By Teresa Cleary
The thinking behind my recently published study came from reported concerns questioning the quality of social work education in UK universities.
I sought to capture the previously under-researched voice of UK-based social work academics regarding the possible influence of ‘marketisation’ in universities on the delivery of social work education.
It has emerged that this voice has been stifled within what is now a highly competitive, and potentially insecure, working environment. Many participants expressed reluctance to speak publicly on this topic. But through sharing their experiences, they highlighted significant concerns regarding the influence of market forces on the academic/student relationship. Issues around the assessment and difficulty for academics posed in failing poorly performing students, and processes around student admissions, were also apparent.
‘Inclusion in public discourse’
Concerns about the quality of social work education had in 2014 become the focus of two government inquiries, by the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education, but the study was prompted by a reported plenary discussion at the Joint Social Work Education and Research Conference (JSWEC) that July.
There has been some resistance to this research from some academics, who perhaps feel the subject should not be ‘aired in public’ in a climate where policy initiatives in social work education appear to be favouring alternative, practice-based qualification routes. Others have endorsed its importance and inclusion in public discourse regarding the future of social work education.
This study acknowledges the significant changes for the university sector in the past two decades, including the rapid increase of institutions holding university status, a shift to funding based largely on student fees or loans, and increased competition due to published performance-based university league tables. But it has identified key themes that indicate marketisation and its influence on the delivery of social work education.
Participants reported shifts in the academic-student relationship through the consumer empowerment of students, with increased use of complaints’ processes, emphasis on student feedback and performance league tables.
Student empowerment was not seen as a negative development, but some participants felt this was resulting in degrees of student-appeasement, with a failure to present challenging learning experiences in some instances.
One participant felt they had to “be careful in feedback [regarding academic work] because if we are too harsh they complain… we don’t want to upset them, and this puts pressure on us”. Another noted their concerns of student behaviours in lectures, such as using Facebook and talking, but felt the university would not support them if they threw them out of a lecture. “On a social work course this is about me enforcing professional standards and expectations. What can we do in the new world where they’re paying for my services?”
Most participants noted their university’s focus on improving scores and national league table placements. They highlighted the impact of the National Student Survey (NSS), in which final year undergraduates rate their university experience with an overarching question concerning ‘student satisfaction’.
The emphasis on high scores was identified as creating potentially conflicting demands between the university’s priorities and those of the social work profession. Academics said the NSS took up a significant amount of their time and many stressed the potential vulnerability of social work courses and jobs if NSS scores were consistently low.
“We are slaves to the NSS,” said one academic. “I’m not sure if that is good or bad. Students should have some influence but the NSS is a major preoccupation.”
Another participant felt the influence of the NSS was overshadowing a more academic ethos, stating their belief that “we run on economic motives. Decisions about whether courses run or not depend on these scores”. Indeed, there are now questions of whether this has influenced the decision of some universities to deliver social work courses only at masters’ level, since post-graduate students do not participate in the NSS.
Grade inflation and consistency of standards
The interviewees raised concerns for the consistency of academic standards in social work education. Some participants reported university processes which they believed could be encouraging grade-inflation and were posing difficulties in failing students.
“I see inflated grades and people not being given the criticism they should be… people work really hard to make sure students pass… But we aren’t supporting students; we are enabling them to pass. We wouldn’t do that as social workers with families would we? We are just paving over the cracks.”
One participant reported pressure from outside their department to not fail students, and a high number appeals upheld from students who had been failed.
This was not consistent throughout the study. Some participants reported a consistent and diligent focus on the maintenance of high academic standards within their current institutions. One said their current, though not their previous university were “quite good at not passing the ones who can’t do it. You aren’t doing your reputation or anyone else any good by passing them.”
Adding to a growing body of literature the study also found suggestions of the continued existence a two-tier (academically established and newer ex-polytechnic) university system, with Oxford and Cambridge making up a potential third-tier. More than 60% of university-run social work courses (BA Honours) are offered by newer universities which may be a pertinent factor when considering future regulation.
Some universities were, according to participants, attracting less diversity and relatively young, predominantly white female cohorts on to social work courses. One noted that “the expectations and student cohort are very different to my last university… Young students worry less about debt, but it puts mature students off. The bulk of students are young and mostly white.” Similar experiences were from participants working within older universities with a more academic focus in admissions policy, but the implications in relation to the profession’s needs and the resilience of those entering social work may also be worth more detailed consideration.
Other participants, largely based in universities established post-1992, reported attracting more diversity in terms of age and ethnicity, examples including more metropolitan areas attracting a more diverse intake.
Leading the standards
With the appointment of a new social work regulator for England and a potentially changing political landscape, this research provides a pertinent insight into the experiences of social work academics which has been previously unheard in a formal sense.
The need for a coherent lead from within the profession regarding standards for social work education becomes crucial with the expanding range for routes into social work. Discussions must of course incorporate other voices alongside social work academics, such as students, practitioners, practice educators, service users, university managers and policy makers.
Despite the anxiety expressed by some within the academic community, the study concludes that this topic has a rightful place in discussion regarding the future of social work education. Those who seek to further silence the topic or undermine views expressed by participants may themselves have ethical questions to answer.
It has not been easy to complete this research within an entrepreneurial university environment. However, I am pleased to report that critical academic freedom has been afforded paramountcy within my own employing institution, alongside a commitment to excellence in the provision of social work education.
A sample of social work academics were asked to give their insights as to how changes for the university sector have potentially influenced the provision of social work education. The study concentrated on the academic, university-based part of social work education but we acknowledge that significant student learning happens on placement through practice learning in social work settings.
Data for the study was collected in 2015/16 from social work academics working in universities around the UK. The dual-stranded study consisted of 78 self-completed questionnaires and 18 unstructured interviews.
No data from the study was collected from Anglia Ruskin University as the home institution.
Teresa Cleary is a senior lecturer in social work at Anglia Ruskin University, having previously spent over twenty years in practice.