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In defence of a university social work education

June Thoburn (Department of Social Work, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK)

Journal of Children's Services

ISSN: 1746-6660

Article publication date: 18 September 2017




The purpose of this paper is to identify the particular characteristics and strengths of mainstream undergraduate and postgraduate university education for social workers.


A brief summary of the establishment of the honours degree or M-level qualification as the requirement for registration as a social worker in England is followed by a summary of the main aspects of “mainstream” social work courses. The values underpinning a “student” rather than a “trainee” route into social work are explored and some limited comparisons made with recently introduced fast-track specialist programmes. Where relevant, the student experience is contrasted with that of fast-track specialist trainees.


The paper concludes with a discussion of the potential impact on the social work profession and on agencies providing social work services of the cuts over the past few years in the numbers of students on “generalist” mainstream social work programmes.

Research limitations/implications

This is a conceptual paper. It recognises that more information is available on long-established university programmes than on the more recently available fast-track routes into social work and cites relevant research.

Practical implications

The paper points to the changing balance between numbers entering social work in England via mainstream and fast-track specialist programmes and argues for a fuller debate amongst all stakeholders as to whether this change is in the interest of the profession and those who need social work services.

Social implications

The author argues that the unequal level of funding between the different entry routes into social work is distorting choice (for students and future employers) between fast-track specialist and mainstream social work education. It is hypothesised that differences between the curricula and learning experiences of the two routes may have an impact on the social work service available to vulnerable people across age and needs groups. It also points to a potentially negative impact on social work education and the knowledge base of the reduction in numbers of academics with both social work practice experiences and research qualifications.


This is an original paper that draws on the author’s experience and the published research and grey literature cited.



Thoburn, J. (2017), "In defence of a university social work education", Journal of Children's Services, Vol. 12 No. 2-3, pp. 97-106.



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Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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