A former social work senior lecturer details the on-going battle to maintain academic and professional standards amidst the marketisation of universities
Last week, after more than twenty years of university teaching, I handed in my notice and resigned from my post as senior lecturer in social work and course lead of a Masters in Advanced Practice.
I don’t have another job to go to and will, undoubtedly, miss the regular income and relative safety of a full-time, permanent post.
However, I won’t miss the twelve hour days, the working every weekend and the on-going battle with university managers to uphold and maintain the academic and professional standards required and expected on a social work degree programme.
In the end, it was this that finally did it for me, with one case of plagiarism in particular that tipped me over the edge.
This year at graduation, one of the final year students will be qualifying as a social worker having been found to have plagiarised on two separate occasions – once in a second year essay, and once in her final year dissertation.
One plagiarism case too many
While the university regulations are very clear about the punishment imposed for such a serious proven offence for the second time around (students should automatically ‘fail the assessment and fail the unit, with no right to re-sit’), this student has managed to successfully appeal on the grounds that such a penalty is unfairly harsh.
Joining her on the platform at the graduation ceremony will be two of her peers who have ‘only’ been subjected to a single academic misconduct panel having been found to have plagiarised just the once.
Standing behind them will be a further three students whose work was returned to me by the investigating officer and not subjected to the panel’s scrutiny, as their essays contained less than 20% of copied and pasted material from unattributed online sources.
If you’re a practitioner, this is the quality and calibre of the current crop of social work graduates coming to join a team or agency near you.
If you’re a service user, these are the sorts of individuals who might be acting as your care manager or key worker in the very near future.
How has it come to pass that on a course where values and ethics are embedded in the curriculum and the importance of openness and honesty are taught from day one, we have six out of forty-two final year students behaving like this?
How is it, on a University programme that has recently been approved by the HCPC and endorsed by TCSW, we are only able to initiate suitability procedures when misconduct relates to practice? (In the cases outlined above, proven plagiarism was judged to be an academic misdemeanour and therefore outside the reach of the professional suitability procedures).
The problems, in my opinion, relate to the changing landscape and political context in which social work education has been taking place.
When I first began teaching in 1993, the social work programme was ‘full’ when the course had recruited thirty candidates. Seminars had no more than fifteen students in a class to maximise discussion and debate. Personal tutors had one group of between eight and ten tutees to support on placement, so that visits for the practice learning contract and interim reviews were manageable, given the likely travelling distances.
Since then, student numbers have increased dramatically while the numbers of full-time, permanent teaching staff have remained static. For example, in the department I have just left, we enrolled over eighty first-year undergraduates during last September’s induction programme with the same number of full-time, permanent staff (six) that we have had since the new degree began in 2003.
More students, same number of staff
Running in parallel is a thriving post-graduate / Masters pathway as well as a foundation degree in Health and Social Care: both these new extensions to the portfolio have been designed, developed and delivered with little in the way of additional staff or extra resources.
What we’ve seen is a student to staff ratio that has steadily risen so that a seminar group of thirty students becomes, by necessity, more of a workshop. Personal tutor groups have doubled in size to at least twenty, so that supporting and visiting your personal tutees, when they are out on placement, is twice the work that visiting ten used to be.
If you are allocated two (or more) tutor groups, then it is a moot point just how ‘personal’ this important relationship can actually be (and just how many tutees you can logistically visit in the time that you have available).
The knock-on effect of this intense expansion has had a significant impact on weary academics. Lecturing to a large cohort requires a very specific set of skills and abilities, and holding the interest and attention of such a big group of diverse learners is no small task.
While the time taken to plan and prepare a lecture is broadly equivalent regardless of the size of the audience, the same cannot be said for the associated marking of students’ assessed work: it takes a lot longer to read, mark and write feedback on eighty essays than it ever did for thirty.
Increasing the number of people accessing higher education and implementing strategies to widen participation has changed the academic profile of the student body with a steep rise in applications coinciding with the introduction of the social work bursary.
While numbers may have recently settled, we can (and do) frequently accept candidates with much less than the minimum 240 UCAS points (3 C grades at A-level) making the first year of study at university a challenge for many students who require specialist input and support from study skills and Student Services.
Mass market in education
But curiously, this does not seem to have a subsequent impact on the class of degree a student might hope to get, with eleven people on last year’s social work course receiving a first, thirty nine receiving a 2.1, eleven receiving a 2.2 and only one person getting a third.
In lots of ways it could be argued that what I am describing is just a sign of the times and reflects a wider pattern currently found in many teams, agencies and organisations where staff are being exhorted to ‘do more with less’.
However, the opening up of a mass market in education and the introduction of tuition fees has led to additional and competing organisational demands being placed on HEIs and academics.
“Universities are prioritising customer service and student satisfaction rather than upholding professional standards and providing a rigorous but exacting education.”
Many students, for their part, see themselves primarily as consumers rather than learners and have a profound sense of entitlement that if they have paid good money then they deserve a good degree.
The combination of these two forces – a demanding and vociferous student body who are quick to complain and litigate, and a squeamish management team who are more concerned about student numbers, generating income and ‘enhancing the student experience’ – make universities an uncomfortable environment for people like me to be working in.
Social work educators, desperately trying to raise the capacity and capability of the workforce with no support or understanding from university managers, are buckling under the pressure of maintaining ethical, practice and academic standards whilst simultaneously absorbing extra work.
Research output dwindling
It is no longer feasible – if indeed, it ever was – for social work academics to ‘do a little bit of everything’. Colleagues who have been research active in the past have seen their output dwindle; colleagues who traditionally have been more focused on teaching and supporting practice learning have seen their workloads doubled.
Partners in practice (on hourly-paid, fixed term contracts) previously contributing to the teaching programme perhaps by facilitating a seminar or two, are being asked to front up ‘open days’, take on additional marking and are given the ‘opportunity’ of delivering core units and heavy admin roles like induction.
Something has to give and, sadly in my case, I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer be part of an organisation that both ignores and forgives plagiarism, actively supports the inflation of degrees and changes their own rules and regulations to enhance the overall pass rate.
Wipe the slate clean
This summer for example, a student who fails a final year unit can effectively wipe the slate clean, re-take all their units – even the ones they have successfully passed – and start again as if for the first time. In other words, if an individual has the funds and/or is prepared to extend their student loan, the university is more than happy for them to buy an additional year of study.
I don’t think for a moment that my ‘naked resignation’ will make much of an impression on the organisation I have left behind and certainly won’t stop the students graduating who I have concerns about qualifying as social workers.
However, there is some small comfort in knowing that I am no longer contributing to the further erosion of professional and academic standards or colluding in a system that does not understand the importance of gate-keeping the profession.
I also realise that, ironically, my decision to leave is compounding the problem further…
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