How do you account for your meteoric rise in academia?
A combination of luck, being in the right place and learning from others. From day one I was fortunate to have people in senior positions around me who were prepared to develop me on the job and take a risk – becoming professor of health and social care is more a testimony to them than it is to me.
Now that you’re a professor, what else is there to aspire to?
The department I work for – the Health Services Management Centre (HSMC) – has always been committed to rigour and relevance in health and social care. The practitioner in me has always thought that universities in general were good at “rigour”, but could do much more to be relevant. Being appointed as a professor is a sign of Birmingham’s commitment to this way of working, and a springboard to carry on the work we’ve been doing to bring the skills of academia closer to policy and practice.
You trained as a social worker, but what drew you to the academic life?
In many ways I was always too academic for practice and too practical for academia! HSMC was therefore the perfect place to engage both sides of my personality. In the same way, my role on the board of the Social Care Institute of Excellence has allowed me to span the divide between research and practice.
When I finished training, I was told that I’d be a good social worker, but that my trouble is I think too much. I know what the person was getting at (and they were probably right!), but that “thinking too much” could ever be a criticism in a job as important as social work seems a shame.
As I qualified, I started looking for jobs, but it was hard to get a post in adult social care due to funding problems and so many people from children’s services moving sideways. There are now significant shortages, and it makes me wonder if we could be more proactive about planning the future workforce.
What relevance do academics have to modern social care?
If we’re serious about designing services that produce better outcomes for people who use them, then academia is crucial. In addition to their knowledge of research, academics have the privilege of some time and space so that they can see the wood for the trees and ask those in practice the right kind of questions. Unfortunately, a lot has to change if academia is to fulfil this role in a more meaningful way.
Can Our Health, Our Care, Our Say become a reality and what will it take?
It can if we really want it to. I’ve always felt that we get the health and social care services we deserve as a society – so we’ve got to mean it when we say it. Many of the commitments in the white paper are absolutely the right things to be aiming for, but almost everything about current services has to change if we are to make this a reality.
What will be the two most important changes in social care over the next five years?
For me, direct payments and individual budgets have been the two most exciting developments in the recent history of adult social care – perhaps the two most important ways of working since the creation of the welfare state. If current ambitions are to be achieved, then these concepts will need to be a core part of social care. As time moves on, I also expect to see a more organised and politicised movement of older people – with the numbers involved and the votes at stake, such a movement could make a major difference to issues such as pensions and long-term care.
Can social care cope with the demands placed on it?
Only if it gets better at explaining to people what it does and why this is important. For me, good social care is a basic building block for a good society and a good life – but not many members of the public would say that if you asked them.
Do you miss life on the front line?
Yes I do – while I still meet practitioners and service users, I hope I don’t ever forget why I wanted to be a social worker in the first place.
Jon Glasby is professor of health and social care, Health Services Management Centre, University of Birmingham. He is also a board member of the Social Care Institute of Excellence
➔ Find out more about the work of the Health Services Management CentreThis article appeared in the 27 September issue under the headline “Forget ivory towers”