New government guidelines for universities and social work students on how bursaries and support payments will be allocated for the academic year have been published.
The overall numbers of bursaries for undergraduates and postgraduates remain the same (2500 and 1500 respectively) as does the basic bursary amount (outside London, postgraduates get £3762.50 plus tuition fee and other support, and undergraduates £4862.50). Placement fees for employers taking students remain at £20 a day, despite pleas to the government that this is unaffordable for private and voluntary sector agencies.
Previously, however, tutors were asked were asked to prioritise students for bursaries based on the entry level of the Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) and work or life experience of the sector or a related area.
The new criteria simply say students on BA/BSc and Master’s courses should be ranked during the admissions process for inclusion on the bursary list.
Sue Kent, British Association of Social Work professional officer, was part of a BASW committee which was asked to suggest alternative criteria in January. She said:
“The removal of reference to life experience is concerning and raises questions over whether the government is pushing to make social work a more academic profession. Social work education should be of excellent quality but this profession requires a high level of personal skills, values and ethics and this should be reflected.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the shortlisting criteria has been revised to be more closely aligned with admissions processes and the PCF should already be well embedded in curricula: “We are not recommending HEIs change their process or criteria. HEIs rank students during the admissions process according to their own criteria and usually the higher rated students are shortlisted for a bursary.”
Unfair to new students
Since 2013, when a cap on the number of bursaries for social work students was introduced, universities have had to produce shortlists of eligible students to receive NHS bursaries on both years of postgraduate courses and the second and third year of undergraduate programmes.
Cath Holmstrom, JUCSWEC co-chair for learning and teaching, said too much was left unsaid about how to rank students and it was unfair to only provide guidance when the UCAS cycle was almost at an end:
“Does it include our assessments of prior academic attainment or just interview day performance? How confident are we in ranking someone 25th and someone else 26th on this? Sometimes open definitions are helpful, however, the ‘risk’ is placed with universities in terms of potential challenge to decisions and processes.”
Looking ahead to 2016, an additional “quality measure” may be introduced to decide how many bursaries each university gets, the Department of Health guidance says.
The DH spokesperson said there is a no specific timetable for when a decision would be made on what this measure will involve: “It remains a strategic objective for the Department and we will keep this under review over the coming months.”
Gary Hickman, vice chair of the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) said universities would be concerned if an additional definition of ‘quality’ was imposed:
“The evidence of quality for courses is already available, from the HCPC, the College of Social Work, external examiners, the National Student Survey and employers.”
The sector would be concerned if this was a move towards focussing on a specific route into the profession, he said, rather than promoting quality across all types of course.
Programme directors had feared there would be a significant shift in the number of bursaries in favour of postgraduates, but this has not happened in 2015.
Hickman added the new guidelines had been expected much earlier after the government had given reassurances the information would be published in January of this year.
Di Bailey, co-president of the Association of Professors of Social Work, agreed the information has come frustratingly late, pointing out some students may have chosen a particular course based on the expected number of bursaries available.