Social work training ‘sacrificed’ in university bid for higher fees?

Institute of Psychiatry accused of "putting profits before best practice" in scrapping mental health social work degree

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When the Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) decided to scrap its postgraduate degree in mental health social work, it wielded the axe without consulting social workers involved in the programme as students or assessors.

This summer the Institute stopped accepting students for its MSc degree in mental health social work. The course will close for good in 2013, bringing down the curtain on over 30 years of social work research and teaching at the institution.

The IoP says it complied with “college policy and governance” in shutting the course. But the move has triggered widespread concern among the profession, with social workers angry that a “centre of excellence” has been lost without them having any opportunity to fight its extinction.

So why has the course closed? The IoP says “strategic, pedagogic and financial” reasons lie behind the move.  Critics offer a less cryptic assessment, with The British Association of Social Workers (BASW) accusing the IoP of putting “profit before best practice.”

Putting “profit before practice”?

According to BASW, the IoP cited the departure of course leader Martin Webber and poor recruitment numbers for the social work programme as reasons for the course’s demise.

But Joe Godden, professional officer at BASW, says that explanation “simply does not ring true.”

“The MSc was greatly valued by students, and the course had consistently recruited well over the last few years,” he says.

The IoP declined to provide recruitment figures for the course. One source close to the social work programme believed “14 people had signed up for next year – the minimum is 10.”

In BASW’s view “the real reason” the social work degree was axed was to make way for the IoP’s new postgraduate degree in ‘global mental health’. Unlike the social work course, the new ‘global’ degree “would potentially recruit from the lucrative foreign student market,” says Godden.

BASW draws parallels with the decision by Southampton University to scrap a postgraduate social work degree course earlier this year.

“As with the ending of the Southampton course, the decision to close the course seems to have been taken without adequate consultation with the sector, and although the deans have not officially breached consultation processes, these announcements have had the air of rubber stamping decision made by those holding the purse strings, who are not acting in the wider interest of social work or society,” Godden says.

“Yes universities cannot run loss making courses, but to axe courses that are viable, and that serve the community and social work well, for the prospect of running something that may make more money, seems to go against best practice”.

The IoP refused to say whether its social work course was “loss making”. But the Institute’s website shows that the highest fee the MSc in global mental health can command is £18,000 for a full time overseas student.

By comparison the MSc in social work was a part-time course demanding fees of £3,400 for home or EU students and £10,400 for overseas applicants.

Student concerns

Students on the social work programme also fear that their course has been “sacrificed” in the IoP’s bid to woo the higher fees on offer from overseas students.

Janine Hudson, a social worker due to graduate from the IoP in the autumn and second year student representative, says the lack of communication from the IoP and the way students and social workers were frozen out from discussion about the course’s future “is appalling”.

“I understand that overseas students bring in much needed revenue and that this is important to the institution. What concerns me is that our course appears to have been sacrificed in its favour,” says Hudson.

“Furthermore we were not in a position to challenge whether our course was the least cost effective of all administered by the department due to the lack of consultation which leaves me to draw more of my own, suspicious, conclusions.”

A blow to mental health social work

Paul Richards, a social work lead at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, graduated from the IoP course in 2004 and has recently been involved as an approved practice assessor.

He met with the IoP to discuss his concerns over the course being axed but was told the decision would not be reversed.

Richards fears the closure of the course could damage social work’s bid to establish itself in the “medically dominated” world of mental health.

“We are champions of the social model, but we’re vulnerable because we don’t have same “research history” as some of the medical professions. Now the one course that we had to develop our research skills has been pulled,” he says.

“It was a real centre of excellence. People who had done the course felt they had a really solid understanding of what the mental health system was and what social work could contribute to it. That is going to be lost.”

When contacted by Community Care, the IoP refused to answer a series of questions over the course closure.

It declined to say whether it had reviewed any other courses for closure, why it had not consulted social workers and students on the closure, nor whether it made any attempt to replace Martin Webber as course leader after his resignation.

The IoP also declined to respond to student concerns over teaching arrangements for 2012/13 – the final academic year before the doors finally close on the course.

An IoP spokeswoman said:

“We would like to confirm that each student was written to individually in May and none has expressed concerns or given negative feedback. The students will continue to be updated and supported as well as receiving high quality teaching and academic supervision until they graduate.”

Student representative Hudson says that over two months on since students received the IoP’s letter they “are still waiting to hear” updates on teaching arrangements.
“I would imagine this is of particular concern to the current first years as they have an entire year still ahead of them minus a course leader,” she adds.

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