Research into practice

In a previous article in Community Care (5 September 2002) I wrote about university-based social work research in the UK following the 2001 research assessment exercise (RAE). What I suggested then – a mixed bag for social work – is also recognised in the recent white paper The Future of Higher Education.1

The social work gradings for 30 universities in the 2001 RAE were:

  • One with a 5* rating.
  • Seven with a 5 rating.
  • Five with a 4 rating.
  • Eight with a 3a rating.
  • Eight with a 3b rating.
  • One with a 2 rating.

Of these, 17 were traditional universities and 13 were new universities (former polytechnics and colleges that achieved university status in 1992). However, the new universities were concentrated in the 2 and 3 ratings – with only one rated higher than 3a.

A crucial issue from the white paper is that research excellence, as measured by the RAE, will be further rewarded. In particular, the best of the 5* rated departments will be given significant additional funding. Clearly this will have limited impact on social work.

Elsewhere, the white paper focuses on the importance of “critical mass”, noting that since large concentrations of researchers in a subject or in related subjects perform especially well, these should form the focus of research funding. However, many social work departments contain few active researchers so would not fare well on a critical mass test.

One clear implication of concentrating research resources is that some universities – mainly in the new university sector – may withdraw, or be excluded, from research to concentrate on teaching. That the government is seriously contemplating separating research and teaching is certainly worrying as it begs the question of the value of teaching that is not informed by current research.

That such concentration of research resources might expose the vulnerability of relatively isolated pockets of high-quality research in universities that are not generally “research intensive” is recognised by the white paper, which suggests their future could be safeguarded by the development of interdisciplinary and trans-institutional consortiums. In principle, social work would be well-placed to pursue this line; depending on expertise one could see such links established between social work and social policy, social sciences, law, education and health. However, how such collaboration could be brought about in the context of a competitive higher education sector remains to be seen.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England’s planned research funding for 2003-4 also shows a mixed picture for social work research. Resourcing for 5* rated departments will be maintained in real terms compared with 2001-2. Departments rated 5* in both 1996 and 2001 will share an additional £20m. Resourcing for 5 rated departments, which originally lost out, will be restored to 2001-2 levels in real terms.

An additional £18m is to be shared between departments rated 3a or 3b in seven specific “emerging subject areas” – including social work (along with nursing, other studies and professions allied to medicine, art and design, communication, cultural and media studies, dance, drama and performing arts and sports-related studies). A reduction of funding to 4 rated departments, which already lost out in relative terms in 2001, will offset this reallocation of resources.

Once institutions have had the opportunity to consider their options, we should begin to see some far-reaching realignments in university-based social work research.

1 Department for Education and Skills, The Future of Higher Education, DfES, 2003

Eric Blyth is professor of social work at the University of Huddersfield.

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