Firm on expertise, soft on identity: How counsellors can be excluded from educating counselling students for their own profession

By Nathan Beel PhD

Written 2020. Please note PACFA’s training standards are regularly updated so view this paper as talking to a historical point in time.


Biases within higher education may restrict opportunities for counsellors to teach counselling. While the counselling profession has provided training and accreditation standards that deliver common educational requirements for shaping counselling trainees, they may not do enough to ensure qualified counsellors are sufficiently represented as counselling educators. It is possible that some counselling students are graduating without being taught by any qualified counsellors. This article argues that counsellor education is more than transmitting counselling skills and knowledge, but importantly, develops a professional identity and connection with the counselling profession and its values. The profession’s accreditation guidelines implicitly treat qualified counsellors as optional for staffing counselling courses and enables higher education providers to prioritise employing staff from occupations deemed similar. I argue that the counselling profession must ensure it more clearly supports the hiring of registered and qualified counsellors as academics teaching and coordinating accredited counselling courses and meaningfully safeguards the inculcation of the profession’s values in counsellor training. Otherwise, the future of the counselling profession itself may be shaped in alignment with the values of other professions, as members of ‘equivalent’ professions’ gatekeep and mould those entering the counselling profession.


Counsellors[1] in Australia have experienced discriminatory practices throughout the profession’s short history. Counsellors are all too familiar with adverts seeking to hire counsellors, only to find that they are ineligible to apply because they are not a psychologist or social worker. This ironically has extended into university student counselling services where counselling degrees are offered (O’Hara & O’Hara, 2015). While recognition of the profession of counselling has been improving over time, professional discrimination may still be occurring. An implicit devaluing of qualified counsellors[2] as underqualified for teaching their own students may happen in some training courses designed to prepare future counsellors for the profession and is enabled by over-inclusiveness in PACFA (and ACA) course accreditation guidelines.

A minority in teaching counselling

In 2018, a colleague and I reviewed the websites of eight counsellor training provider courses in Australia as part of an internal benchmarking exercise. We found that most staff who taught counselling subjects by these providers were not registered counsellors within the counselling profession, but were mostly psychologists, followed by social workers and teaching staff not visibly registered with any profession. A year later, I searched the staffing profiles of four universities who offered accredited training programs and this time checked registration status from professional registries (e.g., Australian Register of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (ARCAP), Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW), etc.). Two had no Counsellor Educators (i.e., qualified members of the counselling profession who teach into counselling courses), and the remaining two had a maximum of one continuing Counsellor Educator in the teaching teams. Of these four universities, Counsellor Educators were either the minority or entirely absent from the teaching teams. Again, most who taught counselling were psychologists. While the sample is too small to generalise, it raised questions for me about how it is possible that counsellors could be underrepresented or absent within the counselling discipline.

If the samples echo a more widespread lack of Counsellor Educators in higher education, it may partly reflect the relative recency of counselling’s emergence as a profession in Australia. The momentum for professionalising and consolidating counselling began with the establishment of PACFA in 1998 (Schofield, 2015) making it a very young profession in comparison to psychology (1944) (APS, 2020) and social work (1946) (Miller, 2016). Since this time, counselling training programs have proliferated both in private institutions and public universities, but I have not seen evidence of this demand translate into a significant number of applications by counsellors for counselling lecturer positions. The demand for counselling education appears to be much higher than the supply of suitably qualified and experienced Counselling Educators.

The counselling profession may not yet have a sufficient supply of Counselling Educators and thus may continue to rely on Educators of Counselling (i.e., educators from other professions who teach counselling) to fill the gaps. Even so, there are barriers in the education market that favour Educators of Counselling over Counselling Educators. Counsellor Educators are competing against a larger pool of similar professionals who typically have more extensive research and teaching backgrounds, hold doctorates, have more substantial research track records, are members of higher status professions, and can teach across disciplines in professionally accredited programs. Besides this, they often have extensive practice experience. In the interviews for Counselling Lecturer positions I have been involved with over the past 12 years, similar professionals outperform Counsellor Educators on most of the criteria. While counsellor applicants might outperform on possessing relevant membership, they lag behind with the level of qualifications, and experience in teaching, research, and even therapy practice experience. It is not an equal playing field for Counselling Educators, and unfortunately, those trained and qualified as counsellors may be on the losing side even in their own discipline area.

In the table below, I demonstrate the differential trends I have seen in applicants for counselling lecturer positions. If this reflects a broader trend, it is understandable if counsellors miss out on such appointments.

Educational attainmentMasters qualifiedPhD qualified
Research experienceVery limited (if any) publicationsMore publications
Number of applicantsEstimated average 10-20%Estimated average 80-90%
Clinical experienceYesYes
Clinical supervisionCan supervise only counselling studentsCan supervise counselling and psychology students
Teaching experienceOften limited to professional development or internal trainingOften experienced in teaching in higher education
Administrative functionsMay not have high confidence administrativelyOften excel in administration
Team skills and communicationOften highly skilled and have warm and friendly interview presenceOften have a more professional persona and communication approach
Diversity of expertiseTherapy, supervision, and some management experience. Experience in private practice, education and human services organisations.Therapy, supervision, psychological testing, research supervision. Experience in private practice, human services, health, and education settings.

There are additional factors that influence how committed a tertiary institution may be in hiring Counsellor Educators. These include whether counselling is in a department with an ‘overlapping’ profession or not, how much the Head of Department supports the counselling discipline’s boundaries in teaching and hiring decisions, the professional composition of the staffing profile of the department, including its leadership[3]; and how much the organisation or department is focussed on strengthening its research profile.

My perception is that over time, Counselling Educators in continuing positions are numerically shrinking rather than growing. If this perception is accurate, I propose three key reasons. The first is that universities are generally showing less tolerance for hiring people without doctorates. The second is that when the counselling discipline is co-located with other similar higher status professions with more prescriptive accreditation requirements, staff appointments will be biased towards the dominant profession’s staffing profile. The imbalance of the staffing profile may reinforce perceptions of counselling’s sub-ordinance within the staffing structure (and to the student body) and diminish the counsellor influence in their own domain. The third reason is that the counselling profession’s existing accreditation requirements have enabled a type of interprofessional colonising of counsellor education by remaining relatively neutral and thus failing to compensate for an unequal playing field.

The contribution of counsellor training standards

In my view, PACFA’s training standards provide insufficient incentive to hire qualified counsellors or to address this potential inequity. PACFA’s training standards allow the selection of staff based on program needs with respect to staff experience or qualifications. For those overseeing the programs, they “… must be psychotherapists/counsellors or professionals from a related discipline… who are eligible for clinical or full membership of the professional body relevant to their qualification” (emphasis added) (PACFA, 2018b, p. 5). Of eight criteria for course coordinators in PACFA’s Training Standards, none address identity or knowledge of the counselling profession.

PACFA has second document called the Course Accreditation and Application Guidelines 2018 (PACFA, 2018a). This document requires core staff to hold “relevant degrees… preferably from PACFA accredited programs… or…a closely related field” (p.8). It additionally requires core staff to “identify with the counselling or psychotherapy profession through memberships and involvement in appropriate professional organisations (i.e. PACFA or PACFA Member Association)” (PACFA, 2018a, p. 8).

While PACFA’s wording in parts signals a preference for Counsellor Educators, the wording fails to safeguard against counsellors being excluded from counselling discipline staffing profiles. PACFA does not require teachers of counselling to have any affiliation, knowledge about, or experience with the counselling profession. Also, by treating alternative professionals as equivalent, the training standards imply that the hiring of Qualified Counsellors is ‘optional’. Staffing managers higher up in faculties may have little understanding or empathy for safeguarding distinctions between professions. Why should they hire lesser qualified ‘optionals’ instead of more qualified, experienced, versatile and research productive ‘equivalents’? The profession’s current suitability criteria, undoubtedly unintentionally, enables the exclusion of Counsellor Educators.

Compare this with alternative professions with evidence of more substantial protectiveness and regard for their own members’ professional identity, allegiance, expertise and relevance in the educational processes. The profession of Social Work mandates that a minimum of 50% of lecturers have social work qualifications (Australian Association of Social Workers, 2012). The profession of psychology requires qualified psychologists to teach psychology with an onus on the provider to justify alternative appointments (Australian Psychology Accreditation Council, 2019). These guidelines do not prevent receiving training contributions from suitably qualified professionals but influence training providers to prioritise the respective professionals in hiring. Both these professions have a stronger professional identity and higher professional status than counselling and ensure their members are prioritised in teaching appointments.

Interrogating equivalence

The second implication in the PACFA’s 2018 training standards wording is the assumption of equivalence. The counselling profession has historically struggled to form a clear collective identity that differentiates itself from other professions (Alves & Gazzola, 2011). Yet the formation of a counsellor and their professional identity is important both at a broader profession level and an individual level. One of the essential roles of Counsellor Educators and Educators of Counselling is to help counselling students develop a strong sense of counsellor identity, delineate its distinctiveness from other professions, and understand its core philosophical values. Doing so will help students gain a connection with, and pride and optimism about their profession (Woo et al., 2014). As part of developing their professional identity, “…students [should] develop a set of attitudes, perspectives, and personal commitment to the standards, ideals, and identity of the counseling profession” (Choate et al., 2005, p. 384). PACFA’s accreditation guidelines reinforce the importance of the developing professional identity, stating “All staff… will be clearly committed to preparing professional counsellors and psychotherapists and promoting the development of the student’s professional identity” (PACFA, 2018a, p. 8).

Education into membership of professions requires acculturation into the profession’s identity (Tan et al., 2017), and students’ values and attitudes are shaped by role models who they equate with their chosen profession (Day et al., 2005). Can educators who have been trained, socialised, and hold primary allegiance to different professions, paradigms and identities adequately prepare students to enter the counselling profession and infuse its values? Can educators who have no membership or participation in the counselling profession sufficiently understand the profession they are preparing students for?  While those outside the counselling profession can contribute valuable expertise from which to teach theories, skills, ethics, and research, they are likely to unconsciously (or consciously) and pervasively reflect their own professional identities and associated values. Denying students’ ongoing access to counsellor role models through their training is likely to add to the challenge of developing a clear professional identity (Woo et al., 2014). The international peak body, the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) recognised the importance of staff alignment, and now requires all core counsellor teaching staff to demonstrate identification, via membership and ongoing commitment to the counselling profession and discipline as minimum requirements (CACREP, 2019).  

The questioning of equivalence is not intended to devalue the contributions and expertise interdisciplinary staff make into counselling programs, but to underscore the importance of utilising qualified Counsellor Educators in transmitting the values and traditions of the counselling profession. The critical numerical balance and the leadership roles in counsellor programs should favour members of the profession the students are being prepared for. Educators of Counselling not only train, but may arguably (and understandably) influence students towards their own professional values; just as they were appropriately influenced by the discourses of the profession they maintain an allegiance with. Exposure to Educators of Counselling is not problematic if it simply reflects a healthy exposure to interprofessional diversity of which counselling students should be exposed to. However if, for argument’s sake, psychologists make up the majority of those socialising counselling students without an adequate understanding of inter-professional differences in values, traditions, training approaches, and professional allegiance; could this ultimately lead to the dilution, replacing, and ‘psychologising’ of core counselling values over time within the profession itself?

The isolating of counsellor educators

Another issue that can emerge with a disproportionate weighting of Educators of Counselling is that Counselling Educators can be professionally isolated and be a minority in the staff teaching counselling courses. While Counsellor Educators may have strong collegiality with peers from other professions, if they are the only one, or one of a minority number, professional isolation and a reservation about speaking freely within their context may occur. If there is democratic decision-making in counsellor course decisions, the minority number of Counsellor Educators may be outvoted by the Educators of Counselling who may have little understanding or commitment to the counselling profession’s values and culture. There is a potential that the Counsellor Educator defaults to a role of monitor, guardian, discipline advocate, and staff educator about principles associated more closely with the counselling profession. They also occupy a position of being approached by students asking why most of their lecturers are not counsellors but belong to alternative professions. For institutions whereby counselling is taught alongside other disciplines, new continuing staff can be employed to meet the needs of the higher status and/or more restrictive disciplines, and counselling gaps filled with available existing staff (given that they can be taught by an ‘equivalent’ clinician) rather than staff specifically employed to contribute to the counselling course/s. Job applicants may also apply for Counselling Lecturer roles as a less competitive entry point from which to progress sideways back to their own discipline when the opportunity arises, while potential Counsellor Educators may be turned off applying for positions in universities where they see counsellor underrepresentation in the staffing profile. All these factors can affect the morale of Counsellor Educators as they find themselves minorities in their own discipline.

The influence of training standards

The current training guidelines currently enable those outside the profession to determine the professional makeup of those who train counsellors. In addition, non-members of the counselling profession also select and prepare students for entry into the counselling profession. In my opinion, the existing standards show insufficient concern for safeguarding the counselling profession’s disciplinary boundaries and identity when it comes to training. The counselling profession needs to ensure they are advocating first and foremost for the profession, its quality, its reputation, and the interests of its members; and training standards should adequately reflect this in all areas, including staffing. Universities are becoming more accustomed to practice-based professions like counselling (such as nursing, paramedicine, etc.) that produce relatively low numbers of academics from their graduates. Universities will hire and mentor staff without doctorates and research if required by professional training standards to hire from within a specified profession.

The authority to prioritise staff appointments of less experienced academics in the presence of stronger competition often does not come from the Course Leaders overseeing the programs but the professional training accreditation requirements. Course Leaders presently have no authoritative grounds within accreditation requirements to insist on advertising exclusively for, or for prioritising Counselling Educator appointments. Their recommendations to hire Counsellor Educators can be dismissed by Heads of Departments or faculties, who insist on the more qualified equivalents. While accreditation standards are what Course Leaders rely on to ensure the institution maintains appropriate quality in counsellor education, when it comes to staffing, these same standards undermine their efforts to prioritise hiring Counsellor Educators. If the profession’s guidelines do not prioritise Counsellor Educators, why should universities prioritise hiring them?

Until the guidelines are amended, Counselling Educators are likely to be limited mainly to sessional teaching appointments, particularly if Heads of Departments want to rationalise teaching staff to teach across complementary disciplines. Likewise, counselling applicants who do not possess PhDs, lack experience with teaching in higher education settings, cannot teach and supervise across disciplines and do not hold track records of research; or are not prepared to juggle the demands of a part-time practice with being a full-time academic, may also be disadvantaged.


It is understandable that the counselling profession would not set too stringent staffing requirements for such a young profession. Doing so would starve itself of academics (and potentially accredited courses) who can keep a steady pipeline of counsellors entering the profession from the higher education sector. However, at some point, a change of strategy is needed lest the existing standards contribute to starving the profession of its own identity and its own practitioners becoming excluded from teaching counselling in higher education. The concerns about the varying costs of too heavily relying on Educators of Counselling and the restricted opportunities for Qualified Counsellors to become academics, raise questions about what can be done to increase Counsellor Educator presence and influence in the teaching of counselling Courses. Available options should be considered in light of the profession’s priorities, the available supply of Counsellor Educators, the risks of institutions abandoning accreditation, and other less obvious and foreseeable impacts that such changes might bring. The choice, timing and strength of interventions also need to be considered.

There are several options available in relation to the issues posed in this paper. The first might be for PACFA’s research committee to commission a study of the professional staffing profile of PACFA-accredited Australia counselling courses. This would provide data from which to identify if a problem of significance does exist. A second might be that PACFA’s training standards more clearly prioritise the hiring of Counsellor Educators. For core staff, this might be by requiring institutions provide evidence of a commitment to meeting minimum quotas of Counsellor Educators. This would shift Counsellor Educators from being optional to being closer to an inherent requirement for staffing profiles. An alternative to quotas might be to ask new and renewal accreditation applicants to demonstrate how the course ensures students are appropriately socialised into the counselling profession. How does it ensure students have access to counsellors as role models throughout their studies? How does it ensure its staff are sufficiently familiar with the counselling profession and its values so they can align their teaching accordingly? How does it ensure the course leadership have sufficient understanding, commitment[4], and connection with the counselling profession whereby decisions are congruent with what is valued by the profession? For those with a strong staffing profile of Counsellor Educators, these will be more easily demonstrated. For others who do not meet some of these, they might be required to include a strategic plan to address shortcomings along with their accreditation application.

Academic staff and leaders can also play a part in stimulating the pipeline of future Counsellor Educators. At the higher education institution I work, the leadership team ensured that the research project in our Master of Counselling was substantive enough to enable entry into our PhD programs. We encourage students to think about a career in higher education and highlight the scarcity (and importance) of PhD holding Counsellor Educators, whilst also promoting research and academic careers as achievable and rewarding. Staff encourage individual students who demonstrate suitability, to consider PhDs and other opportunities for engagement with scholarly activity. With academic pathway students, we explain the need to develop as an experienced practitioner over time. We encourage the students to be on the doctoral journey simultaneously as developing experience as therapists.


This paper raised concerns that there is some evidence to suggest Counsellor Educators may be sidelined in favour of recruiting educators from other professions. It calls for increased strategic support for prioritising the hiring of Counsellor Educators (including psychotherapists), both for the interests of the profession’s members they represent, and also the interests of maintaining the profession’s distinctiveness and identity throughout the training offered to counselling students. It noted potential strategies that could prioritise Counsellor Educators in the hiring decisions for teaching staff, and of building the supply of future Counsellor Educators.


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A special thanks to the PACFA members who kindly provided valuable feedback and suggestions on drafts. Note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and not representative of his professional affiliations.

[1] While this article specifically references counsellors, it applies to psychotherapists where relevant.

[2] The term qualified counsellor is used to identify those who have training and experience that make them eligible for ARCAP (Australian Register of Counsellors and Psychotherapists) registration. The term Registered Counsellor refers to those listed on ARCAP.

[3] In August 2019 I read a position description for a Counselling Head in a private college that provides PACFA and ACA accredited degrees. The first criteria stated: “Registration as a psychologist in Australia required”. The provider did not offer psychology degrees so having this requirement appeared unjustifiably professionally discriminatory to those in the counselling profession. The outgoing Counselling Head was a psychologist.

[4] Currently there are eight guidelines for Course Coordinators overseeing counselling courses (PACFA, 2018b). In these, there are no requirements of any knowledge of, or connection with the counselling profession. The professional identity, commitment, and knowledge appears irrelevant.