A lack of practice placements is expected to cause a cut in the number of undergraduate social work degree places in England and Wales despite a recent rise in applications, a Community Care investigation has revealed.
Many higher education institutions said growth was also being restricted by uncertainty over future funding arrangements for higher education.
A reduction in student places was welcomed by some in the sector, with Birmingham University professor of social work Sue White saying the General Social Care Council had approved too many courses in England, leading to a shortage of suitable practice placements.
The number of undergraduate degree places is expected to fall slightly in England (by 8%) and Wales (by 14%), but remain roughly the same in Scotland, according to figures released under the Freedom of Information Act by around three-quarters of UK universities offering social work degrees.
The number of applications to the 2010-11 full-time undergraduate degree had nearly doubled in England by the time they were counted in February last year, to 60,000 from 37,000 in 2009-10, according to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. This made social work the ninth most popular subject out of more than 180.
Portsmouth University, which predicts one of the biggest proportionate reductions in undergraduate places, from 73 in 2010-11 to 55 in 2011-12, said: “Recruitment to our social work courses is limited by the availability of excellent quality placements for our students.”
White claimed the growth of some programmes had increased pressure on the availability of practice placements in some regions.
“The GSCC should have been less permissive in approving courses, and should have been managing local demand on placements,” she said.
But Sherry Malik, director of strategy and social work education at the GSCC, said: “The GSCC’s role in education is to approve social work courses that meet set standards. We were not set up to shape the size of the workforce, nor do we have the power to.”
The uncertainty over proposed higher education funding reforms was also cited as a reason for the decrease in places.
Last November, universities minister David Willetts announced proposals for higher education funding in England in response to Lord Browne’s independent review.
Under the plans, students face increased tuition fees of up to £9,000 from 2012. Fees for social work students in England, currently at least £3,000, are paid by the Department of Health through social work bursaries – but this is under review.
In addition, universities face a £940m, or 12.6%, cut to the budget for teaching, research and buildings for the next academic year, according to the Higher Education Funding Council for England.
Kingston University, which expects its number of undergraduate places to remain static at 65 next year, said: “Ideally we would like to maintain numbers at the current levels; however, nationally we may see a decline due to funding issues.”
Cost of move to postgrad course could deter students
The shift towards postgraduate provision of social work education in England could deter students from applying in the future due to financial concerns, a senior academic has warned.
Our investigation has shown that, despite an overall slight decline, the number of postgraduate places available as a proportion of the total in England has steadily increased (see graph above).
A spokesperson for the University of Sheffield, which has decided to discontinue its undergraduate social work programme, explained: “Current demand on placements within the region has meant that there is a premium on high-quality practice learning experiences for students.
“We wish to concentrate on working with our partner agencies to build capacity, and this will be more effectively achieved by having a single group of qualifying students.”
But Jane McLenachan, head of social work and health studies at De Montfort University, warned the emerging trend could have “unintended consequences”.
She said: “As the £9,000 undergraduate fees [the maximum students will have to pay in England from 2012] begin to take effect, we may well see a reduction in numbers of students wishing to study the social work degree at postgraduate level, given the level of debt they will already have and the knowledge that social work is not a highly paid profession.”
McLenachan said it was “not the right time” to make such decisions, before the Department of Health has completed its review of bursary arrangements for the social work degree.
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