I thank the Chairperson for inviting us to present on the important matter of the recruitment and retention of social workers this. I am director of the masters of social work programme in UCC I am joined by Professor Michelle Norris, professor of social work and head of the school of social work, social policy, and social justice in UCD, and by Professor Robbie Gilligan, professor of social work and social policy in TCD. We welcome the opportunity to present to the committee on this important matter. We have circulated a discussion document, which was the result of a collaboration between all four universities that currently provide accredited social work programmes - UCD, TCD, NUIG and UCC.
In light of the time allocated to us this morning, we have prepared a short statement, which is an abbreviation of the discussion document the committee has received. Our opening statement focuses primarily on social work education in Ireland and the supply of graduates. We identify and set out proposals for addressing the main barriers to increasing the numbers of places on our current professional social work programmes. These are the availability and organisation of student practice fieldwork placements and the funding needs of students.
Collectively, the four universities provide two undergraduate degrees and four postgraduate degrees in social work. The two undergraduate programmes are provided by UCC and TCD and a masters degree in social work is provided by each of the four universities represented here These programmes are all accredited by CORU, the regulatory body for health and social care professionals. For the information of the committee, social work education involves both academic training in the university and carefully planned intensive fieldwork practice training. In all, 50% of social work students' time is spent on fieldwork placement with the remaining 50% spent in academic study. As can be imagined, placements are, therefore, a critical component of all social work education.
In this presentation we will first address the matter of professional education and the supply of graduates. Irish universities graduate approximately 210 professionally qualified social workers per annum. These are highly valued in the profession, as is reflected in their high employability rates nationally and internationally. The universities acknowledge the current demands on Tusla in the area of the recruitment and retention of social workers. As university providers of social work education, we would like the committee to know that we are committed to engaging with all social work employers, including Tusla, towards resolving the recruitment and retention challenges represented to this committee.
However, universities also face significant challenges in addressing the problems experienced in this area. One of the major challenges we face is undoubtedly access to high-quality social work placements that will accommodate our current student numbers. These placements form an essential element of social work training and strict standards are set by CORU regarding training requirements for placement supervisors. While we have been attempting to address the problems of placement provision for some time, more recently all universities have been engaged in collaboration with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs towards developing a strategy to address these challenges in supply.
While we are open to increasing our intake of social work students with a view to creating a sustainable supply of new graduates, any expansion is predicated on an increase in both the supply and availability of high-quality student placements and new applicants to our programmes. We have a number of suggestions with regard to achieving such an increase in the number of students on our programmes. As I have said, students are required to undertake at least two extended unpaid work-based placements of 14 weeks' duration in the course of their professional social work training. To pass and progress to graduation, students must successfully achieve standards of practice that meet the criteria and standards of proficiency prescribed by CORU. It is important to note that these placements can result in students incurring significant costs in respect of travel, subsistence, and having to relocate to geographical regions in which placements are available. Because of the substantial practice placement component of social work education, students must factor in these costs, in addition to high fees, before deciding to undertake a programme of study. The funding issue is significant as many social work students have no access to public funding in the form of Government grants or scholarships. Even those who qualify for some funding are not reimbursed for many of the additional costs incurred during the course of their training.
As we have noted, key to any expansion of student numbers and, by implication, of student graduates is an increase in the number of student placements. This will require employers to address a number of current barriers to placement availability. These barriers include limited office accommodation, lack of structures or support for placement supervisors, large caseloads, the availability of sufficient numbers of placement supervisors who meet CORU standards, and the development of continuing professional development initiatives that respond to the ongoing training and development needs of qualified social workers, who are the supervisors of our students. In responding to the placement challenges previously identified, the universities recognise that there is a need for the development of diverse and creative approaches to student placements. These include the development of high-quality, long-arm supervision across a variety of agencies, the development of practice learning units, the establishment of specialist clinical supervision posts, and the promotion of lead specialist practice learning teams. Many of these initiatives have been in operation in the past and we are considering their reintroduction.
We suggest that a commitment to embedding practice placement supervision in social work employment contracts is required of employers, as was originally envisaged with the creation of the senior practitioner role in the HSE and Tusla. Relationships between the universities and social work employers and placement providers also need to be formalised into memoranda of understanding. These would include protocols for the sharing of sensitive data on student performance, which are necessary to conform to data protection legislation.
In addition to considering matters relating to placement expansion, we are also considering diverse approaches to social work education. As university educators of social workers for more than eight decades, we are committed to exploring new models of social work training that increase the supply of social workers. Discussions are under way with CORU to explore options that comply with its accreditation requirements. Because social workers practice in demanding health and social care contexts that require a significant period of education, skills development and professional development, our opinion is that social work education cannot be fast-tracked. Regardless of the model adopted, it must equate to existing accredited programmes in terms of the time devoted to the professional formation of social workers.
In summary, we recognise that there may be many innovative ways to deliver social work programmes, which will require forward planning and development with all the parties concerned. The universities have previously demonstrated a commitment to engaging with employers in developing innovative accredited social work programmes. For example, UCD modified aspects of its MSW provision to accommodate needs in the Probation Service. UCC established an undergraduate social work degree, the BSW, for mature student entry, to increase the diversification of applicants for social work education. Trinity College Dublin and NUIG have also developed their masters degrees in response to the increasing demands of employers.
We believe that university providers of social work education have a good record of collaborating with employing organisations towards achieving change. Previously we have collaborated with the Department of Health, which provided resources in the late 1990s that led to the doubling of student numbers on our programmes. In addition, social work programmes have been proactive in revisiting and expanding their academic and practice curricula in response to changing demands from practice. These developments have equipped newly qualified social workers to engage more effectively with the social changes faced by service users.
Regarding the recruitment and retention of social workers in child protection and welfare, we fully recognise the importance of serving the recruitment needs of Tusla as well as other employers of social workers. We believe that an important consideration in the recruitment of high-calibre candidates is the need for public education campaigns to promote social work career choices, aimed both at school leavers and more mature applicants who are considering a career change. The focus of this committee's work has been on child protection and welfare social work and while we appreciate that Tusla is the largest employer of social workers in Ireland, there are other significant employers such as the HSE, the Probation Service, wider disability services and the civil society sector. These employers all have an important role to play in responding to the needs of vulnerable service users outside of the child protection and welfare sector. In considering our submission document, therefore, we respectfully request that the committee seeks to avoid any unintended consequences for the wider labour market for social workers and for social work education, which has a responsibility to serve all parts of the profession equally and has served it for many years.
While increasing the supply of social work graduates is necessary, we propose that issues of staff retention cannot be addressed solely by increasing supply. We need to find ways to retain and care for existing child protection and welfare social workers. We know from what social workers on the ground tell us that their decisions to leave child protection and welfare social work are due to factors such as the incessant and rapid pace of organisational change, excessive workloads and insufficient staff supports and supervision. While child protection and welfare social work can be rewarding, stimulating and important work it is also challenging, as the committee will know. There is significant international literature outlining the impact of social work on social workers. To promote retention, social workers who undertake this work require a high level of staff welfare, early career support measures, structured induction programmes, protected caseloads and professional supervision to mitigate the impact of the work.
As social work educators we want the committee to know that we are ready and willing to play our part in increasing the supply of qualified CORU-accredited professional social workers. To progress towards the expansion of student numbers we suggest establishing campaigns to promote social work as a career choice; increasing the supply of placements in conjunction with Tusla and other employers; establishing a bursary scheme, including fees and placement costs, to attract high-calibre candidates to social work degrees; and providing support structures that give due recognition to the particular challenges experienced by child protection and welfare social workers, as previously mentioned.
We would like to thank the committee for the time given to hearing our submission and we invite any questions its members might have.