Theorising Social Work Research

Doctoral and advanced studies in Social Work Seminar topics

Doctoral and advanced studies in social work 15th November 1999, Warwick

ESRC Support for Postgraduate Training in Social Work Phil Sooben

This short paper sets out some basic factual information regarding the ESRC's support for postgraduate studentships and raises a few issues which are particularly relevant or important to Social Work. Unfortunately I am unable to attend the seminar on 16 November but I hope that this paper will facilitate discussion. I should also add that I would be more than happy to discuss these and other issues further with the Social Work community next year when the outcome of our consultation is known.

Phil Sooben

Director of Postgraduate Training, ESRC

22 October 1999

Current Provision

It might be helpful for those colleagues less familiar with the details of the ESRC's support for postgraduate training to briefly provide some key background information.

  1. ESRC funds approximately 500 new research studentships and 600 advanced course studentships each year. The research studentships are awarded by open competition whereas the vast majority of advanced course awards are allocated as quotas. In both cases there is an initial allocation of awards to each of the 16 subject areas used by ESRC. Of these 26 research awards were made in Social Policy this year and 66 in Sociology. There were 18 advanced course quota awards in Social Policy and 43 in Sociology.
  2. The closing date for the main research studentship competition is 1 May each year. The relevant guidance notes and application forms are sent to institutions in January and are also placed on the ESRC's Postgraduate Training Webpage. Colleagues are asked to use the Web as their initial point of enquiry as it should contain all the information you require with regard to applying for funds.
  3. Approximately 70 research studentships were awarded this year through the CASE Scheme (Collaborative Awards in Science and Engineering). For these awards, the application is submitted jointly by the academic department and a non-academic collaborating organisation and the research project is usually of a more applied nature with a practical or policy relevance for the collaborating partner. The scheme is as popular with, and relevant to, the public and voluntary sectors as with the private.
  4. The other main aspect of the ESRC's approach which should be noted is that awards are only made to courses and outlets (i.e. departments, faculties, units, centres etc) which have received ESRC 'recognition'. To achieve this an application must be made through a recognition exercise demonstrating that the ESRC's requirements are being met in areas such as research training, supervision, the existence of an active research environment, the provision of facilities and so on. The formal training requirements at both a general level and for each subject area are set out in detail in the Postgraduate Training Guidelines.

Social Work as an ESRC Subject Area

One of the main difficulties for the Social Work research and training community at present is that ESRC does not recognise Social Work as a distinct and separate subject area within the categories through which it awards both recognition and studentships. This means that it is almost impossible to provide any definitive data on ESRC support for studentships in Social Work without manually going through the records of all applications and awards over, say, the last five years and making a judgement as to which of these would fall into Social Work were it a separate subject area. Clearly this is not feasible. Although many of these awards might fall under the 'Social Policy' heading, others would be found under Sociology, Education or other headings.

That said, as colleagues are aware, the ESRC Training Board has been conducting a national consultation this year on its future strategy. Two of the issues within that are the allocation and classification of awards by subject areas and the future of the Postgraduate Training Guidelines. It is not possible at this stage to say what the outcome of the consultation will be but the Board is looking at whether it should make any changes to its subject area categories. On the one hand it will not wish to see a proliferation which accommodates every possible subject area within the social sciences as this would potentially lead to the existence of an unmanageable number in terms of the allocation of awards and the recording and presentation of data. On the other hand, it will not wish to force together subjects which are clearly different and distinct as opposed to one being a sub-field of, or clearly complementary to, the other.

A third possible outcome might be the introduction of a Social Policy and Social Work subject area within which it would be possible to achieve recognition for either one or both areas. This would not necessarily help with regard to the number of awards available or the recording of data but it would allow for the development of distinctive guidelines for each. The link between Social Work and Social Policy might then become perceived as a sibling relationship rather than a parent/child relationship. There is a precedent for this in that although Politics and International Relations are in the same subject pool there is also a separate section in the Guidelines for International Studies.

The Postgraduate Training Guidelines

It is also the Board's intention to review and update the Guidelines next year. We have not yet considered in detail how this might be done as this will be one of the outcomes of the consultation in the new year. However, we are looking at whether they should be more flexible and less prescriptive and the extent to which they require such a strong subject specific emphasis. What is evident is that the Board is concerned about the quality and level of training being provided generally in both quantitative and qualitative research methods and it is possible that the formal requirements in these areas may be strengthened.

Other Developments

What else might emerge from the consultation that would be important and potentially of benefit to Social Work? Certainly the Board is looking at how far it could be more flexible in the kind of support it provides. It would like to see an increase in the number of applications from and awards to part-time students and recognises that this is particularly important for subjects which traditionally draw in a larger number of mature students including many with relevant professional experience. We are therefore thinking about whether there are any additional incentives, which need not be solely financial, which could be introduced to stimulate demand.

We will also be looking at the distribution of support between master's and PhD awards. One option might be to reduce our support at master's level to allow for an increase in the number of doctoral studentships we can fund. Within the doctoral level awards we make, we will also be keen to maintain or increase the number of CASE awards if the quality and demand is present. This has proved a relatively popular and successful scheme with some members of the Social Policy and Social Work communities and is an area worth pursuing as the success rate for CASE applications has been considerably higher than for standard research studentships.

None of the above remarks should be interpreted as anticipating a particular outcome to the Training Board's consultation. Instead the intention has been to discuss possibilities so that colleagues might think about how they could respond to any changes in policy and provision that might take place. Some of the key points to emphasise are: