By Michelle Kerrigan, Year 1 student, School of Social Work, University of Central Lancashire
In May 2013, whilst on maternity leave, I made the decision to not return to my job at a debt management company, assisting people in financial difficulty to pay off their debt. I had decided to enrol at the University of Central Lancashire to train to become a social worker. I was driven by my belief that, with the right guidance and support, everyone can succeed in their own lives and everyone has the right to live as part of an equal society which is fair and just.
Throughout my first year of study, we learned just how great the divides in society can be, in relation to health, wealth and opportunity. There are systems and people in high places deciding who is deserving and who is undeserving.
I never thought I would personally be impacted so much by this sort of process. But earlier this month, I was informed I was not on my university’s ‘capping list’ for the social work bursary of £4575. I would just receive a placement travel allowance of £862.50.
In 2013, the allocation of bursaries to social work students in England changed. There are fewer bursaries than students, and each university is allocated a set number of bursaries. This means universities are now required to manage the situation. They select that number of students onto a shortlist and send this to NHS Business Services Authority (NHS-BSA).
At my university, they begin with a list of all students enrolled on the programme. They remove students who have not achieved ‘readiness for practice’. These are students who have failed academic work or have not met the requirement for attendance at lectures and so on.
If the number of students exceeds the number of bursaries after this, my university then allocates places according to the date students accepted their offer of a place. I had my interview in July 2014, so I was one of the last students to accept a place.
The social work bursary is supposed to be an incentive to study social work. Last year, approximately 60% of eligible students at my university received a bursary.
When I received the news that I wouldn’t be awarded one, I had to think hard about whether I could afford to continue. Should I call it a day and shatter my dreams or should I exhaust myself balancing all my commitments for another two years so I can make a difference?
Social work is a tough profession; there is a constant need for more workers. The profession needs people who are determined, responsible and accountable. However, due to the way bursary funds are allocated, many are forced to drop out after their first year. These are students who want to help people and society to change, but due to financial challenges, are unable to proceed.
Missing out on excellent social workers
I am lucky to have a supportive partner and family so I am able to continue with my studies. What about students who do not have the same level of support – perhaps students who decided to join the profession because they have first-hand experience of services, like care leavers?
They would make excellent social workers with the ability to connect to families in a way others could only dream of. But without the financial support, they may not get there. This is not right and that’s why I have started a petition to David Cameron.
In the letter, I am calling for NHS-BSA to pay the total amount it would award students on each course directly to their university. Universities could then distribute bursaries to everyone enrolled on the course equally. This could mean the difference between qualifying and not qualifying for some students.
Time to stand up
I’m not asking for more money to be made available to students. I am asking for the amount of funding awarded to be shared fairly and equally among all eligible students. Surely if we are entering a profession which is supposed to promote fairness and equality, then the ability to enter the profession and all aspects of our studies should reflect that?
I have made freedom of information requests to UCAS and NHS-BSA to try and find out how many people are dropping out because of this; how many have children, for example. I have contacted my local MP and am hopeful he will be able to assist. Regardless of whether I can get his backing, I will continue with this campaign to make social work bursary distribution fair and equal to all eligible students.
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