Social work course closures ‘alarming’

Undergraduate programmes made up two-thirds of closures in 2014-15

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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.

Government criticism

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.”

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9 Responses to Social work course closures ‘alarming’

  1. Jim Greer June 21, 2016 at 11:41 am #

    Closing a social work programme is like closing a coal mine. Once it is closed it is gone forever. The staff are dispersed and the programme dismantled. It is unlikely that Universities will want to open new courses, given the Government’s infatuation with fast track courses.
    If local authorities find that these fast track courses fail to live up to expectations then they may find that some of their traditional partners who they need to fill the majority of their posts are gone for good.

  2. Stephen Villette June 21, 2016 at 4:41 pm #

    I think that prospective SW students should have had at least two years employment experiene in the care or health sector before admission to HE, and be offered preliminary in-service training as an entry qualification, regardless of A-levels attained.
    Access courses to HE and other ways of accrediting experience for entrants should also be available.

  3. Kathy Murphy June 21, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

    David Caneron needs to realise that while he is complaining about Social Wotk students reading so much paper about the job that once qualified they will deal with as much if not more paperwork instead of seeing children and families – all created by the Government !!!

    • Esmeralda June 23, 2016 at 6:04 pm #

      Well said Kathy.

  4. Anita Singh June 22, 2016 at 2:40 am #

    The over-emphasis on academic study either at under graduate versus post-graduate level really is not that central to the production of insightful social workers who can make a real and valuable contribution to social work. Prior to becoming a social worker, I was a nurse and very similar arguments about turning the training for nurses to graduate programmes where you now need to have a degree in nursing before you can be a nurse is an approach that is preoccupied with academic performance over the pre-requisite skills that makes a good nurse. Similarly what makes a good social worker is not solely about the level at which you have studied. What about other qualifications that can never be gained from reading a text book? For example, life experience such as the the personality traits that enable you to engage with vulnerable groups of people or first-hand experience of being a parent or first hand experience of the dynamics at play in neglect such as alcohol or substance misuse or experiencing poor parenting, other personal experiences of,coping with disability, ill-health, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, social inequality. You cannot learn about the impact of these issues from a text book and can only really apply your studies and be reflective in practise if you have a real appreciation of these issues from first hand experience.

    • Tammy June 22, 2016 at 9:11 am #

      Well said.

    • Kerri June 23, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

      A well said and true and valid comment ! You find the more academic a person is the further away from reality they are!

  5. Richard June 22, 2016 at 8:50 am #

    There are real concerns at the way this is going. 28 courses closing ought to be giving government pause for thought at the very least. The idea that social work courses are spending too much class room time is rather misleading – it’s still in the region of 50% – just like nursing. In fact the pressure to reduce that have been entirely brought about by central policy/ funding. I’d also add that the fast track models aren’t about spending any more time in the field – just less time in the class room. As the seemingly inevitable drift towards PG social education takes place we need to realise what/ who we will lose – those mature, social care experienced workers without degrees who have been the mainstay of social work teams and the profession for many years. We need to fight to retain undergraduate provision. And on a purely workforce planning note government can’t afford to lose UG provision – it still accounts for 2/3 of qualifying social workers – and supply is becoming more and more of an issue. Martin Narey’s comments about these ‘highly regarded’ programmes also don’t bear much scrutiny. Strong programmes need a firm research base – and yet it is that very quality to which Teaching Partnerships seem immune. As central initiative after initiative makes it harder for courses to exist we will see more closures with each year that passes.

    • Tom June 23, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

      You have hit the nail on the head Richard. With the closure of more and more undergraduate programmes, combined with the misguided requirement to recruit ‘the brightest and best’ (whatever that may mean) and increasing tuition fees, we risk losing those mature students who don’t possess a first degree and who have financial and family commitments. Time and time again these mature students rise to the challenges of academic study and are able to combine this with their experiences of life on many different levels as workers, citizens, parents, carers etc.