Are austerity cuts creating a two-tier education system?

As debate rages over the issue of standards on university courses, many argue it needs to examine the impact of budget cuts and funding

Social work students
Photo: David Oxberry/Mood Board/Rex (posed by models)

Questions around how you make a good social worker are by no means new, nor are they straightforward.

But when an academic recently confessed to resigning in despair at the poor practice going on at their university, the article poured fuel on the embers of a long-burning debate about the standards of social work courses and the calibre of graduates emerging from them.

Amid this hubbub of debate, it is difficult to escape the audible clinking of coins.

So what is the cost of social work education as it stands?

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Undergraduate Postgraduate Step Up to Social Work Frontline Think Ahead
How long is it? 3 years full time 2 years full time 14 months 5 weeks’ intensive summer institute, 2 years in a local authority 6 weeks’ intensive summer institute, 2 years in a local authority or NHS trust
Cost to trainees £9k a year Universities set their own rates but are usually around £6.5k a year £0 £0 £0
Funding available to trainees £5,262.50 in London and £4,862.50 outside London, for 2,500 eligible students. £3,762.50 in London and £3,362.50 outside London, for 1,500 eligible students. An additional tuition fee contribution of £4,052 can be paid directly to universities. £19,833 towards living costs £16-18k in the first year. In the second year trainees receive an NQSW salary Bursary equivalent to a salary of £22,000 in London and £19,000 outside London. In year 2 trainees receive an NQSW salary from their employing local authority or NHS trust
Who funds it? Teaching is funded by the students themselves. Bursaries and money to host students on placements is provided by the Department of Health Teaching is funded by the students themselves. Bursaries and money to host students on placements is provided by the Department of Health The Department for Education A mixture of the Department for Education, charitable and private funding Department of Health

Monetary incentives

A social worker, Joanne, who commented on the academic’s article, said several students had qualified alongside her who had either plagiarised essays, had questionable behavior or failed most modules and could only pass with extensive tutor support.

“I did raise concerns with my university and it was very clear the university was driven by monetary incentives.”

It’s no secret higher education institutions, like local authorities themselves, are woefully overstretched. They can’t afford lightly to chuck out students who represent up to £27k in the coffers.

This is an allegation robustly defended by chair of the Joint University Committee for Social Work Education, Samantha Baron, who is adamant that admission processes are rigorous, externally regulated and social work academics aren’t just trying to keep “bums on seats”.

Impact of austerity

However, Anna Gupta, an academic at Royal Holloway in the University of London says the impact of austerity is not being taken into account as part of the debate about the reform of social work education.

“So much change is going on at a time when local authorities are on their knees,” she says. “Changes to social work education are so often taken out of the context in which they are being implemented.”

So, to many academics it seems unfair that some of the newer, fast-track schemes such as Frontline, Step Up to Social Work and the recently launched Think Ahead for mental health social workers enjoy strong support from the government, including funding and grant monies. This means they can pull in a wide pool of applicants with their offer of a healthy £16-£18k bursary, compared with the student bursary worth around £4-5k available only to some second year social work students on a traditional degree.

Financial inequalities

When pressed about their instinctive distrust of the Frontline and Think Ahead models, academics, after citing the problems with a lack of robust generic training and the fast track approach, will above all be pre-occupied with financial inequalities.

Bridget Robb, chief executive of the British Association of Social Workers agrees she has been impressed by the students on Frontline she has met but adds this is what the calibre of what all social work students would be if the same amount of resources was poured into every single one.

“Frontline students have the massive advantage of money to support them on their training—with a wage, and much better funded resources to support their learning than most universities can afford.

“In any comparison of the quality of the education it is necessary to take this difference of funding into account.

“There is no evidence of any difference of the quality of the intake on different post-graduate programmes, but the level of resources available for the programmes is massively different.”

Mixed portfolio

Brigid Featherstone, academic at the Open University asks how you can compare the model to other routes when it’s difficult to know how far positive outcomes are a result of simply being properly resourced—with students funded such that they can train without the burden of a second or third job. She questions the decision not to look at costs in the current evaluation of the Frontline programme, due for publication in Spring 2016.

“There is a mixed portfolio of provision now which is not in itself undesirable. However, the financial inequalities between students on different programmes is undesirable  and its consequences need to be closely monitored. Any evaluation of the programmes where students receive the most generous financial assistance needs to factor such assistance in,” Featherstone says.

For Amanda Taylor, academic at the University of Central Lancashire, there is room for a variety of routes into social work, but “it is worth pondering how the funding of these fast track routes can be sustained”.

“It will be interesting to evaluate further down the line issues pertaining to retention and whether or not this investment has been worth it,” she says.

The worry is alternative training routes will have an adverse effect on the more traditional degree route. JUCSWEC’s Baron says she has already received feedback from local authorities, in her post at Manchester Metropolitan University, that they do not have the capacity to meet demand for statutory placements from all traditional degree students on top of their agreement to accept Step Up to Social Work trainees and those from “alternative models”.

However, despite this Baron is confident the government has no intention to move social work education out of universities, largely because other models are simply not scaleable to the volume of students nationwide, she says.

Positive impact

The chief executive of the mental health social work scheme, Think Ahead, says the programme will prove its worth and value for money by sharing its learning across the sector.

Ella Joseph, said: “We want to have a positive impact on the sector as a whole—by bringing in exceptional individuals through our programme, but also by boosting the status of the profession and strengthening training across the board.

“We’ve been consulting people across the sector to develop our programme, and we’re going to share our learning to contribute to the development of best practice in social work training.”

Think Ahead has only just opened for applications, but children’s social work scheme Frontline is further along, having begun accepting applications for its third cohort this month.

Value for money

Sara Patel, a service manager at Wigan where a unit of Frontline trainees are being hosted, feels the quality of the participants she has observed so far makes the programme value for money.

“The other models are not as embedded in frontline practice,” she says. “Frontline participants are attending child in need and child protection meetings. They are very integrated into our systems from an early stage and they are also learning how teams function.

“From an academic perspective they are very bright and their writing ability is very good. When it comes to report writing and court work, those aren’t growth skills, they are already there.”

But, she is says, it’s too soon to know whether this model can or should be rolled out more widely or decisions made on what the main recruitment stream should be.

The Department for Education has commissioned a separate study comparing the costs of social work qualification routes and intends to publish this at the same time as the Frontline evaluation, in Spring 2016.

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One Response to Are austerity cuts creating a two-tier education system?

  1. David Mortimer September 23, 2015 at 12:16 pm #

    Austerity leads to more privatization & increased costs to tax payers for the same services. Osborne’s austerity policy between 2010 – 2015 didn’t balance the budget deficit but it did double the national debt. Money creation must be put back in public hands & the bankers who caused the crash must be held to account.

    Those who opposed Jeremy Corbyn during his leadership contest must leave the Labour party so that it can unite & win the next general election with a victory even greater than Blair’s landslide was in 1997 when the public were just as desperate to get rid of a Tory Government.