Fears speech-language therapist shortage could hit crisis levels if Massey University cans key degree

There are fears a shortage of speech-language therapists could reach crisis levels if Massey University cans a key degree.

The Speech-Language Therapy programme is one of only two bachelor's degrees of its kind in New Zealand and if it closes, the 20-month waiting list for treatment could balloon out further.

Life turned on its head for former police manager Clive Robinson when he had a stroke four years ago.

But weekly speech-language sessions with therapist Patty Govender are a godsend. He's learning to find the right words and make sense of conversations.

"We are trained to do it in such a way that hope is always kept alive," Govender said.

But speech therapists fear for their sector, with Massey University calling for voluntary redundancies of staff who train the practitioners of the future.

If its degree folds, that'll leave only Christchurch offering the four-year bachelor's programme.

"Any potential staff cuts is going to make a challenging situation dire," Govender said.

Speech-language therapists work privately and publicly with children who have developmental challenges.

Brain injuries, Down syndrome, and adult stroke clients too get the vital help they need, not only with speech but many must learn to swallow again.

"In that case, we can literally save lives," said Emma Quigan, co-president of the Speech and Language Therapists' Association.

Massey University has told Newshub there are no current proposals to close its programme, but it acknowledges the current cost of the degree is unsustainable longer term.

With speech therapists in New Zealand already about 200 short, their association says expect already long wait times to increase.

"If someone you love has a stroke and we can't fill those vacancies, it's going to take longer to see. If you have a child with communication difficulties, that 20-month wait could be longer," Quigan said.

New Zealand has 20 speech-language therapists per 100,000 people. Australia has double that with 40 per 100,000, and it describes itself as having a workforce crisis.

"Speech therapy training programmes are funded the same way as a Bachelor of Arts," Quigan said.

"Vocational training programmes are different. We are asking the Government how can we make sure these programmes are funded to ensure their sustainability."

Education Minister Jan Tinetti said a review of higher education funding is being undertaken and it's put speech-language therapists on the immigration green list.

But even that's not enough to plug the gaps for patients for whom early intervention is crucial.