Professor urges robust discussion on future of social work degrees in the face of ‘greedy’ universities

Professor Brigid Featherstone says it would be no bad thing if some social work courses disappear ahead of her keynote speech at JSWEC

Students in lecture
Credit: Mood board/Rex Features (posed by models)

The current debates around social work education are “paradoxical”, social care professor Brigid Featherstone has told Community Care ahead of her keynote speech at the Joint Social Work Education Conference (JSWEC), which starts today.

The Open University professor is set to use her keynote address on Thursday to reflect on the tensions that universities operating as businesses creates for social work education.

“There has been a lot of talk about what happens in the classroom, but paradoxically there has been very little interest in what has happened to universities in the last few decades,” said Featherstone.

She said it is important to consider how changes to universities have influenced social work and social work education.

Featherstone described the growth in young people attending university and the accompanying proliferation of courses as “expansion on the cheap”, referring to her own former institution where student intake around doubled in under a decade while numbers of teaching staff remained the same.

“We have had a dramatic increase in numbers, but not an increase in teaching grants or staff numbers and I think there has been a falling in quality,” she said. “It’s not to say ‘poor social work academics’, it’s not to say we should excuse problems around quality, but that part of this jigsaw has been social work academics trying to meet the needs of very greedy institutions like universities.”

It would be no bad thing if some courses fell by the wayside, as long as the ‘right’ ones remain, she added.

She also called on universities to build strong partnerships with local authorities and social work directors.

This kind of employer engagement will make sure students have educational placements, appropriate supervision and the best possible continuing professional development, she said, adding that this is already becoming embedded in some institutions.

“Directors are starting to say to me they are really seeing the reform agenda take effect in terms of the quality of social workers coming through.”

  • Professor Brigid Featherstone will speak at the JSWEC annual conference in London on Thursday

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