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Welsh Government pledges action following student campaign

Social work students in Wales are celebrating after a successful campaign to improve bursaries.

The need to recruit new social workers in Wales is imperative. However, 20% of students leave their training, with the majority citing personal and health reasons.

The social work MA is a two-year full-time course; however, most students are forced to work part-time alongside their full-time placements in social services due to a lack of financial support.

While health students benefit from enhanced levels of financial support (a typical NHS student in Wales receiving a bursary in the region of £33,000-£40,000), social work students are not so fortunate.

A typical social worker undergraduate receives a bursary for £7,500. They are expected to take on a student loan for their tuition fees and a maintenance loan to survive. This means that a typical social worker undergraduate will qualify with a debt of more than £40,000.

Social work MA students receive a significant bursary of £13,000; however, this fails to cover tuition fees and regulations prohibit MA students from accessing student finance and a bursary concurrently, even though NHS and undergraduates do. This results in MA students having no financial support for accommodation, food, utilities, and other living costs for over two years.

These regulations force social workers and their families into hardship and are a real barrier to those wishing to qualify and enter the social care workforce.

Students united with Social Workers Union and BASW Cymru to call for equality with their NHS peers and better financial support. A letter to the ministers responsible and to Members of the Senedd (MS) has met with favourable responses.

The Welsh Government replied to campaigners claiming changes to the bursary are being considered and that it is supportive in principle of making the link between the bursary and the postgraduate finance package available through Student Finance Wales. Ministers will introduce new regulations before the Senedd in early 2022, so changes can come into force until the 2022/23 academic year.

The petitions committee of the Senedd also considered the issue on 24 January, with MS from all parties agreeing to push the Welsh Government, Social Care Wales and Student Finance Wales to take action urgently.

Matthew Davies, one of the students behind the campaign, said:

“We are extremely grateful for the support we have received. We knew this would not benefit us from the start, but we were determined to be the last cohort to train in these circumstances.

“Working together, we have ensured future cohorts can benefit from these changes. We believe access to student finance will limit the number of students and their families from being forced into hardship and leaving the course.

“This amendment is an urgently needed step towards correcting the disparity; however, it can by no means be the end of the matter. We must keep up the campaign to ensure parity in financial support and esteem between health and social care workforces in the future.”

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Founder Member of Campaign Collective, chair of the Public Relations & Communications Association Charity and Not-For-Profit Group. Write mainly about charity, public sector and social enterprise campaigns.