‘Dismay’ over university proposal to axe social work course

A social work course faces closure due to concerns over its financial viability

Students studying
Photo: zinkevych/fotolia

Durham University is considering scrapping its masters social work course due to concerns over the programme’s financial viability.

A review has recommended university bosses shut down the two-year MA social work degree once this year’s student intake graduates in 2019. The report also recommended closing the MA in International Social Work and Community Development course. A final decision is expected in June.

The review author said the proposal to close Durham’s courses took into account the university’s wider strategy and other social work training on offer in the region, including ‘fast-track’ schemes.

The university said it was consulting on the proposal and said the 30 students per year graduating from Durham made up “a very small proportion” of social work graduates in the north east of England.


However, in a letter seen by Community Care, university staff involved in delivering the courses voiced “dismay” over the proposed closure. They said the review found no doubts about the quality of the courses, and warned the recommendations had been made without consulting social work employers, service users, carers or students.

“The recommendation to close these programmes has been made on grounds of future financial viability in the broader context of university plans,” the staff said.

“As a staff group we have expressed our dismay at this news and its implications for social work employers and service users in the region.”

The staff invited views from stakeholders ahead of them issuing a formal response to the review’s recommendations. Students have also set up a petition calling for the course to be saved.

Professor Tim Clark, Durham university’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor Social Sciences and Health, who is leading the strategic review, said: “The university strategy sets out a clear direction of travel: to invest in research, education and the wider student experience so they continue to be world-leading.

“The strategy has underpinned our review, which has also taken into account the provision of other social work training programmes in North East England, the launching of new ‘fast-track’ schemes and our need to prioritise investment in our internationally leading research in the social sciences.

“We are consulting widely with staff, students and key stakeholders on the findings of the review, and the university executive team will take extensive evidence into account when making our final decision.”

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15 Responses to ‘Dismay’ over university proposal to axe social work course

  1. Stuart May 23, 2017 at 12:30 pm #

    This seems to mean they think proper social work training as we used to know it is being usurped by ‘fast track’ and they don’t want their good name sullied by involvement with such second (or third) rate tory substitutes for the real thing.
    Bit tough but if that’s correct I can see their point.

  2. Tom J May 23, 2017 at 12:39 pm #

    With the step-up fast track option – (11 months, zero course fees and get paid £18k) it almost feels unethical to put students through the MA university route (get paid £0, have to wait longer; 24 months, and have pay up to and over £18k in fees!)

    There is no evidence that step-up social workers are ‘better’ than MA’s, but the direction of travel is clear.

    And…Unless there is a change of direction- the writing is clearly on the wall for university social work courses.

  3. Jim Greer May 23, 2017 at 3:33 pm #

    I worked as Principal Lecturer for one of the north east programmes until December last year. The problem within the north east has not been the introduction new types of social work programme to the region but rather the speed and scale of this. Local authorities have adopted these new courses with seemingly little regard to the impact on local placement availability or the long term viability of existing programmes. The north east adopted Frontline, Step Up and Think Ahead all at more or less the same time. There is a limited pool of highly qualified graduates to undertake masters and fast track programmes and a limited number of placements for them.
    University social work courses are not afraid of competition or change but this should be on a fairer basis.
    There is not a level playing field as authorities are being incentivised to take fast track programmes and being required to privilege them for placements.
    Social Work teaching departments take years to develop and become established. A closure of a course is a loss of expertise to local employers and the profession as a whole. Like a coal pit, once closed they are unlikely to reopen.
    Despite the rise of fast track programmes, most local authorities depend primarily on the local University for their newly qualified social workers. They should consider the impact on that valuable resource when considering alternative training providers.

  4. Anonymous May 23, 2017 at 4:49 pm #

    In response to Tom, step up programmes are much more competitive to get into compared to a traditional masters route, not to mention that most if not all of these posts are for children and families/child protection and not older adults, which is a field many social work students want to get into
    Also masters students receive NHS bursary which pretty much covers all of the tuition fees- and then some. So yes, I get that in some ways it is better, but you underestimate just how competitive it is to get into.

    • MA student May 23, 2017 at 7:08 pm #


      As a masters student I can categorically challenge your assumption the NHS Bursary does ‘cover all my fees-and then some’, I will have self funded my MA by £6000 when I finish next year. If you choose to complete a Masters at a top university the £4000 towards your fees leaves you short, Northampton £6500 a year, Bucks £6750 a year, Manchester £9000 to name just three. This doesn’t take into account that the NHS Bursary isn’t guaranteed, many universities don’t have 30 places with 30 NHS bursaries. The bursary for 2017 has not been announced yet and won’t until after the general election…

  5. Anon May 23, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

    I’m not surprised as the “business recruits” leading social care believe they know it all and they really haven’t got a clue legally you need to be social work qualified to manage the iro service the north east is a joke

  6. Charlotte May 23, 2017 at 10:27 pm #

    I’m on this course now and was present at the student staff consultation when we were informed. What makes this different to me is that I could never have attended a fast track scheme as they all have summer institutes. I have 3 children, that is not an option. It’ll have a huge impact on the types of people applying to social work, or more seriously how many people who probably have a lot of life experience,that are not recent young grads who will be unable to apply for reasons similar to my own. They also do not train anyone for adults social work, disability social work, refugee/crisis social work. Where will practitioners come from who want to work in a wider parameter than child protection?

    • social worker May 24, 2017 at 1:51 pm #

      Charlotte – I suspect (suspect only!) that the thinking is that those other social work fields you mention (and others) are not considered a priority, and that work should eventually be managed by families, the community, health, voluntary organisations.

      Therefore, the UK would only need to train social workers in child protection work, as a) that is considered the ‘sharp end’, and b) if you have done that, surely you can do everything else?

      My view is that the present government will sacrifice any and all public services, including education, health and policing, in order to secure a “vibrant economy”. Conservative ideology has never been about long-term strategy, only short-term benefits and rewards.
      We are, as a country, feeling the significant impact of certain decisions made thirty years ago during the Thatcher era, the most obvious being the housing situation. The unfortunate outcome of the “it’s the economy, stupid” mentality is that maintenance of that economy becomes the absolute priority for all successive governments.

      Social work and social work training, in the wider context of the country’s current problems, is not going to a be priority. Certainly not for universities that need to manage their provision under a business model. Supply and demand, and the bottom line, have become prioirties for all universities now, whether Russell Group or ex-local colleges/polytechnics.

    • Anon May 25, 2017 at 7:29 am #

      You need to get your facts right, the step up to Social Work Programme has no summer institute

  7. frank cliffe May 24, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

    Sadly a wrong decision made on a criteria of cost, not the true value of the course.

  8. Tom Hughes May 24, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

    The reality is Durham, given its world class reputation has never really invested in Social Work and I would imagine axing a struggling course would only help their league table position.

  9. Anon Academic May 24, 2017 at 3:43 pm #

    This is disappointing new. I totally agree with Jim; the speed at which these changes are being driven by the Government is unhelpful to the profession overall. Not enough is known about the quality and output of fast track courses, compared to the traditional route. University social work programmes have been subjected to so much change in the last 6 years, they have little time to implement the change and research the effectiveness, before something else comes along.

    We are likely to see further shortages of social workers if this trends continues. Several courses have already closed their doors. Social work is a hard profession – those students eligible for fast track courses are not immune to the stresses and strains of practice. They need a good grounding in complex academic concepts and ideas to function effectively as a practitioner and ensure self care. Fast track schemes aimed at propping up in the profession in the short term, getting more people out their in to practice are short sighted. Many of these social workers of the future will learn how to function in a team with depleted resources and depleted supervision and guidance. They will not learn the basics of good social work practice.

    Institutions are forced into delivering fast track schemes so they do not go under, when in reality, ideological drivers behind them. As the student says above what happens to the diverse areas of SW practice that do not encompass child protection or mental health.

    I do not wish to undermine those undertaking fast track programmes. I am sure there are some great practitioners in the making; but fast track programmes train workers – not professionals.

  10. PSW May 24, 2017 at 3:55 pm #

    A couple of points from me:
    as a qualified practice educator & manager within the north east I would like to challenge the view that by signing up to the fast track programmes we have struggled to meet our MOU agreement to provide quality placements for students on ‘traditional’ university programmes. In our local authority we have continued to meet all of our commitments to placement requests.
    There is room for many routes into social work and we should be open to these. I qualified 25 years ago through the CQSW route – 2 years to become a qualified social worker and have since completed a degree in Health & Social Care – does that make me any less of a social worker than others completing their training through a social work degree route or a fast track route? We should focus on the qualities, values and skills individuals have to turn them into a good social worker rather than which route they took to get there.
    I do think it is sad that Durham are proposing to close their social work course – this is as a result of HEI’s, like many other public sector organisations, having to run as a business rather than a public service. The quality of the service delivered is of little consequence if the provision is ‘not financially viable’ – but who can put a cost on quality social work?

  11. WDA May 25, 2017 at 8:38 am #

    Not being a Social Worker but working hard to support the CPD needs of social workers across Adults and Children’s services I’m quite saddened to see a comment ” “business recruits” leading social care believe they know it all” – actually we don’t believe we know it all. What surprises me is that many of the above comments, by people who are social work trained have failed to even think about service users, the vulnerable people in our society who need our help. I may not have direct contact with these individuals but in everything I do to support social workers and the wider social care workforce they are at the forefront of my mind. Yes we do have Step Up, Frontline and Think Ahead, but we also support four HEIs across the region to find suitable, worthwhile placements, we don’t treat any student regardless of where they are studying or which route they have chosen any differently they all get the support, guidance and experience they rightly deserve. Yes it is sad to hear the new that Durham Uni are considering ending their Social Work Masters Programme, but I suspect as someone has already pointed out that it is more to do with image and and league tables and actually Social Work doesn’t fit well with Durham’s fundamental student offer.

    We need to stop this blame culture it is counter productive and only serves to demoralise our workforce in a time when leaders should be inspiring and resilient. There is room for everyone in the world of social work regardless of their chosen educational route, there will be good and bad students from all pathways. My worry after reading some of the comments above is that if the Social Work Apprenticeship Programme is adopted in the North East how will these students be viewed – I dare not even imagine!

  12. Jane May 25, 2017 at 10:34 am #

    A very interesting debate – I don’t think it matters where and how people are trained to qualify as a social worker. There are a number of places to do this in the North East. I would equally recommend Sunderland University, Northumbria and indeed Durham but really I don’t think this is the issue. If an individual is driven enough to be a social worker, then they will apply to whichever place of learning seems appropriate and/or cheaper! Fast-track schemes are not a problem either – all we need to know at the end of any of these educational routes is that the people who become qualified are able to do the job. I have come across a couple of Durham graduates in social work and some of the students on that course who frankly did not have a clue about the real world out there – and who had enrolled on the social work MA for reasons I could not understand. Having said that, this applies to anyone who wants to do this very difficult and thankless job regardless of where and how they wish to do their training. Perhaps something that needs to be considered urgently is how people who are already employed by councils in a social work support role and/or more mature students who have much life experience to bring to the role could find a part/time course to enrol on that does not involve multiple day/time attendance that will not be congruent with family life and other commitments. I think the profession is missing out on this pool of talent due to the “academic” way this is now all considered – similar to nursing in fact. I would like to hear some comments from people about my views. Thanks.