The number of social work courses dropped seven per cent last year, figures obtained from the HCPC show.
The number of approved courses dropped from 276 to 256 over the course of 2014-15. Eight courses opened during the year but 28 closed, two-thirds of which were undergraduate degree programmes.
The HCPC said the drop in course numbers was largely due to providers reducing the number of modes of study they offered, such as full-time, part-time or worked-based learning. It said many of the institutions where courses had closed were still offering some social work programmes.
The government has been critical of the quality of social work degree programmes in recent years. Prime Minister David Cameron recently said prospective social workers were “spending too much time in the classroom studying thousands of pages of guidance, and not enough time in real-life, on-the-job training.”
The Department for Education has highlighted that fast-track social work training programmes, such as Frontline and Step up to Social Work, offer more work-based learning than traditional degree courses. The fast-track schemes will be backed with £100m over the next four years.
Government funding for traditional degree programmes fell from £115m to £81m between 2012-13 and 2014-15. Ministers are currently considering scrapping the social work bursary for degree students altogether.
Samantha Baron, chair of the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee, said the decline in the number of social work programmes in recent years was “worrying”.
She said: “In particular, the levels of closure in undergraduate provision 2014-2015 is alarming and again, strikes at the central question of the future for training social workers at an undergraduate level.
“We have on numerous occasions requested an impact assessment be undertaken to assess the impact of current provision, in particular the impact of ‘fast-track’ programmes on the overall reduction of student places.
“The continued reduction of undergraduate student bursaries further adds to this picture of an emerging two tier system, which in the long term may prove potentially destabilising to the workforce.”
Issues with undergraduate programmes
Two government-commissioned reviews of social work education published in 2014 raised concerns over undergraduate training.
Sir Martin Narey, whose review was commissioned by the Department for Education, said the reputation of the undergraduate social work degree was “at best, mixed”.
He wrote: “That reputation has fallen further in recent years as some highly regarded universities have withdrawn from offering the first degree.
“Sheffield, which has a very good reputation, and whose undergraduates very much impressed me when I met them earlier this year, is the latest to withdraw from offering the Bachelor’s degree. At another university with a fine reputation, I was told that they declined to offer an undergraduate degree in social work because of the potential damage it would cause to their reputation.”
David Croisdale-Appleby, whose review was commissioned by the Department of Health, concluded there was no “reliable research evidence” that found social work qualification at undergraduate level was “inappropriate”. Yet he said in general postgraduate level students are more proven in critical thinking and reflective practice.
Croisdale-Appleby recommended increasing the entry bar for undergraduate social work courses to recognise the complexity of the job and called for research into provision.
“At a time when the trend internationally is towards a social worker qualifying at postgraduate level, evaluative research should be undertaken as soon as possible into the question of whether the qualifying degree should continue to be offered at undergraduate as well as at postgraduate level.
“However until such evidence shows otherwise, qualifying education should continue to be offered at both levels, providing the learning outcomes continue to be identical.”