By a social worker and lecturer
Two and a half years ago, I made the transition from social work practitioner to university lecturer. Now I’m happily established in my new role I thought I’d offer some reflections on these two environments and what it feels like to make this transition.
One of the most striking differences is the resources available. Although I know financial constraints are a real issue in universities, and my department struggles with this, the pressures face seem nothing compared to my years in social services.
‘My team was constantly restructured’
This is particularly true of the austerity-driven past five years. My social work team were constantly restructured. We lost our offices, our admin workers, and even had to account for basic stationary. The constraints were so pervasive that I came to accept this environment of working. I thought managing a team without a desk of my own, and carrying my resources in the boot of my car was quite normal. The joy of a desk continues to please me.
Another marked difference is the comparative level of politicisation between practitioners and academics. Social justice has always been key to my motivation in social work yet there is something in the increasingly bureaucratic local authorities, that stifles the spark in so many of us.
Reflection takes time
Reflection takes time, protest takes even longer. When you are struggling to get by on a day-to-day basis it is not easy to engage with the process of questioning and unpacking the deeper assumptions behind our roles.
I carried out some research where I asked social workers if they engaged with issues of poverty and social issues with their practice supervisor and teams. Very few participants reported with this level of reflection, which Gillian Ruch describes as the critical level.
I am very grateful for social work academics who play a huge part in keeping these issues live for the profession. Yet I also worry for our qualifying students who set off into the unchartered waters of their career committed to social justice and a critical approach only to potentially find little welcome of this in their new workplaces.
There are, however, also many areas where academia can learn from the practice within social services departments. One of the things that has most struck me in retrospect is how deeply collaborative the social work teams I have worked in are. The opportunities and demands of working directly with service users tends to engender a sense of team purpose and mutual assistance that is distinct and very valuable, yet it is easy to take for granted.
University departments tend to have a different culture. There is often very good collaboration but overall culture is more individualistic. Academics need to promote their own writing and research, to meet the increasingly onerous demands of the Research Excellence Framework and other university pressures.
People are also more ambitious. There is an assumption you will be seeking promotion. In social work teams, upwards ambition is not taken for granted in the same way. There is a common understanding of how difficult many social work management jobs are, and in my experience, people getting promotions are as likely to be pitied as they are envied!
Another aspect of working in social care that I miss is supervision. As someone who has previously researched and written about supervision, I am well versed in how important it is. Yet this has become even more real as I observe what happens when we don’t have the accountability, opportunity for reflection, developmental advice and support that good supervision brings.
Luckily, I have alternative sources of support but I still think I could benefit from this more in-depth assistance with my role. Students are complicated too, and the question of career development seems particularly pertinent as I work out how to prioritise and focus my time and energies with the many opportunities and demands in a university department.
I see on a day-to-day basis how a culture of supervision would improve efficiency and outcomes, although I imagine it is wishful thinking to imagine that universities will be keen to learn from social care in this regard.
Crossing the divide
Although it is good to be able to learn from both organisations it is not necessarily easy to cross the divide between them. There is a lot of talk about imposter syndrome in academia but I felt less of an imposter and more of an alien.
The skills and knowledge I brought, whilst recognised and valued by my immediate social work colleagues, are not the qualities valued by the wider university, where research success is what brings value and status.
Even though I am one of the rare social workers how became involved in research whilst still practicing, I still feel like a beginner compared to colleagues who have decades of experience within a university environment. The language and elitism around research is also hard to penetrate and I’m not sure universities make much effort to make it accessible. I still can’t pronounce phenomenological (this is a type of research) let alone know what it entails.
The new initiatives of teaching partnerships between universities and social services departments aim to bring together teaching and practice more effectively, with practitioners teaching in universities and lecturers going out and getting involved in practice. Whilst there will be substantial benefits to this it may not be an easy divide to cross; the cultures are very different, and both organisations face significant, but different, drivers and pressures.
I hope that despite this, we can work together better in providing a more coherent learning experience for students and newly qualified social workers. After all, not only are we in this together, we have a lot we could learn from each other.