The government is considering scrapping grant funding given to thousands of social work students each year, Community Care has learned.
Sources said government officials want to cut the outlay on social work bursaries after becoming concerned degree programmes are producing too many graduates ill-equipped for practice.
One source said the government is likely to include proposals to abolish social work bursaries in a consultation being launched next month on plans to replace nursing course bursaries with student loans.
An option to axe undergraduate social work bursaries but maintain postgraduate support in some form could be included in the consultation, the source added.
Another source said the social work bursary was “on its way out”. The government’s growing support for fast-track training programmes, such as Frontline, signalled “the death knell” for bursaries, they said. This is because the grants were designed to attract students onto social work degrees, which are now out of favour.
The fast-track schemes, which receive government funding, are not covered by the Department of Health bursary system and instead pay their trainees between £16,000 and £19,000 a year (a breakdown of the student support on different courses can be found here).
A Department of Health spokesperson declined to comment on “a leak”.
Applications for bursaries for the 2016-17 academic year are due to open in March.
The basic social work bursary, which is not means tested, is currently worth up to £3,762 a year for postgraduate students and £5,262 a year for undergraduates. An additional tuition fee contribution of £4,052 can be paid directly to universities
Since April 2013 the government has capped bursaries to around 4,100 new students a year. The scheme costs around £70m annually.
The bursaries, which are administered by the NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBA) on behalf of the government, were introduced alongside the social work degree in 2003. Both were a response to a fall in applications to social work courses in the 1990s.
There are now concerns within government that social work degrees are producing too many graduates who are not ‘practice ready’. This has led to renewed scrutiny of both degree courses and the bursary system. It has also seen ministers increasingly turn to fast-track schemes, which target ‘high performing’ graduates and claim to offer more practice-based learning than traditional degrees, in an effort to improve the quality of trainees.
Expansion of fast-track training
This month the Department for Education pledged an extra £100m in funding for the Frontline and Step up to Social Work fast-track programmes. The courses will train one in four new children’s social workers by 2020.
At the time, social work leaders raised concerns over the “inequity of funding” between fast-track and mainstream university social work degrees.
Those concerns will intensify if bursary funding is abolished.
The social work bursary scheme was challenged in two government-commissioned reviews of social work education.
Professor David Croisdale-Appleby’s report, which was commissioned by the Department of Health, recommended phasing out undergraduate bursaries but maintaining postgraduate bursary funding, possibly as a means-tested grant.
He concluded: “That we are qualifying too many students, and in a situation when support funding for social work education is strictly limited, there are greater priorities than maintaining the current number of student bursaries which could be reduced.”
Sir Martin Narey reviewed social work training on behalf of the Department for Education. His report found some evidence that the bursary system had helped increase the diversity of social work trainees but also heard concerns it incentivised some students who were “primarily motivated by the non-means tested financial support” on offer.
Like Croisdale-Appleby, Narey suggested targeting bursary support at postgraduate students.
He said: “When satisfaction with social workers coming through the masters route remains relatively high, and when we can have far greater confidence about their raw intellectual ability, it is important that bursary scheme arrangements do not halt the growth in the proportion of social workers taking the postgraduate route.
“Indeed, I would go further: there is a case for further tilting support in favour of funding for masters students.”