A NSW Ambulance paramedic with many years service asks about the transition to degree qualifications.    My correspondent says:

When I joined the NSW Ambulance Service 13 years ago, the requirement was a Diploma of Paramedicine.  This involved an initial induction course of 7 weeks, up to 12 months on road as a probationer, another 3 weeks to do In-service 1, another 2 years on road as a level 2 or intern and then another 3 weeks of In-service 2 which we graduated with our Diploma and deemed qualified as a Paramedic with the NSW Ambulance.  This has now changed with the Paramedic degree as the entry method.  My question is: can I be discriminated against in regards to promotions, Intensive care paramedic placements etc because I don’t have the degree.  I can understand that the degree has its place and that ambulance services in Australia want professional recognition but at the same time, I’m older with family commitments and at this stage of my life I really don’t want to (or have time to) complete a degree or conversion.  How does this all add legally?

The reality is we discriminate all the time.  To discriminate is to ‘Recognize a distinction; differentiate’ (Oxford English Dictionary, online).   There is a difference between a person with a degree and one without, as there is a difference between a person with 13 years on road experience and a person just out of university.

The prohibition on discrimination is that an employer is not allowed to discriminate for any of the prohibited reasons; gender, sexual orientation, marital status etc (see for example Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 (NSW)).   So can a paramedic without a degree be ‘discriminated against’? The answer has to be ‘yes, if it’s relevant’.  If two people are applying for the same position and one has a degree and the other does not then if that’s a relevant distinction that could be grounds for preferring the degree qualified paramedic over the non-degree qualified one.   By the same token the employer may prefer to discriminate in favour of the road experience.

The transition to the degree qualification for paramedics is not unique. Nurses had to go through the same process so there are ‘grandfathering’ provisions to allow non-degree practitioners to continue their work.  For example in NSW it is now an offence for a person to call themselves a paramedic (Health Services Act 1997 (NSW) s 67ZDA and Health Services Regulation 2013 (NSW) s 19A) unless they hold either:

(a) a Bachelor of Paramedicine or a Graduate Diploma of Paramedicine conferred by a university, [or]

(b) a nationally-recognised Diploma of Paramedicine issued by a registered training organisation.

There are industrial issues here and that’s relevant to how job descriptions and selection criteria are set.  According to the Government Sector Employment Rules 2014 (NSW) the employment of a government employee ‘is to be based on an assessment of the capabilities, experience and knowledge of the person concerned against the pre-established standards for the role to determine the person best suited to the requirements of the role and the needs of the relevant Public Service agency’ (r 16). If the job in question calls for a ‘paramedic’ there should be no discrimination.  If it calls for the person to hold the degree there should be clear reasons why that is essential.   Where the position is with the state service, the Ambulance Service of NSW, a candidate who thinks they have been unfairly treated does have appeal rights (Government Sector Employment Rules 2014 (NSW) r 24).

So my correspondent is entitled to continue to use the title paramedic and one would hope an employer would not discriminate on the basis that there is no degree.  To discriminate on that basis would not breach the anti-discrimination legislation but it may breach the provisions and intention of the Government Sector Employment Act 2013 (NSW) and the Government Sector Employment Rules made under that Act.