By Eileen Qubain, tutor, and Lesley Parish, practice learning and development coordinator, Heart of Worcestershire College
The limit on bursaries for social work students introduced by the government in 2013 has led to a major increase in how much the degree will cost some students. For undergraduate social work courses, no bursary is available in year 1. In years 2 and 3, only a percentage of students on each course will receive a bursary.
Have these changes created more pressure within universities, particularly as first year students struggle with the financial implications? Bursary criteria in individual HE institutions will inevitably vary, but the impact on students across the country may well be universal.
Following the introduction of the changes, we undertook a small-scale research project of our year 1 students at Heart of Worcestershire College to seek out the student voice and their thoughts on the bursary system. We aimed not only to collect their views, but also to give students the opportunity to acknowledge the various feelings the changes have evoked and help them to manage those feelings in a positive way.
All of the 28 students responded and all indicated a level of anxiety due to the fact that only a percentage of their cohort will receive a bursary. There was a feeling of ‘unfairness’, with 86% highlighting tensions and divisions amongst students.
Those who were critical of the new bursary system questioned how it fitted in with promoting equality and pointed to an incongruence with government policy in terms of the values and ethics that relate to social work practice.
They questioned whether institutions could establish criteria that were fair and would take into account the cultural and structural elements of a student’s life, as well as grades and attendance.
One student said: “If I don’t receive the bursary in year 2, due to the cost of childcare whilst I am on placement, I will not be able to pay for this and it could stop me from continuing with the course”.
Another theme raised was how this change mirrored the low status afforded to the profession by government, with the bursary restrictions indicating a devaluing of social work at a time when “I thought social workers were very much needed”.
As universities are left to introduce their own funding criteria, we have witnessed greater competition between students, increased stress and questioning of grades. A recent File On 4 programme investigated student complaints and showed how financial changes have impacted the dynamic between student and institution. Our study reflects this.
There is certainly a sense that the quality of learning may now be overshadowed by students’ anxiety to meet the bursary criteria. Students indicated they were reluctant to take time off from class for caring responsibilities or illness as it would impact on their chances of getting a bursary. In these times of austerity, the impact of restrictions are felt by all, but we cannot help but feel saddened that energy is being diverted to money matters, rather than enjoying the learning journey, with many students repeatedly commenting on the financial aspects of their studies.
However, a smaller proportion of our students (19%) were of the opinion that such changes reflected the ‘real world’ and cited some beneficial elements, such as being more keenly motivated to engage fully with studies. One said: “As I would like a bursary, it has helped to motivate me to try and achieve good grades and attendance.”
You might ask how seeking the views of students is helpful in moving the situation forward when the availability of bursaries is a fait accompli. However, students need to fully comprehend the implications of the system before embarking on the training if we are to reduce the risk of drop-out due to lack of personal finances.
We hope that an insight into how it is affecting our year 1 students will help us, as educators, find ways to promote and protect the value of education in the face of an emphasis on money- ensuring the imperative to learn and understand remains visible and central.