Universities are losing out on students and practice placements because of the higher bursaries and fees offered by fast-track providers, claim education leaders.
This was among the reasons cited by the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC) for figures showing half of education providers missed their student intake target for 2021-22 and a similar proportion were struggling to find placements for their students.
The figures, released in January as part of Social Work England’s recent emerging themes report, are from the regulator’s annual monitoring survey of education providers, carried out last autumn.
Social Work England’s report did not put forward reasons for failures to meet student intake targets.
But JUCSWEC said the combination of the more generous bursaries offered by Frontline and Think Ahead compared with university master’s courses, and the government’s late announcement that it would be offering bursaries for 2021-22, deterred some potential students from applying to higher education institutions (HEIs). They also said some potential students had been put off by the ongoing uncertainty around Covid-19 and the lack of face-to-face teaching.
The most common reason put forward by providers for struggling to find placements was a shortage of practice educators (34%), while 10% cited competition for placements between providers as a reason.
However, while JUCSWEC also stressed the importance of practice educator shortages, it highlighted competition from fast-track providers as a key barrier to HEIs finding placements. Chair Janet Melville-Wiseman said that “fast-track programmes can pay a higher placement fee for their students and so local authorities will usually give priority to those students”.
As Frontline and Think Ahead, whose trainees qualify in just over a year, use a different funding model to universities it is difficult to compare the financial impact for employers of taking a fast-track over a university student. Community Care was not able to source an employer who would directly support JUCSWEC’s claims.
One local government source did say that councils who had agreed to take a unit of Frontline or Think Ahead students would prioritise these before determining whether they could take students on placements.
Frontline declined to comment on the issue while Think Ahead said that most of its units of trainees were placed in NHS trust mental health teams, which means they should not affect the availability of local authority placements.
Student targets missed
Social Work England’s report revealed that 49% of course providers experienced lower student intake numbers than their target for 2021-22, whilst 40% said their intake was broadly the same as the target.
These figures are not broken down by the type of education provider, but most respondents are likely to be HEIs as they account for the vast majority of courses.
Although the report did not set out reasons why most providers saw their student intake drop, JUCSWEC suggested it came down to fast-track courses’ superior bursary levels, the government’s late confirmation of bursaries for HEIs in 2021-22 and the ongoing impact of the pandemic.
“The sector has experienced low bursary levels for many years, particularly for postgraduate students on mainstream HEI delivered programmes, compared to the bursary funds available for students on fast-track programs,” said Melville-Wiseman, who is principal lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University.
At present, postgraduate students who do receive a bursary get a basic annual £3,762.50 in London and £3,362.50 outside the capital, plus a £4,052 contribution to tuition fees, which covers roughly half of teaching costs for the two-year programmes. These bursary levels have been frozen for seven years, meaning they are £500 lower in real terms than in 2014.
While postgraduate students on lower incomes can also obtain an income-assessed bursary of up to £4,201 in London and up to £2,712 outside the capital, the total available falls far short of that offered by the fast-track courses to graduate students.
Think Ahead offers £17,200 outside London or £19,100 inside London, while Frontline participants receive £20,000 in London, and £18,000 outside. Step Up to Social Work, which is delivered by consortia of universities and employers over 14 months, offers £19,833 regardless of location; it did not run last year but its latest cohort has just started. For all three courses, there are no fees, and their students are guaranteed their bursaries, unlike for university courses, where most students receive a bursary but their number is capped.
Rapid rise in fast-track numbers
Over recent years, the number of students taking fast-track courses has increased massively, backed by increasing government funding, while those on traditional HEI courses has stagnated, shows data published by Skills for Care.
Frontline grew from 155 starters in 2016 to 450 in 2021, Think Ahead from 95 in 2016 to 164 in 2021, and Step Up from 458 in 2016 to 686 in 2020. Meanwhile, 4,140 people enrolled on university undergraduate or postgraduate courses in 2018-19, down 12% on the previous year, following years of stable numbers.
Fast-track students have previously told Community Care that their decision to choose Think Ahead or Frontline was largely driven by the additional financial support, without which they would not have been able to train as a social worker.
Late bursary announcement
Also, while the government usually confirms the value and quantity of bursaries HEI programmes can offer in the upcoming academic year by the April before, it made the announcement for the 2021-22 in July last year, said Melville-Wiseman.
This made it “impossible” for any applicants in employment to make their bursary application, wait for confirmation they had been successful and then give notice to their employer by the time their course started in September, reducing student numbers, she added.
This is not the first time that a late government bursary announcement has created uncertainty for students and universities. In 2016, prospective students reportedly pulled out of courses because of the delayed confirmation of bursaries.
Additionally, the pandemic also created “uncertainty for many prospective students”, including because of reduced face-to-face teaching, with some possibly choosing to delay entry to university “until there was a way forward,” said Melville-Wiseman.
As reported in Community Care, practice placements were severely disrupted during the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, forcing universities and employers to find alternative ways of helping students complete them, for example, by reducing their length.
Practice educator shortages
Social Work England’s monitoring survey found 51% of education providers were still struggling to place their students, with 34% citing practice educator shortages as a problem.
“A consequence of the pandemic has been that agencies have prioritised frontline work leaving practice educators less time to manage student placements,” said Jill Yates, co-chair of the National Organisation for Practice Teaching (NOPT)
“Combined with the lack of support, workload relief and supervision afforded, the role has impacted the retention of practice educators and their expertise.”
She added that, for many years, practice education had been “consistently undervalued with a lack of recognition of the importance of the practice educator role in developing the next generation of social workers”.
‘Need to invest in wellbeing and support’
Her concerns were echoed by British Association of Social Workers (BASW) England national director Maris Stratulis, who said: “There is no doubt that the impact of the pandemic, increasing workloads and resource capacity has had an impact on a shortage of practice educators.
“Our members have shared national variation in the role and function of PEs, including non-protected workloads. If we really want the next generation of social workers to experience good quality placements, then employers and government must invest in the wellbeing and professional support to PEs.”
The next most common reasons for education providers to struggle finding placements were:
- Workload pressures on frontline staff reducing capacity to support students (23%).
- Reduced capacity for placements in the non-statutory sector (20%).
- The impact of mandatory vaccination in social care (13%).
- Provider competition for placements (10%).
The last factor was cited by JUCSWEC in explaining challenges in finding placements, which it claimed was because fast-track courses could offer employers more to place their students.
Currently, HEI courses claim education support grant (ESG) funding from the NHS Business Services Authority to fund placements, enabling them to pay employers £20 a day for placements and £10 a day for skills development days.
The latter tend to make up 30 of the 200 work-based learning days students are expected to complete during their courses. This implies an overall placement fee per HEI student of £3,700, which will be mostly be shared between different employers, over two years.
These rates have been in place since 2014, with no rises for inflation, and the £20 rate is only marginally more than the £18 offered from 2003-14 for statutory placements.
The ESG is designed to fund the planning, delivery and assessment of the placement, including workload relief and additional payments for practice educators, whether in-house or off-site. Yates said that a common fee for practice educators in London was £10-£12 per placement day though it dropped to £6.50 in other areas.
How the funding is used is agreed between the placement provider and HEI.
How fast-tracks compare
Frontline, which places trainees with 64 of the 152 English councils, offers them £18,000 for a unit of four students, or £4,500 per student, over one year. This is designed to fund 206 days on placement, amounting to roughly £22 per day per student.
Employers must also employ – and fund the salary – of a consultant social worker to line manage and act as practice educator for the students, a model replicated by Think Ahead, which works with 17 NHS trusts and 11 councils. For both organisations, salaries for a consultant are around £40,000 to £48,000.
Think Ahead’s standard offer is to place a unit of five participants with an NHS trust or council for a fee of £32,000 (£6,400 per student) outside London and £36,000 (£7,200) within the capital. For an expected 200 days on placement, this amounts to £32 per day per student outside London and £36 within, though the overall grant is increased if there are six students and reduced if there are four.
The higher fee it offers compared with Frontline may be explained by the fact that some of it is designed to go towards the salary of the consultant social worker, which must then be topped up by the employer.
‘Most local authorities will choose fast-track’
JUCSWEC member Joe Hanley, lecturer in social work at Open University, said it was difficult to compare funding levels like for like.
But he added: “The real difference is a university going to a local authority offering a £20 per day fee for 70 or 100 days [the typical length of HEI’s first and final placements], and Frontline going to a local authority and proposing an £18,000 grant to set up a unit, which will contractually obligate the four social workers in that unit to become newly qualified social workers in the local authority. I think most local authorities will choose the latter.”
Yates added: “Given that fast-track providers offer more funding, agencies may prefer to host these students but invariably many local authorities will host both students from within their [teaching] partnerships as well as fast-track students.”
For BASW, Stratulis said the current situation was one of inequity between different qualifying routes.
“BASW England supports diverse qualifying social work routes, in England, UK and at an international level,” she said. “We have consistently emphasised the need for equality and investment in all programme courses, yet there continues to be inequity in central funding allocation in England – this is not levelling-up.
‘A tiered system that disadvantages some students’
“The competition for student placement is creating a tiered system which disadvantages some students. This urgently needs addressing as the need for new social workers is acute.”
The debate comes with the government set on expanding the number of routes into social work, and of students, as it seeks to increase the number of practitioners in adults’ services to help deliver on its social care reforms.
It said last week that it was looking at how councils could accommodate more students on placement to achieve this.
A statement on behalf of the Department of Health and Social Care, which funds Think Ahead, the ESG and social work bursaries, and the Department for Education, which funds Step up and Frontline, said: “We are fully committed to investing in new training routes for those who want to become social workers, while at the same time raising the bar in training and professional development to make sure trainees have the capacity, skills and knowledge to support vulnerable people.
“This includes supporting teaching partnerships – an initiative aimed at raising standards and driving up quality for all social work students and practitioners – and providing financial aid to students to qualify through the social work bursary and education support grant.”