By Clare Jerrom
Financial support for social work students in Scotland is being reviewed after campaigners urged ministers to improve provision.
The Scottish Government confirmed it was looking at how to improve postgraduate bursaries and that regulator the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) had commissioned a review into practice learning finance.
The news came in a letter from minister for further and higher education Graeme Dey to two students, Lucy Challenor and David Grimm, who have spearheaded the campaign to improve financial support.
The students are campaigning for the introduction of annual bursaries of £7,500 for third- and fourth-year undergraduates, along with improved funding and clearer criteria for the distribution of postgraduate bursaries.
No bursary while on placement
Currently, undergraduate students in Scotland spend nine months working full-time on placement in their third and fourth years but, during their course, can only access means-tested support worth £24,400 to £36,000 (from 2023-24), mostly in the form of repayable loans.
By contrast, nursing, midwifery and paramedic students can make use of non-means tested bursaries of £37,500 during their four-year courses.
The campaign is being backed financially by the Social Workers Union, is also supported by the Scottish Association of Social Work and a petition endorsing it has been signed by more than 2,000 people.
‘I’d never buy myself something unless it was a necessity’
Community Care recently spoke to a current and a former social work student about their experience on living on the current levels of financial support for those on higher education courses.
In his letter, Dey congratulated the student campaigners for “raising greater awareness of the challenges that social work students face”, which he said were “relevant and important”.
Minister: students have been ‘heard’
He said their campaign objectives had been “heard and understood” by the government and would be “factored into the ongoing work to explore support available for social work students in the context of links to workforce planning”.
This included the SSSC’s review of practice learning finance, which Dey said would report next month, while he added that civil servants were “working with sector partners to explore options for improvements to postgraduate bursaries”.
Master’s 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 university has a limited number of awards and campaigners have criticised the level of discretion they have in allocating them.
Dey said that the SSSC was also working with relevant universities and the Social Work Education Partnership (SWEP), which oversees the system, “to consider collectively how social work students can be supported through the pressures they are currently facing”.
He said he would be happy to meet the campaigners once the work was complete, though he warned that the government needed to “balance the need to ensure that all students are able to access a student support package that is fair, while also being sustainably balanced in terms of overall affordability”.
‘Major step forward’ for student campaign
After receiving the letter, campaign lead Lucy Challoner, said: “This is a major step forward and we thank the Scottish Government for listening to the strength of feeling on this issue. We look forward to speaking with the minister when the reviews are complete to ensure we have a fair way forward for social work students.”
SWU general secretary John McGowan added: “We understand the financial pressures the Scottish Government is facing, but the student’s campaign is about two basic principles, that people should be fairly compensated for doing front-line work in the public sector and that students on social work courses should be treated like their peers on nursing and paramedic degrees and receive bursaries while on placements.”