In order to gain a thorough understanding and answer this question fully, it is important to first understand the distinction between an academic and professional qualification;
An academic qualification is a theory-based university programme that prepares graduates for higher-level professional qualifications or research-orientated employment opportunities. At an undergraduate level, the duration of these qualifications is usually 3 years and do not incorporate a significant amount of practical training. Academic qualifications tend to be more general in nature and rely on further specialization at higher levels of academia.
In contrast, a professional qualification is a practically orientated programme that prepares graduates for work in a specific field. In South Africa, these qualifications consist of 4 years of training, including practical internships that are supervised by registered professionals in that field. There is certainly a great deal of overlap between an academic and professional qualification, as understanding the theory, history, methodology and research is crucial in preparing graduates for the real-world workplace; the critical difference being the supervised application of these academic criteria that makes a professional qualification so beneficial.
A prime example of these two types of qualifications can be seen when comparing a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology to a Bachelor of Education. A BA in Psychology is a 3 year academic qualification that encompasses the history, theory, and research associated with the field of professional psychology. These programmes do not include any practical training and it is for this reason that it would be unethical for any student to see a patient for any form of counselling. In contrast, a B.Ed is a 4 year qualification that not only covers the history, theory, pedagogy, and research associated with the field of education, but also includes a year of supervised practical training. It is during this time that students are given the opportunity to test their understanding of the theory in a safe, supervised environment.
Other examples of professional qualifications include; Bachelor of Laws (LLB), Bachelor of Commerce in Accounting (BCom CA), Bachelor of Pharmacy (BPharm), Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB).
Another important aspect associated with professional qualifications is that they prepare and allow for students to write board exams and register with the appropriate statutory body, under which the registered graduate will declare their oath or conduct and practice ethically within their field. For example, B.Ed graduates must register with the South African Council of Educators (SACE), where LLB graduates would register with the Law Society of South Africa (LSSA). The Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is the statutory body in place that regulates professional Psychology in South Africa and has dedicated registrations for mental health professionals that outline the different categories’ scope of practice.
The HPCSA also monitors the training standards of the various institutions that offer professional qualifications and accredits those that provide practical training in professional Psychology. There are only two accredited levels of training in Psychology that are able to produce mental health professionals in South Africa, these are the following;
Bachelor of Psychology (BPsych) or BPsych Equivalent, and the coursework Masters degrees in Psychology.
Bachelor of Psychology (BPsych)
A BPsych is a 4 year full-time professional qualification that leads to registration with the HPCSA as either a Psychometrist or Registered Counsellor. Both of these streams require students to complete a 720 hour supervised practicum whereby they will receive the appropriate practical training in the stream in which they choose to follow;
Registered Counsellor students received extensive training in the practical therapeutics of Person Centered Therapy, as well as Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. During their practical training, they will be given the opportunity to provide counselling under supervision, and following the completion of their coursework and practicum may write the HPCSA Board Exam and register as a Registered Counsellor.
Psychometry students will receive extensive training in the application and comprehension of Psychometric Assessments, as well as the ability to provide detailed feedback to their client regarding their measurement scores. Once again, these students will be required to complete a supervised practicum before they may write the HPCSA Board Exam and register as a Psychometrist.
Students that have followed the academic route and achieved an academic Honours level qualification in Psychology may consider completing an additional coursework programme called a BPsych Equivalent. This allows these Honours graduates the ability to cap their academic qualification with a professional qualification, making it the equivalent of a BPsych; hence the name. These qualifications also follow the two routes described above and lead to registration as either a Registered Counsellor or Psychometrist. Due to the intensive nature of the coursework and practical components, the 720 hour supervised practicum cannot be separated from the coursework. Students that have already completed an academic Honours will be required to complete the coursework component as the focus is specifically on the application of the therapeutics.
Professional Masters Degree
Finally, in order to become a Psychologist in South Africa, individuals need to complete a coursework Masters degree in one of the 6 recognized categories of Psychology; Clinical, Counselling, Educational, Industrial, Neuropsychology, or Research. As professional qualifications, these programmes are almost entirely practical in nature and provide intensive training that aligns with the global standards of Psychology regulated and monitored around the world. These programmes may extend to two years of full-time training where students will learn the skills necessary to conduct themselves as ethical professionals in the field of Psychology. Following the coursework component, Intern Psychology students are required to complete a 1 year supervised internship in their specific category, write the HPCSA Board Exam and, in the case of Clinical Psychology, complete 1 year community service to South Africa.
So why can’t Psychology graduates provide psychological counselling with an academic Honours degree? The truth is that without practical training, Honours level graduates would be experiencing the practical nature of therapy for the first time with their patients, unsupervised. These individuals run the risk of applying their theoretical understanding in ways that may be harmful to both their patients, and themselves. Practicing any psychological intervention without the appropriate professional qualification and registration puts any Counsellor in jeopardy of practicing unethically and creating an environment that can lead to legal ramifications where the Counsellor is not backed by a statutory body and legal indemnity.
The HPCSA only accredits professional qualifications with practical training in Psychology for a reason; to protect both the public and the professionals. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and for that reason those that offer mental healthcare in South Africa are regulated by the same statutory body that regulates medical doctors; the HPCSA.
If you needed stitches, would you go to a surgeon or a seamstress? Both can sew, but only one has had the appropriate training to do so on another human being.