MSPs agree to raise campaign for social work student bursaries with minister

Parliamentary committee express sympathy for students' call to introduce financial support to stop third and fourth year students in Scotland from having to take other jobs while on placement or struggling financially

Photo: Drobot Dean/Fotolia

A committee of MSPs has agreed to make representations to ministers regarding a campaign to introduce bursaries for Scottish social work students designed to prevent them from having to take other jobs or from struggling financially when on placement.

In a meeting yesterday, members of the citizen participation and public petitions committee voiced sympathy for the plight of undergraduate students having to spend nine months on placement in their third and fourth years without financial support, beyond repayable loans or means-tested grants.

The committee, which was considering a petition to introduce bursaries for third and fourth years and improve the bursary system for postgraduates, said it would write to the minister for higher education, Jamie Hepburn, to raise the petitioners’ concerns and seek clarity on the Scottish Government’s position on them.

The petition, which received 2,089 signatures, was drawn up by a group of more than 300 social work students, who had, in October 2022, written to Hepburn warning that the lack of bursaries meant that trainees were “having to work full-time on a placement, study and work shifts or rely on food banks to make ends meet”.

Inequalities with health students

They also pointed out the inequality of support between social work students and that provided to nursing, midwifery and paramedic trainees, who receive a non-means tested bursary of £37,500 across their four-year courses. By comparison, social work undergraduate students only have access to means-tested support of between £20,400 and £32,400, most of which in the form of repayable loans. This will rise to between £24,000 and £36,000 from 2023-24.

The trainees, whose campaign is backed by the Social Workers Union (SWU) and Scottish Association of Social Work (SASW), called on Hepburn to introduce bursaries of £7,500 a year for third- and fourth-year at an estimated cost of £7.4m a year.

They also urged reform of the assessment criteria and value of postgraduate bursaries, under which students receive a tuition fee contribution of up to £3,415 a year, a means-tested grant of up to £120 a week and various allowances. However, each course provider only has a limited number of awards and discretion over whom to allocate them to.

Student campaign leaders met Hepburn to discuss the issue in January.

In response to the petition, Hepburn said the system of financial support would be kept under review, that the students’ views would be taken into account in any review and that he wanted to keep an “open line of communication” with them.

Students ‘must be focused on placements’

At yesterday’s committee meeting, convenor Jackson Carlaw, a Conservative MSP, and Labour’s Carol Mochan both questioned the idea of students having to seek alternative work to earn money while on placement.

Carlaw said: “We need students on social work courses to be focussed on delivering their best and getting their best from that work placement. If it is on a nine-month secondment then encouraging them to try and find alternative income streams by working is not really a healthy prospect or route in those circumstances.”

Both Mochan and Conservative MSP Alexander Stewart raised concerns about the lack of bursaries adding to the challenge of attracting people into social work. Stewart said that “putting extra obstacles and burdens in front of [students was] going to make it much more challenging” for them to complete their courses.

The committee, whose role is to consider public petitions, resolved to write to Hepburn to ask:

  • What form his proposed “open line of communication” with the students would take.
  • His view on providing bursaries to all third and fourth-year undergraduate students.
  • What the criteria were for accessing a postgraduate bursary and where this information could be found – as Scottish Parliament reserachers had not been able to find it on the website of the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC), which distributes the bursary on behalf of the Scottish Government.

It also said it would write to the SSSC to seek its views on the petition, keep the petition open for signatures and reconsider it once the committee had heard back from Hepburn and the SSSC.

Government ‘yet to promise concrete action’

In response, Lucy Challenor, one of the lead petitioners said: “MSPs have clearly seen the light that action needs to be taken to provide more support to social work students. The committee heard that while we are pleased to have met the minister, we have not had any concrete promise of action yet.”

A SASW spokesperson said: “To address the workforce challenges in the profession, social work students, who are holding individual caseloads and providing support to the social work workforce, must be supported meaningfully. This is a positive step in the right direction, and we look forward to seeing how the Scottish Government will respond.”

In response, a Scottish Government spokesperson pointed to the fact that Scottish-resident undergraduates studying in the country did not pay tuition fees and, so, faced lower student debt than those in the rest of the UK, while master’s social work students received more generous support than many other postgraduate students.

“Whilst this support is available, we appreciate that this must be kept under review and are working closely with relevant universities and the wider Social Work Education Partnership (SWEP) to explore options for funding practice learning,” the spokesperson added.  “Ministers will continue to work with the committee following today’s meeting to discuss the petition.”

A spokesperson for the SSSC said: “The SSSC disburses bursaries to full time students on postgraduate social work courses in Scotland. We do this on behalf of the Scottish Government who set the level of bursary available.

“We understand the committee will be writing to us and look forward to responding to their questions on postgraduate bursaries.”

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