Over 400 social work students write to ministers over bursary failures

Social Workers Union (SWU) Campaign Fund

Hundreds of social work students and recent graduates have joined a call to reform bursaries across England.

An “open letter” to the UK Secretaries of State for Health and Education has set out arguments for an end to the unique nature of hardships social work students face.

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.

The letter sets out that current arrangements for student bursaries for social workers in England are unequally distributed and limited in number.1

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.2

In addition, bursaries available have been capped at the same numbers (1,500 postgraduate and 2,500 undergraduate) since 2013, despite the growing recruitment crisis in the social work profession.3

The campaign is being coordinated by the Social Workers Union and British Association of Social Workers following representations from students affected by the issue. The organisations have already written to Labour policy makers to ask for their support for reform.4

Joe Hanley, a social work lecturer with the Open University, explained the impact of the current system:

“The reductions in bursaries and long term freeze we have seen in recent years has meant so many prospective social workers have been lost. At the time of a vacancy crisis this is unacceptable. The government focus on apprentices and fast-tracks does not alleviate this, and if anything distracts from the harm that this financial disparity causes the vast majority of social workers who continue to qualify through mainstream university programmes that rely on bursary support. If the government is going to mandate that social workers undertake 200 days of placements, then they should back that up with sufficient financial support to ensure this can happen.”

A student signatory to the letter, Maxine Currie from Leicester, commented:

“Some students on the course I am on won’t get a bursary while others will. Bursaries are allocated to those with the highest grades which means that those with lower grades who may already be struggling financially are going to have to put more hours in at work, leaving less time to concentrate on their uni work. We are all studying social work so we should all get the bursary.”

Lisa O’Hehir, a Lecturer in Social Work at University Centre Yeovil, said: 

“Students are having to work during full time placements, often in the evenings and weekends. If students have children they are relying on friends and family for childcare so they can complete placements and then work. This means many are exhausted by the end of placement and students have spoken to me about the toll that this takes on their own families and relationships.”

Other students, such as Rachael Pyecroft from Sheffield, highlighted how the travel costs for travelling to and from placements and to lectures are financially prohibitive for social work students who don’t receive a bursary.

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

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

“We’ve heard from students just how difficult their situations are at the moment and Ministers must listen to their testimony.

“The Social Workers Union has already supported Welsh students in their successful campaign to have the Welsh Government increase funding for student support by 50% and helped Scottish students win a review of finance for social work students. 

“Now it is the English Government’s turn to take action.” 

Rebekah Pierre, BASW Professional Officer, added:

“The current student bursary system for social workers is not fit for purpose. Yet again, social work has been excluded from any government discussions around fairer and more equitable bursaries – given that we have just had a once in a generation review into children’s social care which highlighted desperate recruitment issues, this is not just unacceptable, but potentially dangerous for those we support. 

“The recent Kings Honour List recognised the incredible contribution social work makes across society, but to truly thrive, social workers also need to be recognised in tangible ways on the ground, which means more investment in students, fairer bursaries, and inclusive routes to graduating which do not penalise those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

  1. Undergraduate and postgraduate quota from GovUK bursary guide, table 3 & 4 (accessed 6 April 2023).
  2. NHSBA Annual Reports (compare £59.3m in 2014, table 21 p39 and years following that with £56.3m in 2021, p22)
  3. Community Care 15/03/23 (accessed 6 April 2023)
  4. Letter 1: https://swu-union.org.uk/2023/04/swu-and-basw-call-for-bursary-reform-to-be-included-in-labour-manifesto