Is there a profession less valued than social work? Answer: yes
– social work lecturing.
There now seem to be serious concerns that social work
practitioners are reluctant to move into academia, leaving ageing
lecturers increasingly isolated from social work practice. This may
be a new concern, but underpinning it is a longstanding and even
more worrying issue for social work – its frequent failure to
ensure that face-to-face practice is at the heart of its activities
Social work’s structures and organisations have not encouraged
senior managers, academics and other key figures to maintain direct
involvement in face-to-face practice. Here is one field where
social work might learn some lessons from health. Academic nurses
frequently seem to maintain their practice registration. It is
unremarkable for senior medical academics to maintain clinical
work. Yet frequently social work academics are put in a position
where their knowledge of practice dwindles and may only be replaced
by what they hear from students and practice partners, or read in
social work texts predominantly written by non-practitioners.
A long time ago, Martin Richardson, a social work student, and
I, a social work lecturer, came to the conclusion that there were
intractable problems in basing social work education in
universities and colleges, where it became academicised and
separated from the world of practice. We argued instead for
deschooling social work, basing learning resources in local areas,
strengthening their independence from service agencies and
developing clear principles rooted in linking theory and
Predictably nothing came of this, but social work education has
since sought to reinvent itself in other ways, emphasising the
importance of practitioners and service users. So perhaps we now
need to look more to higher education than to social work itself,
to make sense of social work practitioners’ current reluctance to
make the move to academic life.
There may be issues of formal university terms and conditions
discouraging crossover. But I suspect the problems are more basic.
In the public mind, universities may still be “ivory towers” but
such stereotypes take no account of the huge cultural and funding
changes wrought by Thatcher. Modern universities are run as if they
were multinational corporations, often by people with little
relevant experience who have mostly had a cushioned life of public
sector employment. Too often the result is underfunding, overwork,
stress, bullying and breakdown.
Universities are also preoccupied with the government’s Research
Assessment Exercise. It means that valuing students and being a
good teacher is not enough. Academics must succeed in “grant
capture” and publish in suitable places (which are unlikely to
include service users’ newsletters).
Many good practitioners may have a limited background in
research and require mentoring and support to develop their
research skills. Needless to say, given the other work they and
their colleagues have, this doesn’t necessarily happen.
No wonder then that social work practitioners think twice about
entering academic life. It is time universities and social work
bodies got together to set in train a process to do something about
So long as practitioners are not included at the heart of all
social work activities, from policy-making to research, and from
management to education, then social work practice itself is likely
to continue to be weakened. We also need more equal access to the
social work education workforce for people with experience as
service users, but until universities become more positive work
places, this too is unlikely to happen.