Student bursaries frozen for eighth year as trainee social workers struggle amid cost-of-living crisis

System 'way overdue a review', say academics as union warns members making 'significant sacrifices' to complete courses

Image of empty wallet signifying poverty(Credit: vegefox / Adobe Stock)
Credit: vegefox / Adobe Stock

Academics and unions have criticised the government for failing to increase social work student bursaries, which have been frozen for an eighth year despite the spiralling cost of living.

They told Community Care many students were facing financial difficulties, including housing costs, meaning some were having to sell possessions or turn to family or friends for support.

The grants for the 2022-3 academic year, announced last month, are the same as have been in place since 2014.

Postgraduate recipients will 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 (equivalent to about half the cost) per year. Second and third year undergraduates selected for a bursary will receive £4,862.50 outside London and £5,262.50 inside, with awards pro rated for part-time students.

The number of new bursaries will also remain capped, at 1,500 postgraduate and 2,500 undergraduate awards in the coming year, as it has been since 2013. This means not all relevant students receive a bursary.

Students ‘pushed to quit courses’ 

Last year, Community Care reported that the then-seven-year freeze on bursaries was pushing some students to quit courses while others resorted to food banks as Covid lockdowns squeezed alternative ways of earning extra cash.

At the time, the fix on bursaries – which not all students receive – already amounted to a real-terms cut of around £500, but things will have got significantly worse since with UK inflation rates reached their highest levels in 40 years,

Janet Melville-Wiseman, the chair of chair of the Joint University Council Social Work Education Committee (JUCSWEC), told Community Care she was “pleased” student bursaries had been confirmed earlier than was the case last year.

Delays to government decisions on bursary funding had previously put prospective students’ plans in limbo as they waited to find out whether they could afford to take up places on courses.

“[The recent confirmation] will help students be able to confirm their places on university courses much sooner and where needed, give notice to their employers in order to join programmes in September,” Melville-Wiseman said.

But she added that the lack of an increase either in the number of bursaries or the amounts students will receive was a “particular worry” in light of student poverty and the number who have been struggling to study during the last two years.

“In addition the added pressures of the unprecedented rises in the cost of living will place an unreasonable strain on mainstream students,” Melville-Wiseman said.

The bursary has been static for many years and is way overdue for review.”

Meanwhile John McGowan, the general secretary of the Social Workers Union (SWU), said the union believed the level of student bursaries “needed to be increased as an urgent matter”.

“The training, recruitment, and retention of social work students is a key issue and it’s not an understatement to say that management and funding is critical to ensuring the future of our profession,” McGowan told Community Care.

Stresses ‘too much for students and families’

“A significant number of social work students already have children or other caring responsibilities, and repercussions of a bursary freeze are felt across the whole family,” he added. “The stresses have already been too much for some social work students and their families.”

The SWU has heard from members who have had to make “significant sacrifices” in order to complete their social work degree, such as placing their belongings into storage and moving in with friends and families for support, according to McGowan. He said others had made “difficult decision” to sell personal belongings or had been forced to work excessive hours to avoid homelessness.

“In the face of significant recruitment and retention issues across social work we should be supporting those who want to join the profession and offering a cost-of-living increase to present bursaries, not freezing the amount once more,” McGowan said. “We already have a shortage of social workers – not offering an increase in the bursary, let alone freezing it, is a counterproductive and questionable strategy.”

Fast-track rates frozen but at higher levels

Student support has also been frozen for those on fast-track courses but at much higher levels.

This year’s Frontline cohort will receive £20,000 within London and £18,000 outside the capital, as has been the case since 2019. The figures for Think Ahead are £17,200 outside London and £19,100 within the capital, rates that have remained constant since 2018.

Student support for the 14-month Step Up to Social Work course, targeted at attracting professionals from related careers into children’s social work, has, like university bursaries, been frozen since 2014.

However, this is at the much higher level of £19,833 and, as is the case for Frontline and Think Ahead, is guaranteed for all students and there are also no tuition fees charged.

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