The concerns raised about the care review in England, such as those made last month by BASW, underscore the importance of the profession coming together to ensure grassroots voices can be heard. The pandemic has come on the back of successive years of decreasing budgets coinciding with increasing demand. Social care provision is just one of many areas in our lives that stands at the crossroads of change in a post-covid world and economy. Some will view this as a great opportunity, while others foresee difficult decisions to ensure sustainability. Regardless of one’s perspective, it is crucial that those with specialist experience and knowledge are included in the decision-making process.
One example of how social work activism can garner momentum to promote positive political and policy change is our campaign across the border in Wales. Health and Social Care is a devolved matter in Wales, which is how legislation and policy can differ from that of England. Northern Ireland and Scotland, like Wales, also have their own legislative bodies.
Politically, Wales is a left of centre nation, having never elected a Conservative majority to its Senedd (Parliament). The Welsh are well reputed for their compassion, community and equality, and such sentiments can be traced back hundreds of years. For example, prior unification with England in the 16th century, Welsh law demanded inheritance to be bestowed equally amongst all children, rather than the eldest son inheriting in full. It was a Welsh politician, Aneurin Bevan, who led the way in establishing the National Health Service free at the point of need in the UK in the immediate post-war period. The South Wales Valleys and its strong trade union labour movements gave Kier Hardie MP the platform to found the Labour Party in the early 20th century. During the miners’ strike of 1984-85 the South Wales Valleys carried the highest levels of participation (99.6%), with the Maerdy Colliery in the Rhondda Valley holding out until the last. Such determination could only be sustained with an inherent community spirit and the support of strong women who founded support groups to distribute food and join picket lines. Is it a surprise that we have elected a former Social Work Lecturer as our First Minister?
Nevertheless, Wales faces increasing challenges due to an ageing population, significant levels of poverty, overstretched services and decreasing budgets. Some may argue that the priority of protecting the health service in Wales has made social care a “poor cousin”. The result has been an ever-increasing gap in esteem between NHS and Social Care in Wales.
This is the backdrop to our campaign; as social worker students, we are as grassroots as it gets!
Commencing our Social Work master’s degree in September 2020 was a difficult time. Dubbed the ‘Covid Cohort’ by the university and restricted to remote working, we took steps to build ‘virtual’ support networks. As student representatives, we sent out a survey to our fellow students to determine their well-being, and to see what could be done to support each other during such a challenging time. We found that the most significant challenge facing our cohort was financial. We learned that many social work students were living in poverty, with no access to support.
The Social Care Wales bursary fails to cover tuition fees, let alone contribute to living costs. Our cohort was struggling to balance employment we had to take on top of full-time study, in addition to placements with the Local Authority. Current legislation prohibits MA students from taking out a student loan and receive a bursary simultaneously, and the loan itself is not fit for purpose.
At the same time, our NHS student colleagues, such as podiatrists, dieticians, nurses, doctors, midwives, speech and language therapists, dentists, and occupational therapists, are supported with a living costs bursary and have their tuition fees paid in full.
Acknowledging this disparity, we created a plan of action to address the funding inequality for Master’s students. We first documented our concerns that the current rules and funding provisions were placing unnecessary hardship and stresses onto the future workforce, with a system that acts as a barrier to entering a sector already suffering from a lack of diversity. We also outlined how the sector is facing a recruitment crisis, with substantial vacancies and an ageing workforce. The last thing the social care sector in Wales needs is to place further barriers and unnecessary hardships on the next generation of social workers. We forwarded these concerns in the form of a letter to both Social Care Wales and BASW Cymru, and subsequently, our campaign was born.
We contacted our Members of Parliament (MPs) and Members of the Senedd (MSs) to push our campaign into the political sphere. We asked students in Swansea and Bangor University to do the same. We urged the Welsh Government to commit to addressing the inequalities and lack of parity of esteem that postgraduate social work students face. We have received support and encouragement from BASW Cymru, who share our goals as a manifesto pledge, and reached out to colleagues to table the matter for discussion in the Senedd (the Welsh Parliament) in December 2020. In February, we met with the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Care, Julie Morgan MS, and the Deputy Director-General of Welsh Government, Albert Heaney, which was productive. In March, we were invited to a social care hustings by Allison Hulmes, of BASW Cymru, to raise awareness of the issue to a panel of Senedd Members, all of whom agreed that the matter needs addressing.
In collaboration with BASW Cymru, we are looking to continue our campaign. We are in the process of developing an online platform to help raise awareness of the disparity faced by postgraduate social work students. You can follow us on our Twitter account @MASWBC2020 to see how ‘The MASW Bursary Campaign 2020’ progresses. If you feel you can help or want to show your support, please contact us via our Twitter page; we would love to hear from you!
We would like to thank our course director Abyd Quinn Aziz and the wider faculty at Cardiff University, whose support and encouragement has been critical to getting us to this stage.
Julia James, Matthew Davies, Arzu Bokhari, Catherine Davies and Hannah Osborn
Cardiff University Social Work MA ‘Covid Cohort’