace building’ modules have been also taken up by international students studying on other programmes at Magee. Mrs Hawthorne-Steele believes the students’ diverse political backgrounds are helping group dynamics and contributing to the overall success of the programme.

The students agree that studying at Magee has made them more aware of the work of different community groups and they are hearing at first hand examples of good practice from other areas.  They are also unanimous in their support for their lecturers who they say have gone beyond the call of duty to be helpful and understanding.

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