by Carson Rainham*
It was in early October 2016 that students at Goldsmiths, University of London, including myself, made the decision to embark upon the first student fee strike known to the UK.
The decision, which saw almost our entire cohort withhold our fees from the university for a year, was made out of a frustration about the lack of financial support to Masters students.
While our demands for fees to be capped at the level which is covered by the bursary were not realised, we did manage to secure £1000 per head which was divided amongst our cohort based on need. This was a compromise from management who recognised that the decision to award £1000 to each new applicant of the 2017-18 academic year meant that we lost out, positioned between the cohort before us who paid no fees, amazingly due to a clerical error in their first year, and this new recruitment incentive.
In the past month, a new cohort came together with some of last year’s fee strikers to discuss pertinent issues they face as social work MAs. Together we focused on tackling a number of key issues including, but not limited to, the extrication of low-income and black and minority ethnic (BAME) students due to rising fees and funding cuts, low class numbers and poor-quality placements.
From these discussions came a decision to compare and understand the experience of social work students across London.
A forum on Facebook, shared by BASW’s own social media, has been created for students to discuss issues close to them and build a network aiming to overcome obstacles facing many social work students. Here students, practice educators and social work activists can pool their ideas and their struggle into something meaningful.
The ability to conduct social work in any meaningful way is being stripped from students because resource allocation and funding has been decimated. Placements are increasingly becoming sites for students to complete the leg-work of overstretched and underfunded departments. One student on our course has done nothing but tackle a backlog of Care Act Assessments since October. Discussions on the forum have shown that that one person is entering their fourth week without a practice educator.
Frontline is the double-edged sword of social work education. Seemingly positive, it draws in its recruits with its promise of a fast-track qualification, where you can learn on the job and get paid. Yet, unlike MAs who are required to have six to twelve months in a social care setting under their belt, Frontline requires no prior experience.
With its purpose of bringing in ‘high calibre’ students – who are often from Russell Group backgrounds– it re-establishes a class divide in social work education that collides with Masters programmes. While both Frontline and Masters programmes welcome people from diverse backgrounds, only MA courses are recruiting higher than average levels of BAME students. Still, despite this heightened diversity, it means nothing if there is not the adequate financial support for low-income students on MA courses.
While Frontline students can expect a wage during their training, we instead could expect a capped bursary with no regard to the rate of inflation, unpaid placements, and substantial tuition fees, which rise each year. Universities face a crisis in securing funding for Masters social work programmes as Frontline becomes more popular.
While an evaluation has shown positives to the Frontline training and the graduates it produces, its preferential funding at the expense of other routes during a time of financial uncertainty in universities and for poorer students risks creating a major demographic shift in who becomes social workers as the government’s desire for the ‘best and brightest’ puts others off.
Last year the government made proposals to include within the Children and Social Work Act 2017 the choice for local authorities to opt out of its child protection duties. Government funded social housing has fallen by 97% since the Conservative Party took power in 2010. By 2022 5.2 million children are expected to live in poverty with a year on year increase occurring since 2010.
Social worker students are privy to a constant struggle between child protection services and housing while they take time out of their day to deliver food parcels to families on their caseload.
In this context, to passively allow a government that has instigated a catastrophe within social work to continually make decisions and implement programmes which could change the demographic of who becomes social workers would be to support its ideology.
MA courses for social work are known for their diversity of low-income and BAME students but the situation for students such as myself is becoming untenable. Last year, in a discussion with a course convenor speculating on the potential scrapping of the NHS Social Work Bursary, we were told that with no bursary there would be no more MA Social Work.
In the previous academic year, one third of MA students failed the dissertation at the first attempt. Although the majority passed on a second attempt, the programme convenor speculated a reason students may have struggled is due to wider pressures on students to get paid work to support their studies.
Future for myself
As a low-income student, I struggle to see a future for myself in social work. My graduation is not guaranteed, as I’m still yet to pay my fees for this year. I even skip meals frequently and work two jobs outside of my placement to do so. Yet, my passion for social work and for child protection drives me to try to make the most of my education.
That includes challenging its architects. If social work and social work education allows itself to become increasingly apolitical, as many social workers I’ve met report it to be, then it will become impossible to stop social work from becoming just another tool of the state to enact its political goals. These are often contradictory to the needs of service users.
Social work students should be critical of their education and the institutions which provide it, seeking to change it based on the very values that led them to social work in the first place. Without students fighting now, there will unlikely be social workers to fight for the rights of service users in the future.
If you are a social work student in the London Area, search ‘London Social Work Student Forum (London SStuf)’ on Facebook to get involved.
Carson Rainham is a pseudonym. They are a masters social work student.