Social work students quitting courses and visiting food banks amid seven-year bursary freeze

Real-terms cut of £500 is increasing hardship as pandemic limits access to other income sources, education-sector sources have told Community Care

Photo: Gourmet Photography/Fotolia

The seven-year freeze in social work student bursaries, equivalent to a real-terms cut of around £500, has pushed some to quit their courses while others have been forced to visit food banks.

Students and people working within social work education have told Community Care how some have struggled financially during the pandemic, while others have dropped out of courses entirely.

As lockdowns have closed off many traditional routes via which students can earn extra money, bursaries for undergraduate and postgraduate students have remained at their 2014 level for students starting in September 2021.

Not all students receive the bursary, with the proportion of students who get the funds varying between courses.

Emma Grady, the British Association of Social Workers’ student leader, said this was a “sore point” which is “murky about who is eligible” given the variations in who gets it between different institutions. She cited two students having dropped out of her undergraduate course because they could not afford to stay on.

Real-terms cuts for social work students

At present postgraduate students who do receive a bursary get a basic £3,762.50 in London and £3,362.50 outside the capital, with more available for those on low incomes, and a £4,052 contribution to tuition fees. Those entitled to an income-assessed bursary can get up to £4,201 in London and up to £2,712 outside London. Had the awards risen in line with inflation, the basic postgraduate bursary would be £4,307.88 in London, and £3,849.90 elsewhere, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator.

Undergraduates, meanwhile, receive £5,262.50 inside London and £4,862.50 outside. These figures would be £6,025.90 and £5,567.32 respectively had they risen in line with inflation.

Dominic, also known as @SingleDadSW, described the bursary as the reason he had been able to study to become a social worker but noted problems caused by its level. “I think that the bursary is a great thing, I just don’t know if it allows people from impoverished [backgrounds] or living in poverty to focus on their studies,” he said.

Dr Janet Melville-Wiseman, chair of the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC), told Community Care it was “now not unusual for us to be alerted to cases where students have had to resort to using food banks or other emergency grants from HEIs [higher education institutions] to be able to feed their children”.

People in the education sector have been warning for some time now that such desperate measures could become necessary.

In 2016, Andrew Hollingworth, then president of the Salford Student Social Work Network (SSWN), told Community Care of proposals to set up a foodbank for students.

“The underfunding of traditional social work programmes is preventing a certain demographic from progressing into the profession,” he said at the time. “This is a profound loss of for social work.”

‘Inequity of funding’ compared with fast-track schemes

Melville-Wiseman also noted that the late notification of bursary levels this year – which was made in July – had made it harder for both universities and students to plan financially, and called the system “broken.”

“JUCSWEC has been raising concerns for several years about bursary levels and inequity of funding for mainstream social work students compared to those on fast-track programmes,” Melville-Wiseman said.

The various one-year fast-track routes into social work provide tax-free bursaries that are significantly greater than those offered to students on traditional courses. The Think Ahead scheme offers £17,200 outside London or £19,100 inside London, while Frontline participants receive £20,000 in London, and £18,000 outside of London. Step Up to Social Work, which is delivered by a consortium of universities, offers £19,833 regardless of location.

Many fast-track participants have told Community Care their decision to apply for one of the schemes was largely driven by this financial support, without which they would have struggled to train as a social worker.

Melville-Wiseman noted that, amid the past year’s lockdowns, it has also been harder for students to find work that could be done at the same time as studying.

Jade, a BA student who was not eligible for a bursary, said: “Had I not have secured a part-time job alongside my studies, I am not sure I could have continued at university”.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson praised the work of social workers and said it was, “committed to attracting high calibre entrants through a number of diverse entry routes, including undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, apprenticeships, traineeships and graduate programmes.”

The spokesperson added: “We have made 4,000 full time social work bursaries available to higher education institutions for students starting their studies this year.”


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37 Responses to Social work students quitting courses and visiting food banks amid seven-year bursary freeze

  1. Claire August 23, 2021 at 6:17 pm #

    Perhaps if self-interest driven social work academics and ‘leaders’ did not equate a university degree with professionalism we could get back to our roots as a vocation Which would not only save students from incurring debt but also enable greater access to training for working class applicants. Unless ofcourse the game is really about preserving middle class privilege.

    • Led By Liars August 24, 2021 at 10:23 am #

      Hear hear. The increasing academicisation (yes, I know it’s not a word) of social work is detrimental to the profession.

  2. Alice August 23, 2021 at 9:17 pm #

    Yes it is about preserving middle class privilege. That is the sole purpose of paying the already advantaged a bribe to fast track their entry into the ‘profession’.

    • Louisa August 24, 2021 at 3:09 pm #

      I don’t see how it preserves muddle class privilege because even those from middle class would struggle financially if their only means of income was the bursary. The fast track routes have nothing to do with middle class privilege as they accept people from diverse backgrounds including diverse age ranges, ethnicities, cultures etc. Stop trying to divide class by making sweeping statements based on no evidence.

  3. Jonathon August 24, 2021 at 11:03 am #

    Social work is about empathy and committment which requires resilience and an ability to be articulate and numerate. That requires an objective evaluation of aptitude. A post-grad degree is the gold standard by which these need to be measured. We should not be shamed into thinking this is elitist. There is too much dumbing down in social work already. We don’t need to diminish us by turning our profession into a mere vocation. The world is made up of privilege and not everyone can have the same access to everything they feel they should have. We work with poor people but we don’t have to be poor ourselves. I actually think entry to social work training should be harder than it is now so that the right calibre of practitioners can be selected from the start. This would also stop the high dropout rate from courses which I think has as much to do with some students not being able to cope with academic rigour as much as the claimed financial hardship. BASW should concentrate on getting the selection process for training more robust and professional rather than joining in a kneejerk assumption that fast track access is elitist. We need thoughtful and bright practitioners. Frontline and the like ensure that.

    • Lucy August 25, 2021 at 6:21 pm #


      • Zak August 25, 2021 at 9:21 pm #

        Agreed Jonathan

    • Carol August 27, 2021 at 9:36 am #

      Plumbers, electricians, paralegals, chefs, farmers, mechanics, software programmers and more. Mere vocations to be sneered at by “my feelings make me a professional” social workers. There must be an irony in how that translates as empathy Jonathon but my apprentice social worker pea brain hasn’t been able to comprehend it.

    • Andrew August 28, 2021 at 8:22 am #

      Is this the high quality training that results in a London council assuring the Ombudsman they will train their social workers to better involve people in the assessments carried out on them? After they qualified. A profession indeed.

  4. Alice August 24, 2021 at 8:08 pm #

    I am not sure Jonathon agrees with you though Louisa. And actually if you look at the background of who is accepted on to Frontline you might find your faith in the diversity of who is sponsored a tad challenged. It’s not us who perpetuate class privilege in social work. It’s the whole edifice from the background of university tutors to who gets promoted that favours the middle class. Those of us with Scouse accents know all we need to know about lack of validation but hey ho, let’s pretend that we are an all inclusive non-judgemental profession. Much better than tackling the assumptions that perpetuate the myth of diversity.

  5. Trevor August 24, 2021 at 9:33 pm #

    Just like in the arts, working class representation in social work has been eroded over the years so I don’t recognise your statement Louisa. We all have our own experiences and I am glad that yours is as you set put. That’s not mine though. I am a newly qualified and my course was predominantly middle class. How could it not be given the qualification requirements to get on the course required us already having a 2:1 degree. Not many from working class backgrounds are likely to have the funds to pay for a degree and then do social work training. I did have some jobs while training but without from my family, I would have dropped out. Our profession is middle class and we should not pretend otherwise. Tragedy is that those from working class backgrounds end up training as nurses because of the financial help they can get during nurse training. Lets look at that rather than be defensive about being a predominantly middle class profession.

  6. Casey August 25, 2021 at 7:28 pm #

    I agree with Louisa. Like ethnicity or age or sexulaity we should be blind to the class background of social workers. We should not allow political ideologies in social work.

  7. Julia August 25, 2021 at 9:08 pm #

    Surely the point is that statutory roles should be paid for by the state. Social workers, nurses, doctors, paramedics and the like should not be saddled with massive debt for the privilege of working long hours for inadequate pay, in circumstances that are becoming ever more challenging. I agree there should be a vigorous vetting procedure so that those trained are able to hold their own when providing expert evidence in court and so on. It is a matter of priorities.

  8. Zak August 25, 2021 at 9:19 pm #

    This is unfair… Many academics are under paid and some need food banks… All this stuff of making assumptions about privilege is based on ignorance and anti academic prejudice that’s serves right wing agendas to not only ruin social services but the quality of education itself… Many academics have given up the chance of rich savings and a big home to serve a profession…. They deserve their jobs and any status they have…many like myself come from the lowest social classes or working classes as they used to be known… I worked hard.. Got in to debt…. Studying PhD scholarship working full time and being a parent…. Then I hear stuff like this…. So who is really the privileged one? The critic or the one that succeeds through a tough 20 yrs… By the way I had £10 to live off last week… The privilege is being a critic and generalising in a populist way…without the facts

  9. Claire August 26, 2021 at 3:43 pm #

    If you are going to accuse us of ignorance Zak you need to do your homework too. The salary range of a university lecturer is £33,797 to £49, 553 and for senior lecturers it’s £39,152 to £59,135. Admittedly it’s not on a par with an MPs salary but is a tad above the average £8,34 an hour that a care worker earns after deductions for uniform costs. My fellow SWP members would be choking on their Venezuelan coffee to read me described as right wing by the way. You have no way of knowing what my own circumstances are but if it matters to you, I am the daughter of a Durham miner who spent over a year on strike relying on handouts and union support to feed us. My father killed himself when the strike was called off and he lost his job. Our stories are our own but class privilege is pervasive and corrosive. No shame in seeing it for what it is. I hope you have better weeks Zak.

  10. X August 27, 2021 at 5:16 pm #

    Academise the profession enough to filter out those who can’t construct an abstract scenario and articulate a process, or those who can’t put a professional and punchy email together, or those who are so inarticulate that they keep upsetting service users and professionals with basic manners and archaic attitudes. I manage a service, the plague is low skilled workers who can’t learn and develop. Put the bar higher, the profession is not about drinking tea with people to build a relationship. That was OK 30 years ago. Times have moved on but our rejection of intellectualism in the profession is rendering it inadequate and counterproductive. We keep taking in students who are clueless because they think SW is ‘basic and all you need to do is follow processes!

    • Colin August 29, 2021 at 3:20 pm #

      No doubt it requires a greater intellectual faculty beyond my CQSW brain to decipher whether this is parody or straw grasping tragedy X.

  11. Janet August 27, 2021 at 11:25 pm #

    As a working class social worker, I used my redundancy money to assist paying for both my degree and social work training . I was one of the lucky ones as also received a bursary. 21 years later I became a Practice Educator for student social workers in a voluntary sector organisation. Feedback from my students was that whilst their courses gave them the theoretical/academic knowledge – I tested them on how they responded to real life situations and taught them to reflect on their actions and alternatives they could have followed. Social Work needs SW’s from all walks of life who can offer life experience, academic knowledge and good communication skills.

  12. Rich August 28, 2021 at 8:06 am #

    In a complex world both Zak and Claire can be right. My heart is gladenned by your empathy to Zak Claire. I am proud to call both of you my colleagues.

  13. Jan August 28, 2021 at 5:55 pm #

    I have managed to survive child and family social work for over 30 working years, as a SW, SW manager and teacher. Let’s not tear each other apart, the media will happily do that. Let’s celebrate the willingness we have to work in often exhausting conditions and still care about the families we work with and for. It is important to carry on learning and to challenge ourselves and practical knowledge has real value too. I am an old hippy, as a graduate( 5% of the population were then) Marks and Spencer wanted me to fly all over Europe buying lovely clothes instead I choose people in need , holidays in the Lakes and it has to be said an Ok pension scheme, large rewards really overall.

  14. Pea Brain August 28, 2021 at 6:36 pm #

    But as a manager you know better than most that your job is formulaic and is simply about supervising people to follow processes. That’s what your bosses demand from you. At least when your social workers are drinking tea with people they are not sitting in front of a computer filling in yet another grim but pointless form. Don’t take my word for it. Many an Ombudsman report highlighting process failures. Or precious BASW 80/20 campaign. What passess for intellectualism in social work, would ruin my cigarette paper. Still, hope over reason has an attraction I suppose.

  15. Alex August 29, 2021 at 8:47 am #

    As a social worker of 37 years experience who has spent most of it drinking tea with people and has dismally failed to re-frame basic conversation into a Foucaltian intellectual discourse but knows social work doesn’t even skirt the basics of a profession, I would be delighted to meet the rigours of a vocation. Would swoon with delight if offered a hot two sugared beverage too. Wouldn’t be so enamoured by the tedious self-aggrandisement of the intellectuals or the professionals mind.

  16. Red August 30, 2021 at 9:24 am #

    What a sorry state, this article highlighting a real struggle for students (and probably students on other courses too) and all people can do is argue about class no wonder social work goes round in circles.
    I do not disagree it’s a middle class thing however when will academics and practitioners align to call on government with a coherent joined up argument rather than infighting thus discrediting the ‘profession’

  17. Neil August 30, 2021 at 4:57 pm #

    The reason class matters is because nor many working class students are enrolled on Fromtline and the like so have to struggle financially while the already privileged get an extra leg up by the likes of Frontline.

  18. Flint August 31, 2021 at 9:56 am #

    As a working class Social worker with a Diploma to my name, I am neither an academic or Privileged . I personally feel that the Social work profession has been turned into a glossy magazine read by the privileged rather than the newspaper it use to be , sorry about the analogy . The government has excluded some of the people who want to be Social workers by turning the profession into a glamorous profession that attracts the high achievers rather that the gritty face to face job it is on the front line. I also agree that the training should be free ( as nurses should be ) and no person ( not just Social workers ) should be in a position that they have to use a food bank to stay alive, and live for the next day to assist others, who in some cases are in the same position.

  19. Railing August 31, 2021 at 11:55 am #

    I have always felt that the bursary should be repayable if the student does not work in the profession for x amount of years following graduation.

    The reason I think this is, on my course several years ago, there was a limited amount of bursaries (awarded on merit) and several of my coursemates did not go on to work as social workers, but chose unrelated post-grad qualifications such as in education or health.

    I always felt that it was a waste of bursary especially to those who did not get it yet went on to become registered social workers.

    I guess I will get hounded for this opinion. I await the onslaught.

    • Flint August 31, 2021 at 2:50 pm #

      I agree, the applicant could sign a legal document stating that they should re pay the bursary if they change direction. I also feel that education and health are in the same boat and to change to them would be a benefit rather than a loss. But again I feel that all public servant jobs should have free access to qualify, we are all the threads that keeps the seams of society from falling out .

  20. Andrew August 31, 2021 at 2:33 pm #

    When I trained a social.eorker, I was sponsored by a local authority and had to.eork.for them for 2 years or payback their investment. So no pile on from me.

  21. Sally Ludders September 1, 2021 at 8:43 am #

    Class matters because poverty matters.

  22. David September 3, 2021 at 11:54 am #

    Poverty is relative though isn’t it. My parents sacrificed to send me to Winchester College and I went on to Oxford afterwards. I became involved in Christian activism at university which led me on to train as a social worker. I could have taken up very well paid jobs but I have chosen to follow my faith into social work. Because my background is well off doesn’t mean I am well off now. Some of my clients drive better cars than me, some have much better holidays. We shouldn’t label people by their backgrounds or their accents and not project on to them privileges they don’t have. I like to think I can relate to people irrespective of my background. Lets see our common humanity not divide us on class lines.

  23. Scott September 3, 2021 at 3:18 pm #

    I do not doubt your empathy and social work skills David. Your sincerity and commitment is evident. We could in all likelihood be good colleagues. But in the temporal world my Geordie accent elicits instant judgement, birth city never fails to induce mirth about keeping coal in the bath. Dealing with ‘banter’ is exhausting. I am sure if you have retained your supposed ‘posh’ accent you endure this too. But we do have a different upbringing and that does shape and follow us. Whatever our own individual qualities are. The bursary addressed some of those disparities. Financial help matters and without it hardship becomes our experience. And those of you bemoaning how social work training is not elitist enough, ask yourselves why you didn’t study sciences. And why you are unlikely to know how to plumb in the bath that I supposedly keep coal in. What’s your genius that you chose to forgo being a dentist or a mechanic, or a carpenter, or run your own restraunt, or become a nurse, or be an accountant, or be a chemist? Did career choices confuse you so you settled on becoming a social worker for convenience? Do you really have that special aptitude to be the great social worker of your imagination because you were supposedly several cuts above your fellow students? Did you think “I could become a pilot but studying physics is beneath me, I need to get intouch with my feelings?” Was invading peoples privacy more appealing than being a cockle dredger? Humility is underrated in social work. Never quite understood why

  24. Hamish September 6, 2021 at 11:45 am #

    Social workers don’t need to be humble. You don’t need an MA to dredge for cockles. That is why we are a highly qualified profession. Frontline and the like should be the only way to train a social worker. Our profession needs people who have the inteligence to study at university not at an FE college. It is elites who progress society. Whatever skills they might need to deliver a parcel, trades people should never be compared to professionals.

  25. Marcus September 6, 2021 at 10:25 pm #

    Scott, we can pretend every social work student is literate, numerate and has intellectual ability or we can be honest and say a good proportion of them should never be selected for training because they will lack all of those qualities. If we are to be a serious profession we have to accept that life experiences are not enough. You need intellectual substance to be a good social worker. Frankly some of us were a cut above others on our course. The bursary should be a means to an end, not something to rely on. Potential students should consider if they can afford to study. It’s a simple cost/benefit calculation and prepares one for the ups and downs experienced by practicing social workers.

  26. Angelo September 7, 2021 at 3:54 pm #

    “It is elites who progress society.” “Potential students should consider if they can afford to study.” Firm fondations for becoming future Presidents of ADCS/ADASS. Pride in anti-discriminatory practice shines bright.

  27. Katie September 7, 2021 at 7:35 pm #

    I only have a CQSW so would really value a response from social work lecturers on what Hamish and Marcus write about student ability and the importance of financial independence from the bursary.

  28. Cynthia September 8, 2021 at 4:25 pm #

    Dame Professor Mary Beard thinks studying carpentry and engineering as valid as studying Greek and Latin. I think Marcus and Hamish need disabuse her about the importance of elites.

  29. Doreen September 9, 2021 at 11:00 am #

    Arguing financial hardship is good preparation for a social worker is like claiming orthopaedic surgeons should break their bones before they start training. When did smug certainties and vanity lose their cringe factor?