It’s half way through term and I’ve just returned a batch of marking to a group of social work students. They aren’t happy. I’ve a queue outside my office ready to complain.
I feel genuinely sorry for them. Students are working hard, many of them have weekend jobs to survive financially and it must be so difficult to fit in all the academic work. They are all also paying high levels of fees for their academic degree.
This is really hard for them, but I also notice that they are fairly forthright in bringing up how much they are paying for their input. Maybe I’m paranoid, but there is certainly some sense that people have paid their fees and deserve their degree.
The university is also trying to survive in a competitive market and they are very concerned about their student satisfaction levels. They want satisfied students and students not getting the marks they feel they deserve are not happy.
Added together these factors create a strong sense of pressure to pass students. Yet in all this, my own loyalty still lies ultimately with the service user. Who is making sure that people who aren’t up to the job don’t pass their degrees? It shouldn’t be just left to practice educators to weed out people who don’t have the skills for practice, but I’m worried about the pressure on academics to keep students happy and the conflicting demands of an increasingly commercialised university environment.
Today I get an angry email from a student I’ve been helping individually with an essay. He’s not happy with my feedback. I immediately feel defensive. It’s very frustrating to receive criticism from someone you have been striving to help.
Various responses go through my mind but I stop and leave it a few hours until I’m calmer. I compose a thoughtful, and hopefully compassionate response. A short email takes about an hour to write. It reminds me of writing emails when I was in practice – carefully thinking of ways to express myself, self-consciously analysing what aspects of blame I might be taking on, and what could be used against me on future occasions.
It’s not a nice way to work and I’d been hoping in academic life I would have to do less of it: bringing more of myself, and no longer requiring the endless preoccupation of whether you are making yourself professionally vulnerable.
It feels a shame that I’m now doing this in an environment where learning should be central and making mistakes allowed. It seems to me that when we work in this defensive way everybody loses out.
Today I’m teaching a session with another year group. They are enthusiastic and keen to learn. It is a real pleasure to be learning with them and reminding me why I enjoy this job. They are in the middle of their second year and most of them are in third sector placements.
There is a lot of discontent about statutory social workers they are observing who they think are not offering a good enough service. One student comments, ‘It makes me wonder why I’m training to be a social worker. I want to actually help people.’
After many years as a statutory social worker I feel the need to put the other side.
‘People usually want to do more’, I respond, ‘but the cuts are real and very severe. You can’t spend money that isn’t in your budget’.
I try and point out that a key issue is where you locate the blame for this. Is it the individual social workers or team managers trying to stretch resources as best they can or is it the people who made the cuts? And what about the people who voted for the people who made the cuts?
It’s food for thought.