At 19, Omar Mohamed was travelling four hours a day to study social work, working a part-time job and the sole carer of his nine-year-old sister.
He was also a recipient of a social work bursary. But, as for many others, it wasn’t enough to sustain him.
Living in Milton Keynes to be with his sister while studying in Birmingham, he would often arrive home at 7pm. So, on top of rent and utilities, he had to pay for after-school clubs and childcare.
And with no help from his family, these costs all fell on Omar.
In England, every year, 2,500 undergraduates are awarded a bursary of £5,262.50 (within London) or £4,862.50 (outside London) per annum for their second and third years of study. This is divided into three termly instalments.
Part-time work and no hobbies
This limited resource can leave social work students facing significant hardship – especially when on placement – if they have no savings or financial backing from family.
For Omar, a part-time job at a nursery, and then one at a local authority where he had previously been on placement, became vital sources of extra income
“I say part-time job but literally every bit of free time I had was [spent working],” he says.
I’d never go out or buy myself something unless it was a necessity.”
“I’d never do something that I was interested in or engage in a hobby. If I ever had money, it would be spent on my sister. It was extremely tight, definitely a challenge.”
The first, bursary-free year was the worst, when the absence of funds forced Omar to frequently forgo lunch while on campus.
“It was five pounds for a sandwich on campus. I was like, ‘I’m not doing it, I can survive, when I get home, I’ll eat’. But I was home at 7pm and I’d leave at 6am It was hard.”
Now, at 22, a newly qualified child protection social worker, Omar has made peace with the sacrifices he had to make. However, he can’t help but wonder what life could have been like with more financial support.
“I know that, if I had a bit more money, I could have had more for myself. I would be a full-time student, which is what I was meant to be, and it would have allowed me more time with my sister,” he says.
The falling value of bursaries
Omar is but one of many students in England struggling financially because of inadequate support.
If you value social work, you have to value social work students.” John McGowan, Social Workers Union
The government gives no indication of addressing the falling value of financial support for students, with care minister Helen Whately saying in March that it would not be reviewing the bursaries’ adequacy in the coming year.
“If you value social work, you have to value social work students,” says John McGowan, general secretary of the Social Workers Union (SWU).
“That means an accessible, properly funded system where no student feels they have to make the decision between continuing their course or heating their home or having to get extra work.”
Students ‘using food banks and warm banks’
This came after multiple accounts of students dropping out or living in poverty to finish their course, some accessing food banks or sleeping in cars or friends’ sofas.
“There are a lot of mature students that have families,” says McGowan. “It’s an expensive decision for them to train if they can’t get access to the funds, because then they can’t look after their family.
“We’ve also had members who rely on food banks, and I heard from one recently about a warm bank, where twice a week there’s a local community centre they go to get some heat and electricity so they can fire up the computer. That shouldn’t be happening in 2023.”
This is not only bad for students but worrying for the profession at a time of staff shortages, including vacancy rates of 20% and 11.6%, respectively, in statutory children’s services and adults’ services.
Community Care’s latest poll on the subject, which drew 631 responses, found that 70% of social workers would not have trained today with the current bursary levels, while 21% would only be able to train through a fast-track course.
The financial support for these courses – Frontline, Think Ahead and Step Up to Social Work – is much more generous that for university courses, with guaranteed bursaries of £18,000-£20,000 for just over a year’s training and tuition fees paid.
And while the number of people qualifying from a social work course grew from 3,360 in 2020-21 to 3,860 in 2021-22, this is 19% down on the figure in 2013-14 (4,760), when bursaries were last uprated, according to Skills for Care.
The struggle to get a bursary
Omar’s case is also a special one.
Aged 15, he became the carer of his then five-year-old sister, through a private arrangement with his parents that prevented him from being able to prove his position.
Despite letters from his sixth-form lecturers supporting his claim, he received the minimum level of student finance available and was initially rejected for a bursary.
“I remember in my first year talking about it to the student support and admin team for the course and they basically just explained that they don’t have a lot of flexibility to choose who gets it.”
It took multiple students dropping out at the end of the first year for Omar to secure one of the 46 available bursaries at his university. Still, he finds that the process lacked a human focus despite being created to help students in need.
“You don’t really talk to a human at the end of it, you are just sending documents to a website. So, there’s no one to really actually understand what’s going on here.”
This issue was also raised in the letter that began the bursaries campaign back in 2021, by the BASW England student and NQSW group. Addressing the government, the letter raised the lack of clarity around the eligibility criteria and each university’s flexibility to decide their own criteria.
“This has resulted in a postcode lottery system, with all students in some parts of the country being eligible regardless of circumstances, whilst others are assessed based on grades or attendance,” it wrote.
Campaign for Scottish bursary
The fight for higher bursaries is also not limited to England.
In Scotland, another bursaries campaign, backed by the SWU and the Scottish Association of Social Work, is calling for bursaries of £7,500 a year for the third and fourth year of university and a reform of the assessment criteria and the value of postgraduate bursaries.
Scottish undergraduate social work students currently have no access to bursaries but receive free tuition if they are residents in the country, unlike in England and Wales.
“I’ve never had a month where I think I’m going to be okay,” says Emma, a 33-year-old third-year student in Scotland.
Emma is a single parent of two, who has often found herself having to borrow from family to make do.
“It has been a bit difficult to keep on top of bills, in particular gas and electricity. And, being a parent, I’ve got a lot more costs for necessities for the children or clubs they might have,” she says.
“I’ve been having to borrow from family a lot of the time, especially the last couple of months. And then there’s the days where I have to attend university and it’s like, do I have enough bus fare to even get there?”
As someone who’s had “quite a challenging few years”, she has learned to push through and keep going, her eyes focused on the end goal – becoming a social worker. Her enjoyment of the course and the high employment rate in social work act as a gentle reassurance – “as hard as it is, I know it will be worth it in the end”.
Still, she looks forward to when she can provide her children with “the kind of life they deserve” – simple things like going on holiday or “if my daughter needs her phone bill paid, I can pay it that day and not have to push it a week because I don’t have the funds”.
In March 2023, the Scottish bursary campaign secured some help from a committee of MSPs, who agreed to write to raise it with the minister for higher education.
“It would obviously be a great help if this petition was successful and we got a bit more extra money a month to keep going,” Emma adds.
“I wouldn’t even say to live comfortably, because that’s not really going to happen.”
Boost in support to Welsh students
In Wales, where a similar campaign took place, students secured a 50% boost for undergraduate bursaries, following an 18-year freeze, and a doubling in master’s payments, last year.
The British Association of Social Workers Cymru welcomed the changes and hailed them as a victory for a group of master’s students from Cardiff University, who had been campaigning for improved financial support for postgraduates.
For undergraduates, bursary levels went from £2,500 to £3,750 per annum, while for postgraduates they rose from £6,640 to £12,715. As in England, Wales has a fixed number of bursaries, at 224.
While undergraduate bursary recipients in Wales still get less per year than those in England they receive more funding overall, as their award covers all three years of study, rather than just the last two.
Social work ‘losing out on talent’
In England, the bursaries campaign has produced a letter to be sent to ministers in late June, which has been signed by over 350 social workers.
According to BASW’s policy and campaigns lead, Josh Dixon, this fight is not just about securing current social work students a better life while they train, but also about ensuring no talent goes untapped.
“We’ve got to consider those who decide not to pursue social work at all because they see what’s happening and that they won’t be supported,” he says.
“You don’t necessarily get to hear those stories and I guess I feel for how much untapped potential there is out there. Social work is a wonderful profession, it’s life-changing and it’s exciting, but we shouldn’t be putting up barriers for students to undertake it, we should be making it so attractive that they come from day one.”
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