A shadow is hanging over social work degree courses that might
see graduate social workers unprepared for life on the front line.
The problem is not with the students, but those who teach them. The
academic workforce is ageing and is not being replaced by new
blood. It seems that social workers are reluctant to step into the
shoes of retiring lecturers. As June Thoburn, emeritus professor of
social work at the University of East Anglia, says: “You often see
lectureships advertised and then readvertised because it is so
difficult to appoint at entry level.”
This is something that Pat Wilkinson, head of social sciences
and humanities at the University of Bradford, knows only too well.
She has first-hand experience of trying to recruit social work
lecturers and says that it can be “very difficult” as would-be
lecturers do not always believe they have the necessary skills.
This point was proved recently when she sought to recruit a
student practice placement co-ordinator and received a multitude of
applications. “Had this been for a lecturer’s post we would have
shortlisted many of the applicants for it,” she says. “But people
seem to feel confident enough to apply for a placement post but
then sell themselves short of applying for lectureships.”
One reason for the dearth of applicants is that to be considered
for a lectureship a social worker must have three years’
post-qualifying experience, a post-graduate qualification and be
able to show they have had their own research or articles
published. Wilkinson admits: “This is a tall order.”
Social workers are also put off from applying for lectureships
by rates of pay. A new lecturer on the first level of the academic
pay scale is likely to receive an annual salary of around
£26,000. If a social worker is experienced and has a
post-graduate qualification they are likely to be earning more than
this. Wilkinson says that Bradford University is able to negotiate
the salary it offers to new lecturers but concedes that people are
put off from applying because of money.
If fewer social workers choose to go into academia there is a
danger that, ultimately, the subject will be taught by academics
who do not have practical social work experience. This is something
that Thoburn, who qualified as a social worker in 1963 and spent 25
years lecturing, believes is already happening on some courses –
and with negative consequences for the students.
“The risk is if the lecturer is not a qualified and experienced
social worker they are not going to give examples from social work
practice – they are not going to fire up students.”
She recognises that other professionals can have a positive role
in teaching social work but thinks that social work students should
really be taught by a person who is qualified in the discipline. If
students have not had competent teachers, Thoburn adds, then once
they qualify they may be “bewildered when faced with working in
Another outcome of not having enough lecturers to go around is
that some of the social work courses could be forced to close.
Bridget Robb, professional officer leading education, training and
workforce development at the British Association of Social Workers,
anticipates this happening. “I would not be surprised if some of
the smaller courses merged. Over the next few years we may see some
significant change in university provision of courses and the
location of where they are delivered.”
But this is not the view of the General Social Care Council,
which approves all social work degree courses in England and Wales.
Steven Trevillion, the GSCC’s head of education social work, says
that during the approval process the GSCC assesses whether there
are enough suitably qualified social work lecturers to deliver the
programme; a course cannot run if it does not have the required
teaching staff available.
And he goes further, dismissing the suggestion that insufficient
social workers are joining the academic ranks. However, he does
accept that lecturing is a career option that few practitioners
contemplate. “If you were trying to advise someone of a career path
in social work they would not normally think of spending a chunk of
their working life in a university setting,” he says.
So how can practitioners be tempted into the hallowed corridors
of universities? Robb, who speaks from experience having recently
stopped lecturing after 20 years, thinks that while social workers
are in front-line practice they should also be encouraged to
develop the skills needed for lecturing, and that one career
direction should not be favoured over the other.
Robb cites the successful track record of the health sector,
where masters programmes are often undertaken by health workers, as
something social care could emulate. “BASW wants people with
doctorates in social work. Having this will make it easier to have
the debate about social work being a legitimate academic
Trevillion agrees there should be a “greater flow” between
academia and front-line practice and that the barriers between
these two areas of social work need to be broken down. “Academia
should not be seen as a black hole from which nothing emerges.”
This could be addressed by encouraging more people to continue
working as a practitioner while they lecture part-time – an
approach that has successfully been adopted in primary care.
Thoburn, Wilkinson and Robb all initially worked like this before
going into lecturing full-time.
Wilkinson says that practitioners could be encouraged to enter
academic life if universities paid them more. She says this
approach should go hand-in-hand with making the profile of the
profession more exciting to encourage people to join it.
The potential shortage of social work lecturers is something the
Social Care Institute for Excellence is taking seriously, according
to Mike Fisher, its director of research and reviews. Scie is
working with the Economic and Social Research Council, the Scottish
Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education and the Joint
Universities Council to fund a review into the quality of social
work research carried out by lecturers in universities. It is due
to report its findings in February 2006.
Fisher says that as academics retire, universities are losing
experienced lecturers who have been relied upon to produce
evidence-based practice. In turn, this results in universities
facing greater pressure to produce more research, which means they
are unlikely to recruit lecturers who are not actively involved in
research. He adds: “There is a real need for social work lecturers
to prove themselves. A university lecturer has a wider range of
responsibilities than other academics, such as being responsible
for practice learning.”
If practitioners can’t be persuaded to go into teaching then
Fisher predicts that in 10 to 15 years the sector will have a major
problem on its hands – to the detriment of students and service