The social work degree is a key component in efforts to tackle high staff vacancy rates. But will fees and more debt deter would-be students? Gordon Carson reports
It is ironic that barely a month into its latest social care recruitment advertising campaign, the government has announced plans that could exacerbate the skills shortage.
There are concerns that the introduction of variable tuition fees this September for new undergraduates living in England starting social work degrees (Fears that degree fees will deter students despite rise in bursaries, 23 March) will deter would-be students.
Until this year, students starting some vocational courses, including social work, were not required to pay fees, but this will now end for undergraduates. The Department of Health will still give postgraduates a contribution towards their fees, alongside a non-means-tested bursary of £2,500 to £2,900 and a means-tested support grant.
Although the DH has raised bursaries for undergraduates – by £1,500 to £4,000 a year (£4,400 in London) for full-time students – this is nowhere near enough to meet living costs as estimated by the National Union of Students.
The DH has no plans, however, to introduce fees for those taking nursing and midwifery courses, leading to concerns that social work is again the poor relation in the department. People on three-year nursing and midwifery diplomas will have their fees paid and enjoy higher bursaries than their social work counterparts, while students taking nursing degrees will have their fees paid but bursaries means tested.
Social work students also look likely to be worse off than those taking teaching degrees. Although both undergraduates and postgraduates will be charged fees for teaching courses in ngland from September, teaching attracts a far greater proportion of postgraduates who are eligible for bigger bursaries – in some cases £9,000 for a one-year course.
Social work students in Wales will also fare better than their English counterparts, receiving bursaries of £2,500 and having their fees covered.
Jon Glasby, senior lecturer at Birmingham University’s Health Services Management Centre and a former social worker, says it is impossible to say what long-term impact fees will have on student numbers, but says they send out the wrong message.
“At a time when recruitment and retention is so difficult it sends some very contrary messages about how committed we are to boosting our social work,” he says.
Fully qualified entrants to the workforce are still desperately needed. For example, vacancy ratesfor children’s social workers remain stubbornly high, running at more than 11 per cent in England, according to the Employer’s Organisation for local government.
On the more advantageous position of nursing students, Glasby warns: “If you were a young person thinking about joining a caring profession you may be inclined to do nursing rather than social work because of the financial realities.”
Trish Hafford-Letchfield, senior lecturer in social work at London South Bank University, believes tuition fees will not necessarily deter people from applying to study social work but could accentuate difficulties in retaining students until the end of their courses.
She has been conducting research into retention and says there are indications that black students could suffer the most from tuition fees as they appear more likely to have families to look after.
About 95 per cent of the 320 social work or so students at her university are mature students, who are more likely to have mortgages and families.
“When students apply they think it’s like an ordinary degree where they can do a bit of work at the weekend or evenings,” she adds. “But because the degree is so demanding and there’s so much practice learning, they can’t cope with it.”
This is backed by Sue Howard, education adviser at the Royal College of Nursing, who says nursing students, like those on social work degrees, spend much of their course doing practice learning.
She says this is why students in both disciplines should be eligible for greater support, and says most mature nursing students opt for the diploma instead of the degree because it attracts more funding through bursaries.
The social work degree has proved popular in England since its introduction in 2003. In the first year, 2,411 people enrolled on the degreebut in 2005 there were 7,657 applications accepted.
Hafford-Letchfield says courses at London South Bank attract four applicants for every place. It would be a shame if tuition fees hampered this progress.