By Clare Jerrom
Some social work students face delays in joining the workforce due to the marking and assessment boycott academics are carrying out at 145 UK universities.
The union organising the action – the University and College Union (UCU) – said it was “undoubtedly” affecting final-year social work students, while Social Work England said it was aware some trainees would be affected.
Students have also said that the boycott and previous strike action by UCU have also affected those in other year groups, who have missed learning and had work go unmarked that they need to progress in their courses or secure placements.
The British Association of Social Workers’ Student and NQSW Group called for “understanding” from employers for those affected by UCU’s industrial action.
However, Social Work England said it could not ease requirements for students to have formally graduated from their courses before registering with the regulator.
Ongoing pay and conditions dispute
UCU instigated the marking boycott, which, which constitutes action short of a strike, in April, as part of a dispute with employers’ body the University and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) over pay and working conditions. This followed several days of strike action across the country, from November 2022 to March 2023, with walkouts also having taken place at specific universities since then.
The UCU and UCEA have given vastly differing accounts of the impact of the marking boycott.
The employers’ body said last month that 71% of member institutions reported that less than 2% of students would be unable to graduate this summer due to the boycott, with most of the rest (20%) being unsure of the impact.
However, the UCU pointed out this was based on responses from just half of affected institutions, and that over 5,000 had already been told that their degrees had been affected.
A spokesperson for UCU said: “There is undoubtedly an impact on social work students graduating as the marking boycott is ongoing at 145 UK universities.”
BASW group urges compassion for students
The BASW Student and NQSW Group said it stood in solidarity with educators taking action over their “impossible working conditions”, but urged compassion for students.
“We have seen first-hand the dedication, time and effort that is put in to ensure we, the next generation of social workers, have the skills, knowledge and experience necessary to make a difference to people we support,” a spokesperson said.
“However, we ask that students are shielded from the impact of late or unmarked essays and look to social work leaders and employers for support and understanding. Students are already dealing with a cost of living crisis, unprecedented demand on placements, and an uncertain future as major policy reforms march ahead.
“We ask that additional help can be made available to those who may be adversely impacted by the strikes, and that student voices are listened to and acted upon,” the spokesperson added.
Registration conditional on students receiving degree – regulator
Social Work England said it was aware of the ongoing dispute and the fact that some graduating social work students may be affected, and had provided all universities offering approved social work courses with advice.
“In our communication to universities, we have asked them to advise any impacted final-year social work students that they will not be eligible to register until they receive their final award that matches their award title,” said a Social Work England spokesperson
“We cannot accept non-honours awards or non-approved exit awards that do not meet these requirements.
“Anyone wishing to practise as a social worker in England must be registered by law.”
Two second-year social work students at the University of the West of England, said the industrial action – and UWE’s response to this – had resulted in significant missed learning, stress and uncertainty over the future for trainees.
“While we undoubtedly understand why lecturers are striking, we are left with huge gaps in our learning,” said course student representative Louise. “For example, we were meant to experience four days learning in adult mental health but instead received 1.5 days of teaching on the subject.”
As a result of the industrial action, lecturers had refused to give students course materials with which to catch up on missed learning, she added.
No second years have had their law and knowledge paper or placement portfolio marked, both of which are required to pass the year, Louise said, causing uncertainty over their progression into year 3.
Meanwhile, no first years have had their law paper or developing skills for social work practice module marked, which are also prerequisites of passing the year.
“We do not want to go into placements or our first jobs with such gaps in our knowledge, Louise added.
How can we become the best social workers with those gaps? Frankly, service users – and employers offering placements – deserve better.”
Fellow student Abi, whose lived experience of the care system as a child inspired her to go into social work, left a well-paid managerial position with a hospitality organisation to start her course.
“I experienced a massive pay cut and rely on my student loan with two children to support, which would be worth it for a few years to re-train and further my career. But if it is going to be longer than three years, I will face financial ruin and the university is being unhelpful in terms of providing us with any information or advice.”
University ‘sorry for marking delays and uncertainty’
A spokesperson for UWE said: “We respect the right of our staff to take part in industrial action while also doing all we can to mitigate the impact of strikes and other action on our students. We have reviewed all missed learning to identify where we need provide additional support either now or during the upcoming academic year.
“We can confirm that all assessments will be marked by suitably qualified staff, and we have assured our students that progression to the next year of their degree will not be adversely affected by the marking and assessment boycott. We sincerely apologise for the delay in marking, and the uncertainty this is causing.
“The university has extensive support available to all students, including specific support for students’ wellbeing. We have signposted students to the support available to them. We will also be reaching out to those impacted by the ongoing marking and moderation boycott to offer further support as they move to their new academic year, and have extended our support services to cover those who have completed their awards and will be graduating this year.”