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.”