Social Work Education and the Marketisation of UK Universities

Social Work Education and the Marketisation of UK Universities Abstract This research examines the changing climate in UK universities since the introduction of fees-based funding and government-backed student loans. In what is now a highly marketised sector, the study considers what influence this neo-liberal environment may be having on the nature and quality of social work education. The study, which was carried out in 2015–16, has sought the views and experiences of a sample of social work academics. Methods employed involved a combination of survey and unstructured interviews, with both data streams having a largely qualitative focus. Questionnaire data was gathered from seventy-eight UK-based academics alongside eighteen interviews. The study has representation from all four countries in the UK with academics including professors, researchers and lecturers from both new and more established universities. Findings indicate a level of concern among participants regarding the influence of market forces on the academic–student relationship, on processes of student admissions, assessment and specifically academic decision making with regard to failing students. Interview participants describe feeling caught in the middle of competing priorities and agendas. Discussion seeks to employ a transformatory critically reflective model of analysis placing emphasis on those researched and the wider social work community to collectively take forward issues which this study has given voice to. Social work education, universities, marketisation, neo-liberal Introduction In recent years, political and public concern that all may not be well with the state of social work in the UK has once again put social work education in the spotlight. As a profession, the response to criticism has included calls to ‘stand up for social work’ and for more formal status and recognition. The recent passing of the 2017 Children and Social Work Act in England heralds a new era of regulation, professional standards and expectations building on existing ‘knowledge and skills’ requirements for those entering and working within the profession. The field of providers offering professional social work education in the UK is also widening and traditional university courses are now one of a number of possible routes into social work. Government support has been growing for alternatives to university provision through the promotion of graduate schemes run by private providers and teaching partnerships between universities and local authorities. In addition, a number of prominent universities have closed down social work courses in a time of apparent change and uncertainty within the sector. This research focuses on traditional university social work education and seeks to examine systemic factors relating to the marketisation of the sector which may be influencing the quality and consistency of professional entry-level social work education. It seeks to move the debate beyond the remit of course curriculum and culpability of academic educators by asking how the neo-liberal institution itself is influencing the quality of education. Calling first upon critical literature from the wider education field, this paper will examine the growth of a ‘market’ in higher education. It considers the establishment of what may be referred to as the neo-liberal university and the potential fault lines inherent within it. Literature relating to the quality of social work education within the sector will then be examined before summarising the purpose, methods and results of this study. Using a critically reflective framework from within the field of academic social work, the paper turns the lens of analysis away from looking outwards at social work practice and suggest that greater critical academic attention should be given to the environment in which social work academics are themselves operating with a view to acknowledging potentially problematic areas and developing a collective agenda for change. The UK university context The prevailing ideology of neo-liberalism and its influence over the Anglo-American university sector cannot be overstated. Crouch (2011) offers the following definition of this largely economic paradigm: There are many branches and brands of neoliberalism, but behind them stands one dominant theme: that free markets in which individuals maximise their material interests provide the best means for satisfying human aspirations, and that markets are in particular to be preferred over states and politics, which are at best inefficient and at worst threats to freedom (Crouch, 2011, p. vii). Whilst the classic notion of ‘liberalism’ is characterised by the freedom of the individual, the ‘new’ aspect identified within neo-liberalism in Foucault’s analysis in the late 1970s (Gane, 2008) is its emphasis on a legitimate role for the state to regulate and create a climate for market conditions to flourish. In this way, traditionally ‘public’ services and institutions such as universities are being incrementally transformed into self-contained bureaucracies run on market principles. Some have argued that the ideology of neo-liberalism has become so embedded within modern society that it has been accepted as a ‘common sense’ approach to service provision which has eclipsed any alternatives (Giroux, 2014). Others have suggested that it is indicative of the power and influence of private investors to put private gain before the public good (Reay, 2011), since services run by the private sector prioritise the need for profit above quality of provision. Furedi (2011) describes the features of a ‘marketised’ university where academic education has itself been transformed into a commodity, referring to this as a government-led initiative to create a market scenario which can compete at a global level and generate significant income. In addition, the numbers attending university have risen dramatically since the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which granted university status to institutions offering higher-education courses and saw the transformation of former polytechnics into what we now know as ‘new’ universities. In a 2009 report, Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, described the higher-education sector as ‘one of the UK’s most valuable industries’ (Kelly et al., 2009, p. 3). However, these developments within higher education have attracted considerable critique. Whilst much of the literature questions the philosophical shift inherent in the reconstruction of the student as ‘consumer’, the emphasis here is on the practical implications of this changing learning environment. Molesworth (2011) looks at the transformed role of the student into a fee-paying consumer who now often ‘expects’ to leave university with the degree that they have paid for. McGettigan (2013) gives an insightful analysis of the financial system now supporting UK universities, incentivising greater student numbers and on a policy trajectory towards the eventual privatisation of the sector. Indeed, his predictions appear remarkably accurate with the recent 2017 Higher Education and Research Act opening up opportunities for multinational private providers to be awarded degree-granting powers. Other work has highlighted concern regarding the influence of the league tables and specifically the National Student Survey (NSS) on educational standards (Williams, 2013; Locke, 2013), whilst Brown and Carasso (2013) present a summary of research evidencing ‘the very clear limits of the markets as a means of providing an effective, efficient and fair higher education system’ (p. 179). It has also been acknowledged that UK universities are not a homogenous entity. Collini (2012) summarises this point starkly: But while it may be true that the present system embodies an unnecessary pretence that all institutions called universities perform the same set of functions, it is no good deluding ourselves that simply leaving 18 years olds to cash in their vouchers at a university of their choice will lead to more intelligently conceived provision of diverse, high quality institutions. It may just lead to a few private jets and a lot of Ryanairs (Collini, 2012, p. 188). Additionally, there is suggestion that inequalities are worsening within the university sector and that students from less advantaged backgrounds are getting the poorest deal although acquiring a similar financial burden. There is also commentary (Collini, 2012; Pickard, 2014; Olssen, 2016) that the actual quality of education within the hugely expanded new university environment may be compromised. Whilst a competitive market environment might be thought to increase standards, this has notion has been challenged both in the UK and in America (Pickard, 2014; Hanesworth, 2017). The fact that the quality of social work education in the UK has been called into question during this same period of transition begs the obvious question as to whether the marketisation of universities in the UK is influencing quality and standards. The quality of social work education in UK universities The initial literature review for this study focused on ascertaining what is actually known about the quality of social work education in the UK. It was conducted shortly after the publication of two government reports (Croisdale-Appleby, 2014; Narey, 2014) commissioned by the Department of Health and the Department of Education, respectively. They were examined alongside academic literature and press coverage since 2008, largely evaluating what is described as the ‘new’ social work degree introduced in UK universities in 2003. Although the initial evaluation of the degree was positive (Moriarty et al., 2008), critical accounts of social work performance in the intervening years have contributed to a broader question regarding the quality of entry-level social work education in UK universities. During this period, the provision of social work education underwent additional structural change, prompted by the arrival (and then disbanding) of The College of Social Work (TCSW) and regulatory responsibility being handed over to the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC). Indeed, it is noted (Cleary, 2014) that the two government-commissioned reports not only appear to duplicate each other in purpose, but they took place at a stage when these additional changes had hardly had a chance to take hold, never mind be evaluated. Garrett (2016) also highlights that Narey’s Report was commissioned by the then Secretary for Education, Michael Gove and, whilst it is ‘lazily assembled and startlingly lacking in detail’ (p. 877), it nonetheless affirms Gove’s already expressed negativity towards social work education and indeed educators. Orme (2012) points out that, despite the intrusive layers of evaluation that take place within universities alongside a large number of published small-scale studies, there is still little substantive longitudinal research as to the effectiveness of social work education. Taylor (2013) also stresses the absence of outcome-based evidence in this area. The substantive amount of existing literature, then, examines specific aspects of course and curriculum content, rather than taking an overview. One of the few exceptions published since the Narey and Croisdale-Appleby reports is Higgins (2014), in a study setting out the views of academics, students, service users and practice educators which concludes that there is now a struggle taking place between the international definition of social work which is based on ethical principles and a commitment to social justice, and the narrow view set out in the Narey report (2014) which defines the profession by its agency to the state and functionary role services. The nature and purpose of social work education appear to be in the middle of this conflict, which is clearly linked to a wider debate within social work literature regarding the profession as a whole. The themes which emerged from the literature focused on what is known about the quality of social work education in the UK are summarised as: consistency in the regulatory framework: it was acknowledged that social work education appears to fall within the remit of a number of organisations; Croisdale-Appleby (2014), Narey (2014), Taylor (2013) and Taylor and Bogo (2014) all identify the duplication of regulatory bodies with separate standards and approval as creating confusion in curriculum planning and management on social work courses, with some suggestion that endorsement and inspection processes may not be rigorous enough; standards in admissions criteria: questions have been raised regarding the suitability (Holmstrom, 2013; Currer, 2009) and standard of admissions onto qualifying social work courses; Croisdale-Appleby (2014) refers to the possibility that some universities may be driven by the financial benefits of drawing in more students to courses; curriculum content: discussion has included calls for potentially more focus on specialisation, child development, procedural knowledge and the question of whether there is too much focus on issues of social justice and equalities within social work training (Narey, 2014; Wilson and Campbell, 2013; Hawkins et al., 2001); quality of student assessment: there is an explicit suggestion within Narey (2014) that social work degree courses are too difficult to fail at the current time; he refers to employers being unimpressed with the standard of performance by graduates entering the workplace, although his sources are unnamed and unverifiable. Although social work academia has a strong critical and radical tradition offering a counter-neo-liberalist discourse, there is a paucity of literature and research relating specifically to the expansion of managerialist market structures in higher education and social work education in the UK. Ferguson (2017) has recently tackled this topic directly, suggesting a new radicalism could be emerging within social work education internationally and pointing to the important work of the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) in the UK. At the Joint Social Work and Education Committee Conference held in London in July 2014 (Schraer, 2014), a keynote address on the topic by Professor Brigid Featherstone prompted a discussion where concerns were raised by academics in attendance relating to the neo-liberal university environment and its impact on social work education. The gap in the field for this study then emerged with a potentially transformative agenda. The research Ethical approval and funding Ethical approval was granted by the University Research Panel in April 2015. It should be noted that no data have been collected from the home university and that anonymity of participants has been given primary consideration. This is an independent study facilitated by the author’s employing university. Methodological positioning ‘It is the political task of the social scientist as of any liberal educator—continually to translate personal troubles into public issues’ (Wright Mills, 1959, p. 187). The seminal work of C. Wright Mills and his call for the use of the Sociological Imagination forms the basis of the methodological stance taken in this study, noting its specific pertinence to the current academic climate. It is additionally guided by the work of early pragmatists such as Dewey and Schön and more recent authors such as Cherryholmes (1992), Sayer (2000), Huberman and Miles (2002), Mertens (2003), Morgan (2007) and the model of applied thematic analysis set out by Guest et al. (2012). The approach is very much in keeping with that of a one-time social worker, where pragmatically getting things done takes precedence over technocratic rituals, but is equally driven by a critical and transformative agenda. Methods The research involved two streams of data: questionnaire data were collected at two academic social work conferences in the summer of 2015; by attending conferences and engaging with possible participants, response rates were maximised, with seventy-eight completed questionnaires completed manually or through an online survey (from approximately 300 eligible attendees); respondents were also asked whether they would be willing to be interviewed and thirty-four (44 per cent) indicated a willingness to do so, with eighteen interviews eventually conducted. Sample A convenience sample was used in this study. Conference organisers were approached as gate-keepers and facilitated this process. It is acknowledged that there may be a bias inherent in those who elected to participate as well as those in attendance. Conference attendees are not necessarily typical of the whole population and the sample may be skewed towards those without caring responsibilities during the summer months, for example, those able to secure institutional funding to attend and those more engaged with the wider social work academic agenda. No generalisability is therefore claimed from the results. However, participation included those working in the role of lecturer, senior lecturer, principal lecturer, researcher, tutor, teaching fellow and professor. There was also a broad range of geographic representation across the UK from both ex-polytechnics and older universities. Questionnaire The design of the questionnaire was with a view to ease of completion, using clear language, organisation and minimisation of any burden on participants. Participants were asked to specify the time they had spent working in higher education, their current role and the era during which their institution gained university status. A small space was given to make qualitative comments alongside scaled response questions regarding factors associated with marketisation. Interviews The research topic started to emerge as a sensitive one where anonymity of individuals and institutions were considered important. The approach was guided by research techniques used with vulnerable participants where public silence was an issue (Ryan-Flood and Gill, 2010). The narrative aspect of people’s own experiences was also given emphasis to enable personal accounts to illuminate wider contextual issues. Two semi-structured face-to-face interviews were initially piloted but, after review and reflection, unstructured telephone interviews were chosen as both resource-efficient and promoting of anonymity. An alternative option of submitting a written statement was also offered and only one person chose to take this up. These data have therefore been incorporated into what is referred to as ‘interview data’ below. The fifteen telephone participants were sent a brief guiding statement in advance asking them for written consent and prompting them to make comment on two areas: their own experience and their thoughts about the research question: ‘How is the increased marketisation of universities in the UK influencing the delivery of entry-level social work education?’ Limitations As a piece of practitioner research, potential researcher bias was managed throughout with reflective recording and close supervision alongside transparency, external review and negative case inclusion (Guest et al., 2012). It is also noted that there were a higher proportion of participants from former polytechnics in the interview sample and that ethnicity of participants was not recorded. Summary of results Before any form of discussion or contextual analysis of the findings, results of this study are summarised briefly below with minimal interpretation. A system of applied thematic analysis was employed (Guest et al., 2012; Miles and Huberman, 1994; Huberman and Miles, 2002) and, since the study did not set out to use what has become known as ‘mixed-methods’ analysis, each data stream is displayed separately. Questionnaire results Participant responses and notable changes identified based on their experience: 93 per cent reported an increased emphasis on income generation; 93 per cent reported an increased emphasis on NSS; 81 per cent reported an increase in the use of performance management tools/targets; 77 per cent reported improved library facilities; 72 per cent reported improved IT facilities; 70 per cent reported more difficulty finding placements; 60 per cent reported a rise in the use of part-time staff; 47 per cent reported a fall in staff time to spend with students; 45 per cent reported a fall in the quality of students on intake; 30 per cent reported a fall in opportunities to include issues of social justice within the curriculum (with 70 per cent reporting no change or increased opportunities to do so). Qualitative data Of those who added qualitative remarks to their questionnaires, the topic given most attention was the impact of the NSS. The issue of failing students also emerged as a theme. Staffing and resource pressures were also referred to alongside research demands and expectations. Interview results The level of participant engagement in telephone interview was strong, with each call lasting on average forty minutes. Interviewees spoke about their experiences, views and concerns and, in many instances, their feelings and the personal impact of the current climate in higher education. Many of the participants asked for assurances regarding anonymity. Thematic results with exemplar quotations are presented below. Commitment to excellence A strong thread of each interview was a genuine commitment to excellence on the part of each participant academic and clarity as to what social work education should be: ‘We are trying to create critical practitioners, people that are able to analyse situations.’ Interviewees also identified many examples of what they viewed as positive among students, graduates and university policy: ‘People still come in for the right reasons, motivation is humbling and the sacrifices some students make.’ Some participants shared examples of where they had enforced their own commitment to excellence and challenged university practices, with one participant choosing to share: ‘I have whistle blown at the university because I am trying to uphold social work standards and if I am not satisfied with the response I will go to the HCPC.’ Many participants described working long hours and being personally exhausted by the workloads they were carrying. Growing student cohorts and depleted staff numbers were noted, alongside more demands in terms of teaching hours, income generation and research output. The NSS: relationship with student-consumers and vulnerability of courses The NSS was a consistent theme coming through in the majority of interviews, as it was in qualitative comments shared on questionnaires. A complex dynamic was described between students, who are now very aware of their own power as fee-paying consumers, and academics. Participants reported feeling increasingly disempowered to challenge students and in some cases reporting feeling pressurised to placate and appease due to institutional pressure to achieve a high NSS score. In addition, the impact of the NSS and league table placement was felt very strongly, with a low score described as potentially influencing the overall performance of the university and future student numbers. Both of these issues were seen as potentially having course- and job-threatening consequences for many participants. To give some detail to this discussion, it should stressed that there was acknowledgement that the NSS could have a positive impact by empowering the student voice and to hold universities and academics accountable, but this view was tempered: ‘Definitely students are demanding more now that they are fee payers, they think they should all be coming out with A grades and if they don’t they complain.’ Many participants described the time-consuming aspect of the NSS where they are charged with ensuring student participation. Some also gave accounts of universities indirectly relaying the need for students to be positive in their feedback: The university tells students to be honest but adds that they need to consider the reputation of the university … I am not sure how honest students can be, the NSS informs league tables and students are aware of that. They don’t want to devalue their degree. Some participants reported feeling very uncomfortable with this position and saw it as coming into conflict with the social work values and need for criticality which they try to instil in students: There is a bit of a split between those who want to work to ‘up’ our NSS score and those who feel that doing things to specifically improve the score conflicts with social work values … coming from practice I feel uncomfortable with prompting students. The same interviewee stated that they felt a low score was not necessarily a bad thing and that they wanted to instil criticality in their students. Many participants described the need to challenge social work students but felt that, as this could produce dissatisfaction and even complaint, they were wary of doing so in a university environment: … if we challenge students and they complained our sense is that we would not be supported by the university … this is a real tension in a professionally qualifying course. If we are trying to equip people to go out and deliver professional services to adults with dementia or children who are being neglected, I feel a different level of moral responsibility but the university is not interested in that. Finally, the implications of what could be seen as a poor NSS score were considered by many of the interviewees. Here there was a real expression of vulnerability in terms of courses and indeed posts, where people felt their own livelihood could be at risk if the NSS score was not good enough. The consensus of the views expressed was that social work courses were more vulnerable than most, since placements were both demanding of staff time and largely out of the control of the university in terms of the student experience. Placements were seen by many to have the potential to bring down the NSS score and, as a result, universities may be more inclined to close social work courses. A poor NSS could also have an impact on future student numbers, which may also make courses unsustainable in a purely business-focused environment. The level of expressed vulnerability among many of the interviewees was, however, unexpected: We need to keep our students happy … because the VC is looking at the lowest performing 20% of courses and there is a mercenary approach; if your course isn’t performing it will be axed and this is a really heavy burden to work with. Student demographic concerns Many of the participants reported a feeling that the student demographic was getting younger: We are a local university with a local intake. Recently there seems to be less diversity in terms of lived experience. Who do we want to become social workers? I came from a poor background … I know what it’s like to struggle, to do what you can to survive. That is very different to just bringing people in who aren’t yet living in the real world, who haven’t got an applied understanding of the challenges that life brings but they are pole vaulted ahead because they have got an academic education. If we carry on this way people like me would never become a social worker. Standards of admissions, teaching and assessment The issue of standards in admissions, teaching and assessment was addressed in most interviews. However, this was an area of some difference in accounts, with two participants describing an institutional commitment to the maintenance of academic rigour and others describing a clear exit route onto alternative courses for students who struggled in social work practice. This was also an area where participants from Scotland and from Wales had little to say but noted that student numbers were capped by the social work regulator, which they viewed as extremely positive. Alongside the NSS, by far the biggest concern expressed in all interviews and indeed in comments on the survey data was around standards of assessment and in particular the difficulties experienced in failing very poor students: The university tells us a performance indicator is 70% of a cohort to get a two-one or first, that is essentially saying design your assessment to get this. These people either end up with a third or a two-two but actually, you wouldn’t want them sitting in your living room if you were a service user. Participant engagement with the research question The final theme presented in this summary of findings relates to general comments made by participants and their engagement with the research question. One interviewee said that this topic was the ‘elephant in the room’ which everyone was aware of but feared talking about locally so as not to ‘realise the fears of the profession’. People’s willingness to engage with the interview process indicated a level of genuine concern regarding the topic and a number of participants commented this it was an important issue for research. None was oblivious to the issue of marketisation and all were quickly able to list examples which related to this study. One described universities as now being ‘frantic places’ when ‘they should be places to think, critique and reflect’. Others spoke of the pressure of having to do more for less. A consistent thread which was expressed either implicitly or explicitly was the notion of conflicting demands and competing values. One described social work academics as having ‘too many masters’ to answer to citing the university, the government and the profession, all of which had competing priorities. Another added the commissioners of research, who demanded time and resources devoted to income generation and research. It was noted that some interviewees felt they had to choose between teaching and research in order to manage workloads efficiently. One person felt that academics fell into two camps: those who maintained their link and commitment to social work values and practice, and those who chose to focus on a career within academia and conform to the business-like culture of the university. There was a tone of fatalism in many of the interviews, with some participants noting that they were close to retirement or able to move into other academic fields, but also expressing concern for colleagues. A collective fear was expressed for the future of academic social work by participants particularly in English universities. Those from other parts of the UK expressed awareness that they were working in what appeared to be a more positive and secure environment. Discussion In keeping with the guiding principles of Wright Mills (1959), the overall task of this critical research is to use the ‘personal troubles’ shared by participants as a means of shedding light on the ‘public issue’ of social work education in a marketised university sector. Although results are not generalisable, the level of expertise, qualification and experience of those who chose to participate should not be underestimated. Additionally, whilst the experiences shared in this research pertain to social work education, there is evidence to suggest that the results have commonalties with other research emerging from within the field of higher education. These results exemplify the predicted landscape of a prevailing market environment which has developed within the UK university sector (Olssen and Peters, 2005; Molesworth, 2011; Furedi, 2011; Holmwood, 2011; Williams, 2013; Collini, 2012; Brown and Carasso, 2013; McGettigan, 2013; Giroux, 2014; Pickard, 2014). This has occurred predominantly since the Brown Report (2010) and the transfer of block grant funding to a fees-based system where institutions are now required to generate their own income Contemporary literature in critical education suggests that the quality of education throughout the sector is being compromised (Brown and Carasso, 2013; McGettigan, 2013; Williams, 2013; Giroux, 2014) despite the rhetoric of the market, where competition is supposed to encourage institutions to raise their game. This research is an addition to such evidence. Other literature parallels results from this study. For example, possible grade inflation has been identified (Brown and Carasso, 2013) and the NSS and other league-table-based systems have been highlighted as creating misconceptions of quality (Jones-Devitt and Samiei, 2011) as they attempt to encapsulate the mark of a ‘good’ education into quantifiable and instrumentally driven measures (Furedi, 2011). Inequalities of opportunity are reinforced by the newly marketised sector (Collini, 2012; Reay, 2011), with new universities tending to attract more BME students and those from lower social classes. Others have highlighted the change in climate within universities which supports the accounts of participants in this study that they are becoming business-like institutions using micro-management techniques to monitor staff and output (Buraway, 2011; Gill, 2010), ‘where teachers and thinkers are constantly surveyed and regulated in the name of efficiency’ (Miller and Sabapathy, 2011, p. 43) and academics are left feeling stressed and disempowered. Giroux (2014) writes of the neo-liberal university: ‘… it will ensure the marginalisation and eventual elimination of those intellectuals willing to fight for public values, rights, spaces and institutions not wedded to the logic of privatization, commodification, deregulation, militarization and hyper masculinity’ (Giroux, 2014, p. 16). I am conscious, however, that the audience for this work may well be aware of the issues it raises and, as Glaser (1978) highlights, those working in the field do not simply want research to tell them what they already know. Rather, findings need to suggest how to ‘handle’ the collective experience ‘with some increase of control and understanding’ (Glaser, 1978, p. 13). With that in mind, I turn to the framework proposed by Fook (2004) which suggests using critical reflection as a means of pursuing a transformative agenda in research and practice. She refers to a two-staged approach where, first, hidden assumptions are exposed and, second, reframed into new ways of understanding practice and power. She focuses on the need for any transformative agenda to first counteract feelings of fatalism and disempowerment among participants and refers to the need to reconstruct the identities of individuals as powerful. Whilst such a framework is not new and has been familiarly applied to the field of social work practice, here it can be fittingly redirected to the current university environment. Within this study, the feelings of fatalism and oppositional thinking described by Fook (2004) were apparent. Participant disempowerment was perhaps most clearly expressed in the inability to enter into a public discussion regarding the concerns raised but willingness to talk anonymously. I suggest that the very basis on which a neo-liberal or market model exists is to break down the sense of collective, community and public values (Giroux, 2014). By creating a group of competing individuals involved in the delivery of social work education, those individuals have been disempowered into a professional silence with regard to their concerns. However, taking Fook’s model and having to some extent ‘exposed’ some hidden assumptions here, social work academics now need to act collectively in order to reclaim their own power rather than simply wait to respond reactively to the demands of the new social work regulator in England. A network of further support is available within the wider academic community, internationally and from those responsible for other professional courses, as well as student groups and the professional body. It is also clear that we may be entering a new political landscape in the UK where further opportunities for collective action may be available. This emerged vividly in the results of the recent general election and the surge of support for Corbyn’s traditional Labour manifesto seeking to promote a return to fiscal economics and, significantly here, to abolish student fees. The market model is being called into question and there is a space for academic and professional discourse to consider and promote alternatives to the neo-liberal university and for social work to be at the forefront of this work. The critical tradition within social work academia and its compelling analyses of neo-liberal structures in practice settings (Jones, 2001; Dustin, 2007; Ferguson and Woodward, 2009; Fenton, 2014; Harris, 2014; Jordan and Drakeford, 2012) must surely now be redeployed to consider the university environment itself. To take one example, Harris (2014) provides an analysis of neo-liberal social work, breaking it down to its constituent parts of marketisation, consumerisation and managerialism which apply precisely to the higher-education sector described in this study. He talks of the ‘tensions, dilemmas and contradictions raised in social work by marketisation’ (Harris, 2014, p. 19) and yet he is not alone in giving no mention to the parallel university milieu in which he is situated and the well-documented existence of the same regime and tensions. The absence of such analysis raises a question as to whether some form dissonance or ‘othering’ relating to neo-liberalism is taking place within critical social work academia, which is leaving a void in professional critical discourse. Academic independence must allow space for an open dialogue and reflection in respect of this topic without fear of individual or institutional reprisal. If such a space does not exist which allows for honest self-reflection and criticality by academics, then we must create one in order to both maximise the quality of education and to preserve the principle of academic freedom. Conclusion Transformative research traces the concealed links between the observer and the observed, makes visible the invisible, seeks to break down the barriers between the social scientist and their objects of study, its success is to defamiliarize the investigator and to facilitate change in the investigated (Young, 2011, p. 173). This research has given voice to the experiences of individual academics which raise concerns regarding the systemic influence of a marketised university sector on social work education in the UK. The study suggests that existing critical and counter-neo-liberal analysis within academic social work should be extended to consider the university sector itself in order to develop a collective, coherent and transformatory strategy for the future of university-based social work education. Acknowledgements The author wishes to thank all those who gave their time to participate in this study. References Browne J. 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( 2014 ) ‘Professor urges robust discussion on future of social work degrees in the face of “greedy” universities’, Community Care, available online at http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2014/07/23/professor-urges-robust-discussion-future-social-work-degrees-face-greedy-universities/ (accessed 13 January 2018). Taylor I. ( 2013 ) ‘Discretion or prescription? Exploring confidence in qualifying social work education’, British Journal of Social Work Advance Access published August 29, 2013, 10.1093/bjsw/bct124. Taylor I. , Bogo M. ( 2014 ) ‘Perfect opportunity—perfect storm? Raising the standard of social work education in England’ , British Journal of Social Work , 44 ( 6 ), pp. 1402 – 18 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Williams J. ( 2013 ) Consuming Higher Education , London , Bloomsbury Academic, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc . Google Scholar PubMed PubMed Wilson G. , Campbell A. ( 2013 ) ‘ Developing social work education: Academic perspectives’ , British Journal of Social Work , 43 , pp. 1005 – 23 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS Wright Mills C. W. ( 1959 ) The Sociological Imagination , New York , Oxford University Press . Young J. ( 2011 ) The Criminological Imagination , Cambridge , Polity . © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The British Journal of Social Work Oxford University Press

Social Work Education and the Marketisation of UK Universities

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Oxford University Press
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© The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Association of Social Workers. All rights reserved.
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0045-3102
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1468-263X
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10.1093/bjsw/bcx158
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Abstract

Abstract This research examines the changing climate in UK universities since the introduction of fees-based funding and government-backed student loans. In what is now a highly marketised sector, the study considers what influence this neo-liberal environment may be having on the nature and quality of social work education. The study, which was carried out in 2015–16, has sought the views and experiences of a sample of social work academics. Methods employed involved a combination of survey and unstructured interviews, with both data streams having a largely qualitative focus. Questionnaire data was gathered from seventy-eight UK-based academics alongside eighteen interviews. The study has representation from all four countries in the UK with academics including professors, researchers and lecturers from both new and more established universities. Findings indicate a level of concern among participants regarding the influence of market forces on the academic–student relationship, on processes of student admissions, assessment and specifically academic decision making with regard to failing students. Interview participants describe feeling caught in the middle of competing priorities and agendas. Discussion seeks to employ a transformatory critically reflective model of analysis placing emphasis on those researched and the wider social work community to collectively take forward issues which this study has given voice to. Social work education, universities, marketisation, neo-liberal Introduction In recent years, political and public concern that all may not be well with the state of social work in the UK has once again put social work education in the spotlight. As a profession, the response to criticism has included calls to ‘stand up for social work’ and for more formal status and recognition. The recent passing of the 2017 Children and Social Work Act in England heralds a new era of regulation, professional standards and expectations building on existing ‘knowledge and skills’ requirements for those entering and working within the profession. The field of providers offering professional social work education in the UK is also widening and traditional university courses are now one of a number of possible routes into social work. Government support has been growing for alternatives to university provision through the promotion of graduate schemes run by private providers and teaching partnerships between universities and local authorities. In addition, a number of prominent universities have closed down social work courses in a time of apparent change and uncertainty within the sector. This research focuses on traditional university social work education and seeks to examine systemic factors relating to the marketisation of the sector which may be influencing the quality and consistency of professional entry-level social work education. It seeks to move the debate beyond the remit of course curriculum and culpability of academic educators by asking how the neo-liberal institution itself is influencing the quality of education. Calling first upon critical literature from the wider education field, this paper will examine the growth of a ‘market’ in higher education. It considers the establishment of what may be referred to as the neo-liberal university and the potential fault lines inherent within it. Literature relating to the quality of social work education within the sector will then be examined before summarising the purpose, methods and results of this study. Using a critically reflective framework from within the field of academic social work, the paper turns the lens of analysis away from looking outwards at social work practice and suggest that greater critical academic attention should be given to the environment in which social work academics are themselves operating with a view to acknowledging potentially problematic areas and developing a collective agenda for change. The UK university context The prevailing ideology of neo-liberalism and its influence over the Anglo-American university sector cannot be overstated. Crouch (2011) offers the following definition of this largely economic paradigm: There are many branches and brands of neoliberalism, but behind them stands one dominant theme: that free markets in which individuals maximise their material interests provide the best means for satisfying human aspirations, and that markets are in particular to be preferred over states and politics, which are at best inefficient and at worst threats to freedom (Crouch, 2011, p. vii). Whilst the classic notion of ‘liberalism’ is characterised by the freedom of the individual, the ‘new’ aspect identified within neo-liberalism in Foucault’s analysis in the late 1970s (Gane, 2008) is its emphasis on a legitimate role for the state to regulate and create a climate for market conditions to flourish. In this way, traditionally ‘public’ services and institutions such as universities are being incrementally transformed into self-contained bureaucracies run on market principles. Some have argued that the ideology of neo-liberalism has become so embedded within modern society that it has been accepted as a ‘common sense’ approach to service provision which has eclipsed any alternatives (Giroux, 2014). Others have suggested that it is indicative of the power and influence of private investors to put private gain before the public good (Reay, 2011), since services run by the private sector prioritise the need for profit above quality of provision. Furedi (2011) describes the features of a ‘marketised’ university where academic education has itself been transformed into a commodity, referring to this as a government-led initiative to create a market scenario which can compete at a global level and generate significant income. In addition, the numbers attending university have risen dramatically since the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act, which granted university status to institutions offering higher-education courses and saw the transformation of former polytechnics into what we now know as ‘new’ universities. In a 2009 report, Professor Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, described the higher-education sector as ‘one of the UK’s most valuable industries’ (Kelly et al., 2009, p. 3). However, these developments within higher education have attracted considerable critique. Whilst much of the literature questions the philosophical shift inherent in the reconstruction of the student as ‘consumer’, the emphasis here is on the practical implications of this changing learning environment. Molesworth (2011) looks at the transformed role of the student into a fee-paying consumer who now often ‘expects’ to leave university with the degree that they have paid for. McGettigan (2013) gives an insightful analysis of the financial system now supporting UK universities, incentivising greater student numbers and on a policy trajectory towards the eventual privatisation of the sector. Indeed, his predictions appear remarkably accurate with the recent 2017 Higher Education and Research Act opening up opportunities for multinational private providers to be awarded degree-granting powers. Other work has highlighted concern regarding the influence of the league tables and specifically the National Student Survey (NSS) on educational standards (Williams, 2013; Locke, 2013), whilst Brown and Carasso (2013) present a summary of research evidencing ‘the very clear limits of the markets as a means of providing an effective, efficient and fair higher education system’ (p. 179). It has also been acknowledged that UK universities are not a homogenous entity. Collini (2012) summarises this point starkly: But while it may be true that the present system embodies an unnecessary pretence that all institutions called universities perform the same set of functions, it is no good deluding ourselves that simply leaving 18 years olds to cash in their vouchers at a university of their choice will lead to more intelligently conceived provision of diverse, high quality institutions. It may just lead to a few private jets and a lot of Ryanairs (Collini, 2012, p. 188). Additionally, there is suggestion that inequalities are worsening within the university sector and that students from less advantaged backgrounds are getting the poorest deal although acquiring a similar financial burden. There is also commentary (Collini, 2012; Pickard, 2014; Olssen, 2016) that the actual quality of education within the hugely expanded new university environment may be compromised. Whilst a competitive market environment might be thought to increase standards, this has notion has been challenged both in the UK and in America (Pickard, 2014; Hanesworth, 2017). The fact that the quality of social work education in the UK has been called into question during this same period of transition begs the obvious question as to whether the marketisation of universities in the UK is influencing quality and standards. The quality of social work education in UK universities The initial literature review for this study focused on ascertaining what is actually known about the quality of social work education in the UK. It was conducted shortly after the publication of two government reports (Croisdale-Appleby, 2014; Narey, 2014) commissioned by the Department of Health and the Department of Education, respectively. They were examined alongside academic literature and press coverage since 2008, largely evaluating what is described as the ‘new’ social work degree introduced in UK universities in 2003. Although the initial evaluation of the degree was positive (Moriarty et al., 2008), critical accounts of social work performance in the intervening years have contributed to a broader question regarding the quality of entry-level social work education in UK universities. During this period, the provision of social work education underwent additional structural change, prompted by the arrival (and then disbanding) of The College of Social Work (TCSW) and regulatory responsibility being handed over to the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC). Indeed, it is noted (Cleary, 2014) that the two government-commissioned reports not only appear to duplicate each other in purpose, but they took place at a stage when these additional changes had hardly had a chance to take hold, never mind be evaluated. Garrett (2016) also highlights that Narey’s Report was commissioned by the then Secretary for Education, Michael Gove and, whilst it is ‘lazily assembled and startlingly lacking in detail’ (p. 877), it nonetheless affirms Gove’s already expressed negativity towards social work education and indeed educators. Orme (2012) points out that, despite the intrusive layers of evaluation that take place within universities alongside a large number of published small-scale studies, there is still little substantive longitudinal research as to the effectiveness of social work education. Taylor (2013) also stresses the absence of outcome-based evidence in this area. The substantive amount of existing literature, then, examines specific aspects of course and curriculum content, rather than taking an overview. One of the few exceptions published since the Narey and Croisdale-Appleby reports is Higgins (2014), in a study setting out the views of academics, students, service users and practice educators which concludes that there is now a struggle taking place between the international definition of social work which is based on ethical principles and a commitment to social justice, and the narrow view set out in the Narey report (2014) which defines the profession by its agency to the state and functionary role services. The nature and purpose of social work education appear to be in the middle of this conflict, which is clearly linked to a wider debate within social work literature regarding the profession as a whole. The themes which emerged from the literature focused on what is known about the quality of social work education in the UK are summarised as: consistency in the regulatory framework: it was acknowledged that social work education appears to fall within the remit of a number of organisations; Croisdale-Appleby (2014), Narey (2014), Taylor (2013) and Taylor and Bogo (2014) all identify the duplication of regulatory bodies with separate standards and approval as creating confusion in curriculum planning and management on social work courses, with some suggestion that endorsement and inspection processes may not be rigorous enough; standards in admissions criteria: questions have been raised regarding the suitability (Holmstrom, 2013; Currer, 2009) and standard of admissions onto qualifying social work courses; Croisdale-Appleby (2014) refers to the possibility that some universities may be driven by the financial benefits of drawing in more students to courses; curriculum content: discussion has included calls for potentially more focus on specialisation, child development, procedural knowledge and the question of whether there is too much focus on issues of social justice and equalities within social work training (Narey, 2014; Wilson and Campbell, 2013; Hawkins et al., 2001); quality of student assessment: there is an explicit suggestion within Narey (2014) that social work degree courses are too difficult to fail at the current time; he refers to employers being unimpressed with the standard of performance by graduates entering the workplace, although his sources are unnamed and unverifiable. Although social work academia has a strong critical and radical tradition offering a counter-neo-liberalist discourse, there is a paucity of literature and research relating specifically to the expansion of managerialist market structures in higher education and social work education in the UK. Ferguson (2017) has recently tackled this topic directly, suggesting a new radicalism could be emerging within social work education internationally and pointing to the important work of the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) in the UK. At the Joint Social Work and Education Committee Conference held in London in July 2014 (Schraer, 2014), a keynote address on the topic by Professor Brigid Featherstone prompted a discussion where concerns were raised by academics in attendance relating to the neo-liberal university environment and its impact on social work education. The gap in the field for this study then emerged with a potentially transformative agenda. The research Ethical approval and funding Ethical approval was granted by the University Research Panel in April 2015. It should be noted that no data have been collected from the home university and that anonymity of participants has been given primary consideration. This is an independent study facilitated by the author’s employing university. Methodological positioning ‘It is the political task of the social scientist as of any liberal educator—continually to translate personal troubles into public issues’ (Wright Mills, 1959, p. 187). The seminal work of C. Wright Mills and his call for the use of the Sociological Imagination forms the basis of the methodological stance taken in this study, noting its specific pertinence to the current academic climate. It is additionally guided by the work of early pragmatists such as Dewey and Schön and more recent authors such as Cherryholmes (1992), Sayer (2000), Huberman and Miles (2002), Mertens (2003), Morgan (2007) and the model of applied thematic analysis set out by Guest et al. (2012). The approach is very much in keeping with that of a one-time social worker, where pragmatically getting things done takes precedence over technocratic rituals, but is equally driven by a critical and transformative agenda. Methods The research involved two streams of data: questionnaire data were collected at two academic social work conferences in the summer of 2015; by attending conferences and engaging with possible participants, response rates were maximised, with seventy-eight completed questionnaires completed manually or through an online survey (from approximately 300 eligible attendees); respondents were also asked whether they would be willing to be interviewed and thirty-four (44 per cent) indicated a willingness to do so, with eighteen interviews eventually conducted. Sample A convenience sample was used in this study. Conference organisers were approached as gate-keepers and facilitated this process. It is acknowledged that there may be a bias inherent in those who elected to participate as well as those in attendance. Conference attendees are not necessarily typical of the whole population and the sample may be skewed towards those without caring responsibilities during the summer months, for example, those able to secure institutional funding to attend and those more engaged with the wider social work academic agenda. No generalisability is therefore claimed from the results. However, participation included those working in the role of lecturer, senior lecturer, principal lecturer, researcher, tutor, teaching fellow and professor. There was also a broad range of geographic representation across the UK from both ex-polytechnics and older universities. Questionnaire The design of the questionnaire was with a view to ease of completion, using clear language, organisation and minimisation of any burden on participants. Participants were asked to specify the time they had spent working in higher education, their current role and the era during which their institution gained university status. A small space was given to make qualitative comments alongside scaled response questions regarding factors associated with marketisation. Interviews The research topic started to emerge as a sensitive one where anonymity of individuals and institutions were considered important. The approach was guided by research techniques used with vulnerable participants where public silence was an issue (Ryan-Flood and Gill, 2010). The narrative aspect of people’s own experiences was also given emphasis to enable personal accounts to illuminate wider contextual issues. Two semi-structured face-to-face interviews were initially piloted but, after review and reflection, unstructured telephone interviews were chosen as both resource-efficient and promoting of anonymity. An alternative option of submitting a written statement was also offered and only one person chose to take this up. These data have therefore been incorporated into what is referred to as ‘interview data’ below. The fifteen telephone participants were sent a brief guiding statement in advance asking them for written consent and prompting them to make comment on two areas: their own experience and their thoughts about the research question: ‘How is the increased marketisation of universities in the UK influencing the delivery of entry-level social work education?’ Limitations As a piece of practitioner research, potential researcher bias was managed throughout with reflective recording and close supervision alongside transparency, external review and negative case inclusion (Guest et al., 2012). It is also noted that there were a higher proportion of participants from former polytechnics in the interview sample and that ethnicity of participants was not recorded. Summary of results Before any form of discussion or contextual analysis of the findings, results of this study are summarised briefly below with minimal interpretation. A system of applied thematic analysis was employed (Guest et al., 2012; Miles and Huberman, 1994; Huberman and Miles, 2002) and, since the study did not set out to use what has become known as ‘mixed-methods’ analysis, each data stream is displayed separately. Questionnaire results Participant responses and notable changes identified based on their experience: 93 per cent reported an increased emphasis on income generation; 93 per cent reported an increased emphasis on NSS; 81 per cent reported an increase in the use of performance management tools/targets; 77 per cent reported improved library facilities; 72 per cent reported improved IT facilities; 70 per cent reported more difficulty finding placements; 60 per cent reported a rise in the use of part-time staff; 47 per cent reported a fall in staff time to spend with students; 45 per cent reported a fall in the quality of students on intake; 30 per cent reported a fall in opportunities to include issues of social justice within the curriculum (with 70 per cent reporting no change or increased opportunities to do so). Qualitative data Of those who added qualitative remarks to their questionnaires, the topic given most attention was the impact of the NSS. The issue of failing students also emerged as a theme. Staffing and resource pressures were also referred to alongside research demands and expectations. Interview results The level of participant engagement in telephone interview was strong, with each call lasting on average forty minutes. Interviewees spoke about their experiences, views and concerns and, in many instances, their feelings and the personal impact of the current climate in higher education. Many of the participants asked for assurances regarding anonymity. Thematic results with exemplar quotations are presented below. Commitment to excellence A strong thread of each interview was a genuine commitment to excellence on the part of each participant academic and clarity as to what social work education should be: ‘We are trying to create critical practitioners, people that are able to analyse situations.’ Interviewees also identified many examples of what they viewed as positive among students, graduates and university policy: ‘People still come in for the right reasons, motivation is humbling and the sacrifices some students make.’ Some participants shared examples of where they had enforced their own commitment to excellence and challenged university practices, with one participant choosing to share: ‘I have whistle blown at the university because I am trying to uphold social work standards and if I am not satisfied with the response I will go to the HCPC.’ Many participants described working long hours and being personally exhausted by the workloads they were carrying. Growing student cohorts and depleted staff numbers were noted, alongside more demands in terms of teaching hours, income generation and research output. The NSS: relationship with student-consumers and vulnerability of courses The NSS was a consistent theme coming through in the majority of interviews, as it was in qualitative comments shared on questionnaires. A complex dynamic was described between students, who are now very aware of their own power as fee-paying consumers, and academics. Participants reported feeling increasingly disempowered to challenge students and in some cases reporting feeling pressurised to placate and appease due to institutional pressure to achieve a high NSS score. In addition, the impact of the NSS and league table placement was felt very strongly, with a low score described as potentially influencing the overall performance of the university and future student numbers. Both of these issues were seen as potentially having course- and job-threatening consequences for many participants. To give some detail to this discussion, it should stressed that there was acknowledgement that the NSS could have a positive impact by empowering the student voice and to hold universities and academics accountable, but this view was tempered: ‘Definitely students are demanding more now that they are fee payers, they think they should all be coming out with A grades and if they don’t they complain.’ Many participants described the time-consuming aspect of the NSS where they are charged with ensuring student participation. Some also gave accounts of universities indirectly relaying the need for students to be positive in their feedback: The university tells students to be honest but adds that they need to consider the reputation of the university … I am not sure how honest students can be, the NSS informs league tables and students are aware of that. They don’t want to devalue their degree. Some participants reported feeling very uncomfortable with this position and saw it as coming into conflict with the social work values and need for criticality which they try to instil in students: There is a bit of a split between those who want to work to ‘up’ our NSS score and those who feel that doing things to specifically improve the score conflicts with social work values … coming from practice I feel uncomfortable with prompting students. The same interviewee stated that they felt a low score was not necessarily a bad thing and that they wanted to instil criticality in their students. Many participants described the need to challenge social work students but felt that, as this could produce dissatisfaction and even complaint, they were wary of doing so in a university environment: … if we challenge students and they complained our sense is that we would not be supported by the university … this is a real tension in a professionally qualifying course. If we are trying to equip people to go out and deliver professional services to adults with dementia or children who are being neglected, I feel a different level of moral responsibility but the university is not interested in that. Finally, the implications of what could be seen as a poor NSS score were considered by many of the interviewees. Here there was a real expression of vulnerability in terms of courses and indeed posts, where people felt their own livelihood could be at risk if the NSS score was not good enough. The consensus of the views expressed was that social work courses were more vulnerable than most, since placements were both demanding of staff time and largely out of the control of the university in terms of the student experience. Placements were seen by many to have the potential to bring down the NSS score and, as a result, universities may be more inclined to close social work courses. A poor NSS could also have an impact on future student numbers, which may also make courses unsustainable in a purely business-focused environment. The level of expressed vulnerability among many of the interviewees was, however, unexpected: We need to keep our students happy … because the VC is looking at the lowest performing 20% of courses and there is a mercenary approach; if your course isn’t performing it will be axed and this is a really heavy burden to work with. Student demographic concerns Many of the participants reported a feeling that the student demographic was getting younger: We are a local university with a local intake. Recently there seems to be less diversity in terms of lived experience. Who do we want to become social workers? I came from a poor background … I know what it’s like to struggle, to do what you can to survive. That is very different to just bringing people in who aren’t yet living in the real world, who haven’t got an applied understanding of the challenges that life brings but they are pole vaulted ahead because they have got an academic education. If we carry on this way people like me would never become a social worker. Standards of admissions, teaching and assessment The issue of standards in admissions, teaching and assessment was addressed in most interviews. However, this was an area of some difference in accounts, with two participants describing an institutional commitment to the maintenance of academic rigour and others describing a clear exit route onto alternative courses for students who struggled in social work practice. This was also an area where participants from Scotland and from Wales had little to say but noted that student numbers were capped by the social work regulator, which they viewed as extremely positive. Alongside the NSS, by far the biggest concern expressed in all interviews and indeed in comments on the survey data was around standards of assessment and in particular the difficulties experienced in failing very poor students: The university tells us a performance indicator is 70% of a cohort to get a two-one or first, that is essentially saying design your assessment to get this. These people either end up with a third or a two-two but actually, you wouldn’t want them sitting in your living room if you were a service user. Participant engagement with the research question The final theme presented in this summary of findings relates to general comments made by participants and their engagement with the research question. One interviewee said that this topic was the ‘elephant in the room’ which everyone was aware of but feared talking about locally so as not to ‘realise the fears of the profession’. People’s willingness to engage with the interview process indicated a level of genuine concern regarding the topic and a number of participants commented this it was an important issue for research. None was oblivious to the issue of marketisation and all were quickly able to list examples which related to this study. One described universities as now being ‘frantic places’ when ‘they should be places to think, critique and reflect’. Others spoke of the pressure of having to do more for less. A consistent thread which was expressed either implicitly or explicitly was the notion of conflicting demands and competing values. One described social work academics as having ‘too many masters’ to answer to citing the university, the government and the profession, all of which had competing priorities. Another added the commissioners of research, who demanded time and resources devoted to income generation and research. It was noted that some interviewees felt they had to choose between teaching and research in order to manage workloads efficiently. One person felt that academics fell into two camps: those who maintained their link and commitment to social work values and practice, and those who chose to focus on a career within academia and conform to the business-like culture of the university. There was a tone of fatalism in many of the interviews, with some participants noting that they were close to retirement or able to move into other academic fields, but also expressing concern for colleagues. A collective fear was expressed for the future of academic social work by participants particularly in English universities. Those from other parts of the UK expressed awareness that they were working in what appeared to be a more positive and secure environment. Discussion In keeping with the guiding principles of Wright Mills (1959), the overall task of this critical research is to use the ‘personal troubles’ shared by participants as a means of shedding light on the ‘public issue’ of social work education in a marketised university sector. Although results are not generalisable, the level of expertise, qualification and experience of those who chose to participate should not be underestimated. Additionally, whilst the experiences shared in this research pertain to social work education, there is evidence to suggest that the results have commonalties with other research emerging from within the field of higher education. These results exemplify the predicted landscape of a prevailing market environment which has developed within the UK university sector (Olssen and Peters, 2005; Molesworth, 2011; Furedi, 2011; Holmwood, 2011; Williams, 2013; Collini, 2012; Brown and Carasso, 2013; McGettigan, 2013; Giroux, 2014; Pickard, 2014). This has occurred predominantly since the Brown Report (2010) and the transfer of block grant funding to a fees-based system where institutions are now required to generate their own income Contemporary literature in critical education suggests that the quality of education throughout the sector is being compromised (Brown and Carasso, 2013; McGettigan, 2013; Williams, 2013; Giroux, 2014) despite the rhetoric of the market, where competition is supposed to encourage institutions to raise their game. This research is an addition to such evidence. Other literature parallels results from this study. For example, possible grade inflation has been identified (Brown and Carasso, 2013) and the NSS and other league-table-based systems have been highlighted as creating misconceptions of quality (Jones-Devitt and Samiei, 2011) as they attempt to encapsulate the mark of a ‘good’ education into quantifiable and instrumentally driven measures (Furedi, 2011). Inequalities of opportunity are reinforced by the newly marketised sector (Collini, 2012; Reay, 2011), with new universities tending to attract more BME students and those from lower social classes. Others have highlighted the change in climate within universities which supports the accounts of participants in this study that they are becoming business-like institutions using micro-management techniques to monitor staff and output (Buraway, 2011; Gill, 2010), ‘where teachers and thinkers are constantly surveyed and regulated in the name of efficiency’ (Miller and Sabapathy, 2011, p. 43) and academics are left feeling stressed and disempowered. Giroux (2014) writes of the neo-liberal university: ‘… it will ensure the marginalisation and eventual elimination of those intellectuals willing to fight for public values, rights, spaces and institutions not wedded to the logic of privatization, commodification, deregulation, militarization and hyper masculinity’ (Giroux, 2014, p. 16). I am conscious, however, that the audience for this work may well be aware of the issues it raises and, as Glaser (1978) highlights, those working in the field do not simply want research to tell them what they already know. Rather, findings need to suggest how to ‘handle’ the collective experience ‘with some increase of control and understanding’ (Glaser, 1978, p. 13). With that in mind, I turn to the framework proposed by Fook (2004) which suggests using critical reflection as a means of pursuing a transformative agenda in research and practice. She refers to a two-staged approach where, first, hidden assumptions are exposed and, second, reframed into new ways of understanding practice and power. She focuses on the need for any transformative agenda to first counteract feelings of fatalism and disempowerment among participants and refers to the need to reconstruct the identities of individuals as powerful. Whilst such a framework is not new and has been familiarly applied to the field of social work practice, here it can be fittingly redirected to the current university environment. Within this study, the feelings of fatalism and oppositional thinking described by Fook (2004) were apparent. Participant disempowerment was perhaps most clearly expressed in the inability to enter into a public discussion regarding the concerns raised but willingness to talk anonymously. I suggest that the very basis on which a neo-liberal or market model exists is to break down the sense of collective, community and public values (Giroux, 2014). By creating a group of competing individuals involved in the delivery of social work education, those individuals have been disempowered into a professional silence with regard to their concerns. However, taking Fook’s model and having to some extent ‘exposed’ some hidden assumptions here, social work academics now need to act collectively in order to reclaim their own power rather than simply wait to respond reactively to the demands of the new social work regulator in England. A network of further support is available within the wider academic community, internationally and from those responsible for other professional courses, as well as student groups and the professional body. It is also clear that we may be entering a new political landscape in the UK where further opportunities for collective action may be available. This emerged vividly in the results of the recent general election and the surge of support for Corbyn’s traditional Labour manifesto seeking to promote a return to fiscal economics and, significantly here, to abolish student fees. The market model is being called into question and there is a space for academic and professional discourse to consider and promote alternatives to the neo-liberal university and for social work to be at the forefront of this work. The critical tradition within social work academia and its compelling analyses of neo-liberal structures in practice settings (Jones, 2001; Dustin, 2007; Ferguson and Woodward, 2009; Fenton, 2014; Harris, 2014; Jordan and Drakeford, 2012) must surely now be redeployed to consider the university environment itself. To take one example, Harris (2014) provides an analysis of neo-liberal social work, breaking it down to its constituent parts of marketisation, consumerisation and managerialism which apply precisely to the higher-education sector described in this study. He talks of the ‘tensions, dilemmas and contradictions raised in social work by marketisation’ (Harris, 2014, p. 19) and yet he is not alone in giving no mention to the parallel university milieu in which he is situated and the well-documented existence of the same regime and tensions. The absence of such analysis raises a question as to whether some form dissonance or ‘othering’ relating to neo-liberalism is taking place within critical social work academia, which is leaving a void in professional critical discourse. Academic independence must allow space for an open dialogue and reflection in respect of this topic without fear of individual or institutional reprisal. If such a space does not exist which allows for honest self-reflection and criticality by academics, then we must create one in order to both maximise the quality of education and to preserve the principle of academic freedom. 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The British Journal of Social WorkOxford University Press

Published: Jan 29, 2018

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