Secretary of State questioned on England social work bursaries

SWU Campaign Fund | Emma Lewell-Buck MP, House of Commons written question 6 March 2023: "To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, whether he plans to take steps to help improve (a) the equality of distribution of and (b) access to bursaries for student social workers."

A new front in the fight for fair treatment of social work students has been opened this week.

Emma Lewell-Buck MP (Labour, South Shields) laid down a challenge to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to set out what steps the Government will take to improve the equality of distribution of – and access to – bursaries for student social workers.

In a response, Health Minister Helen Whately (Conservative, Faversham & Mid Kent) said the Government has “no plans” to assess the adequacy of student bursaries in the coming year.

Emma Lewell-Buck MP said, “As more and more public and support services are crumbling, social workers are needed more than ever. Bursary support is vital to grow the profession and ensure the most vulnerable in society get the help they need. Instead of recognising this, once again the Government are disrespecting the profession.”

Student bursaries for social workers in England are currently distributed unequally and only around one in six students benefit from them as they are limited in number. Where bursaries are available, the funding for them has been frozen for over eight years resulting in a real-terms cut in support for many students.

In addition, bursaries available have been capped at the same numbers (1,500 postgraduate and 2,500 undergraduate) since 2013.

Students on social work courses often complete front-line work as part of their courses, helping the most vulnerable in society. This means many social work students face unique levels of financial hardship as they are unable to work part-time while completing their studies.

One of the students involved in the campaign, Sarah Harrison, commented:

“I was fortunate that I was accepted on the ‘Step Up To Social Work’ programme, which comes with a bursary. However, the year I applied there were over 4,000 applications and there were just 66 spaces. There’s no way I would have studied had it not been for this programme as I could not have the uncertainty of income for my family.”

John McGowan, General Secretary of the Social Workers Union (SWU), commented:

“These questions in Parliament are the first step in our campaign and are designed to understand the Government’s position on bursaries in England. It is disappointing that the Government will not look at this structural unfairness, but from here we can now start to campaign for change to the existing system.”

Currently undergraduates on social work courses can get a £4,862.50 bursary which is not means tested (£5,262.50 for study in London). This includes an allowance towards placement expenses.

Postgraduate funding offers £4,052 per year towards tuition fees, a basic bursary of £3,362 (£3,762 in London) plus a means-tested element of up to £2,721 (£4,201 in London). 

Students can also get income-assessed grants for childcare or if they support another adult financially. Some students may only be eligible for tuition fee support, depending on their residence history.

Unsuccessful bursary applicants are also awarded support, with a placement travel allowance of £862.50 per year and students can still currently access financial support from student finance through maintenance loans.

Rebekah Pierre, BASW Professional Officer, added:

“At a time of a recruitment crisis in social work, with 8.6% having left the profession in 2020-2021 in England, the government must act quickly to attract and retain practitioners. 

“That must start with action to level up the bursary system for all. In a profession which aspires to be anti-oppressive, it beggars belief that students are prevented from completing – let alone entering – their courses due to policies which are entrenched in austerity. 

“How can social work students be expected to support others, when they themselves are desperately struggling to survive the cost-of-living crisis? 

“Students are the future of social work, and without investing in them, the profession as a whole is put at risk. The time for well-meaning words is over – it is time for politicians to put their money where their mouth is.”

Activity in England is the latest in a series of campaigns by the SWU Campaign Fund to push for better bursaries for students across the UK. In early 2022 the Fund supported Welsh students in successfully calling for the Welsh Government to increase funding for student support by 50%. In Scotland, students will have their petition for bursaries for third and fourth year students heard in the Scottish Parliament on 22 March.