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Students left in lurch as Unisa phases out social work programme, NGOs warn of ‘critical’ impact

Students left in lurch as Unisa phases out social work programme, NGOs warn of ‘critical’ impact
File photo of Eastern Cape social worker Portia Marinana with a baby she rescued. (Photo: Deon Ferreira)

Unisa has committed to assisting students with outstanding modules in its phased-out Bachelor of Social Work while activists warn of a greater need for social workers.

Civil society organisations have pointed out that there is a great need for social workers and social work specialists following a decision by the University of South Africa (Unisa) to finally phase out its social work programme.

Daily Maverick learnt from distraught Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) students at Unisa, who had not been able to complete the programme, that it had been phased out in December 2023.

Some students were in their final year of study, meaning their money could be wasted. Unisa has indicated it is making plans to help affected students. Some of them have welcomed this.

Unisa first announced that the programme would be phased out in 2015 when then vice-chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya issued a statement that the Council on Higher Education (CHE) would no longer credit it due to concerns over its course content.

The need

Social work organisations said there was a critical need for qualified professionals.

Chairperson of the National Albinism Task Force Patrick Wadula said their members continuously faced psychosocial challenges and needed the critical services of social workers for their health and well-being. The organisation serves the interest of persons with albinism.

ACVV child protection national manager Nicolette van der Walt said there is a dire need for social workers in child protection.

The ACVV, which prefers to use the acronym because it no longer caters for a specific group or race, is a welfare organisation designated for child protection. 

CHE national review

The CHE’s Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF) Qualification Standard for Bachelor of Social Work report dated May 2015  – also known as the national social work education review – revealed details of the quality of social workers that should be produced and the type of resources to be used, and issued guidelines.

The report does not make specific references to universities. But, it states that programmes should take into account, in credit allocations, any requirements set by a professional council for the registration of graduates as social workers.

The qualification, the report states, is designed to ensure that graduates:

  • Uphold requisite ethical standards; and
  • Are flexible enough to respond to different contexts and to be of sufficient complexity to ensure that graduates possess the capacity to think on their feet.

The report says one of the greatest challenges to social work education and training is to prepare graduates to respond to local realities.

These are against the backdrop of rapid national, regional and global transitions of an increasingly integrated global order, which affect the lives and livelihoods of people in profound ways.

In developing national standards for social work education, the report says cognisance must be taken of the historical background of social work in South Africa.

“As an organised profession practising during the pre-democratic era, social work was part of the state machinery and was complicit in the implementation of unjust apartheid laws and practices. Awareness of this has important implications for social work education so that oppressive practices are not condoned, sanctioned and reproduced within the profession,” the report reads.

As social work is an applied discipline and profession, the report states that the main focus of the qualification is on applied competencies. 

Notwithstanding this, the qualification must demonstrate an appropriate balance between theory and practice, with suitable alignment from the first to the final year of study, it says. 

The report states that applied competencies should be foregrounded by a relevant framework and by core knowledge requisites.

Petition for jobs

Parliament’s portfolio committee on social development discussed a petition on 1 November 2023 from the unemployed social workers, which indicated that social work was declared a critical skill in 2001 and that there were more than 9,000 vacant positions within the Department of Social Development (DSD).

The petition says the profession is dedicated to helping communities overcome social challenges.

“The profession brings hope for our most vulnerable citizens. It’s the profession dedicated to transforming lives, healing communities and creating a more just and compassionate society,” it reads.

The petition says the group represents highly skilled graduates who remain underused.

“This represents a substantial loss of human capital, given the extensive training and education these individuals have undergone,” it reads.

social work Unisa

The vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa, Professor Mandla Makhanya, at the academic opening for 2013 on 6 February in Pretoria. (Photo: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lisa Hnatowicz)

Vacancies

According to a report tabled by the DSD at that committee meeting, lack of funding was among the challenges in the employment of social workers.

The report says the Department of Public Service and Administration issued a directive on 17 October 2023 “impending government ability to create and fill posts”.

The directive, the report states, took effect from 1 October 2023 to 31 March 2024.

The National Development Plan Vision 2030 recommended an additional 31,744 social workers be employed, at an estimated cost of R9.5-billion, to reach the 2030 target of 55,000, it reads.

For 2024/5, the report states that 5,290 more workers are required at an estimated R1.5-billion towards the 2030 target.

DSD spokesperson Lumka Oliphant did not respond to specific questions but referred Daily Maverick to a statement issued by the department on Tuesday, 19 March.

In that statement, Minister Lindiwe Zulu wished social workers a “Happy Social Workers Day”.

In part, the statement said the government is aware of the non-absorption of social workers. 

“In response to this, Cabinet approved the Sector Strategy for the Employment of Social Service Practitioners,” it reads.

It continued: “Once implemented, this strategy will result in an increase in the number of social workers and social auxiliary workers in the country being employed and assist with the achievement of the target of 55,000 social service practitioners by 2030.”

As part of addressing the country’s growing social ills, the statement said, government departments including the DSD have to date employed 18,366 social workers.

Significance of social workers

Wadula said social workers help in mediating social issues in communities.  

“They provide support to individuals, families and communities in need. They work tirelessly to improve the overall well-being and quality of life for vulnerable populations,” he said.

They also provided counselling, advocacy and help in accessing resources such as healthcare, housing and education.

“They also play a vital role in child welfare, mental health services and substance abuse treatment. Additionally social workers contribute to policy development and social justice initiatives. Their dedication and expertise are essential for creating a more equitable and inclusive society.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: The social work sector speaks out: A radical response is urgently needed

He said counselling services are required for most families, who are not educated or knowledgeable about albinism.

“The family or the parent(s) may face a lot of rejection and discrimination in the family or society at large.”

He said there is a need to understand that albinism is not a disease or a form of illness.

“It is a rare, non-contagious, genetically inherited condition which occurs worldwide regardless of ethnicity or gender. Social workers help people to understand persons with albinism and the challenges they face. They mediate and provide counselling to family members and the community.”

Phase-out impact

Wadula said Unisa phasing out the social work programme could have significant negative consequences for the country.

“Without a strong work programme there would be a shortage of trained professionals. This could result in a lack of support and services from individuals and communities in need,” he said.

Social workers were instrumental in addressing systemic issues and advocating for social justice.

“Without a robust social work programme, the country may struggle to address and rectify social inequalities and injustices. Therefore, it is not a smart move by Unisa to phase out the social work programme.”

‘High turnover’

Van der Walt said she was unaware that Unisa had taken a final decision to end its programme.

Last week, Van der Walt said she was contacted by a Unisa staff member for the placement of social work students at their organisation for practicals.

In her experience, child protection was the most challenging field of social work. But, the profession was also one of the most rewarding.  

“There is, however, a very high turnover rate, with social workers suffering from vicarious trauma and the difficulties of especially statutory intervention,” Van der Walt said.

The high turnover rate was because of:

  • Low salaries and high caseloads;
  • Subsidy cuts by the DSD to designated child protection organisations, which means new posts cannot be created due to financial constraints;
  • Absence of political will to really address child maltreatment; and
  • Social workers being reported to the South African Council for Social Service Professionals (SACSSP) – a regulatory body entrusted to set and maintain standards of education and practice of social service professionals – by parents who abuse their children, and social workers being harassed by such parents.

Van der Walt said social workers also have to operate in a broken system with the police, Department of Home Affairs, courts, South African Social Security Agency, schools and health institutions.

‘Need for specialised courses’

Van der Walt said universities that train social workers need to have a specialised course in child protection and not focus so much on generic social work training. 

She said it doesn’t help if universities produce thousands of social workers who are poorly trained. 

“Also, we do find that many young social workers wanted to go to university (when the bursary system was in place) but never really wanted to be social workers.”

Social work required a high focus on ethics, dedication and resilience. 

“Our experience the last few years was that some Unisa students were not ready for practice; less so than other universities’ students.”

This, Van der Walt said, is the feedback she received from her social work supervisors, that they would rather appoint social work students from other universities.

Unisa student experiences

Three students, who spoke to Daily Maverick under anonymity for fear of reprisal, alleged that there was no proper communication and updates since Unisa made the announcement in 2015.

One student said they had tried to rush to complete the qualification but there were personal circumstances that were not taken into account when the decision was made.

These, she said, included that most students paid for their own studies, some are single mothers, and others had to take out loans, including herself.

She said she also fell ill, was admitted to hospital, fell pregnant twice and lost her father during her studies. There were times when she had no money to register.

“Covid-19 occurred and I lost income, loved ones, while other students lost their homes,” she said.

An official at Unisa had told her that she would need to start a new qualification, when she enquired about how she could complete her outstanding module to enable her to graduate. 

“I was shocked when hearing this,” she said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Clamour over ‘unfair’ Unisa student suspensions amid cheating charges

She now had sleepless nights, not knowing how she was going to explain to her family who also invested time and money in her to obtain the degree.

Another student said she was shocked to learn this year that she had an outstanding module. This was when she asked for her confirmation for completion of the degree in January.

She said Unisa had misinformed her over the years about which modules to choose and now she does not know what will happen.

A third student wrote to the CHE on 6 February to request an extension of the programme.

According to correspondence dated 4 March from the CHE’s HEQSF director, Dr Phumzile Dlamini, to the student, whose name is known to Daily Maverick, Unisa was contacted to clarify its position.

“In its communication, the CHE is advocating an approach that avoids prejudice to students and in this regard hopes the institution will be able to find a solution that will be acceptable to the students whilst allowing the institution to comply with regulatory requirements for providing higher education,” Dlamini wrote in part.

The CHE’s chief executive, Dr Whitfield Green, said the letter submitted by the student covered a range of areas, some of which were outside the mandate of the CHE.

“In addition to the response letter to the student, the CHE wrote to the institution seeking clarity on the decision to discontinue the modules whilst the registration of the qualification on the National Qualifications Framework allows for teach-out,” Green said.

They had also asked Unisa to present a curriculum map of the two qualifications that had informed its decision on the credit accumulation and transfer – which is the number of credits earned in the old qualification that can be recognised towards the new qualification.

“The institution was requested to submit its response by 22 March 2024.”

Unisa replies

The university said the CHE’s national review of BSW programmes offered at various universities was concluded in 2014.

“Following this review, the CHE’s Higher Education Quality Committee decided that the Unisa BSW programme should be phased out and an Improvement Plan (IP) put in place to address the gaps identified in the report as well inform the development of the new BSW programme (90088),” Unisa said.

The university was also required to put in place and implement a teach-out plan to enable and support students registered for the old programme to complete the qualification.

“The targeted date for the Teach-Out plan was the end of the 2023 academic year,” Unisa said.

Initial interventions

Unisa said correspondence was sent to affected students on 10 August 2015 detailing the reasons for the phasing out of the old programme, the targeted date for its phasing out as well as assurance that the affected students will be enabled to complete the programme through a comprehensive teach-out plan.

“Further to this, the university implemented the following additional measures to ensure that students remained up to date with the message and related support offered by the university.”

Unisa said lecturers uploaded the official communication document with the announcement on the different module sites of myUnisa – the university’s online platform.

The university said:

  • A special tutorial letter was issued to all students registered for the old BSW programme informing them about the teach-out plan;
  • All lecturers reminded the students about the teach-out dates for their individual modules, using the Unisa website and Tutorial 101, annually; and
  • Continuous reminders were sent to students about the teach-out plan, using the Facebook closed group for social work students.

Unisa said extensions of the teach-out plan were motivated and supported at various teaching and learning committees within the university in order to accommodate students who have outstanding modules to complete.

Current interventions

Based on information brought to the attention of the university by some of the stakeholders as well as its own assessment, Unisa said it arrived at the view that there are still students who have outstanding ancillary and major modules to complete the phased-out programme.

“The university is of the view that these students should be assisted, as best as possible, to complete these outstanding modules and acquire their qualifications.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Unisa vice-chancellor’s fate in the balance after Nzimande plans to put institution under administration

University management, Unisa said, has resolved to make formal requests to the CHE and SACSSP for an extension of the teach-out period of the programme until the end of the 2025 academic year to accommodate level- four students (those in their final year) who are left with a few modules to complete the qualification.

“The request will form part of the university’s response to a letter received from the CHE on 22 February 2024 requesting Unisa to advise how it intends addressing the issues raised by the affected students who are keen to complete the old BSW. The university’s response in this regard is due by 22 March 2024.”

Unisa said it will also ensure that the affected students are enabled to register for the modules required to complete the qualification, in line with the applicable rules.

“Rest assured that the university remains committed to providing the students with as much support as possible to ensure that they complete their studies.”

Response to the CHE

Unisa said it is currently seized with addressing this matter with the CHE, looking at all aspects of it, including all affected parties. 

“It is premature, in our view, to ventilate these issues in the public domain before our engagements with the CHE have been concluded,” it said.

The university added: “Once we have concluded these engagements, we will communicate with all affected stakeholders, the students included, utilising the existing channels of communication to students.”

The CHE did not respond to questions about Unisa’s response or details about the review process.

Unisa did not divulge the number of students who had graduated over the years and those currently enrolled.

BSW at other universities

Daily Maverick contacted other universities to find out whether they offered BSW and about the implications of the review. 

University of Cape Town BSW convenor Fatima Williams said the programme has been offered since the 1920s and UCT also offered postgraduate programmes with an aim to produce specialists in some fields of social work.

The CHE review in 2014 led to the Department having to drop more than 100 credits from the BSW. The review recommended that our programme was too credit heavy and that students were required to do too many courses,” Williams said.

This, Williams said, required some revision of the programme including that some courses were re-weighted and three courses were dropped from the BSW. She could not give an exact number of students who had graduated but said between 35 and 40 a year do so. Williams said they continue to offer BSW. 

She said they regularly review the content of the programme to ensure it is responsive and reflects the knowledge that is required by social workers to respond to the key issues in society. The number of students applying to enrol for the BSW continued to grow.

“In fact we have our biggest first-year class this year in my 15 years at UCT,” she said.

They currently had about 300 students at undergraduate level.

“I cannot say with certainty what this is about but anecdotally more students want to do social work because of South Africa’s increasing psychosocial challenges. Our students report deep feelings of concern about where our society is at and every student says they would like to make a difference and contribute to the healing of our country,” Williams said.

Stellenbosch University spokesperson Martin Viljoen said the CHE and professional bodies regularly embark on national qualification standard reviews to ensure qualifications reflect the knowledge and skills required of graduates in the workplace and to ensure that qualifications offered provide a high standard of overall learning experience for all students, irrespective of the institution they are enrolled in.

“As such, the CHE embarked on a quality assurance process in 2014, reviewing the programmes offered by all institutions in South Africa and making recommendations on amendments required for curriculum content and assessments,” Viljoen said.

He said SU’s department of social work participated in the 2014 process, and that it was confirmed that the BSW programme aligns with the requirements for educating social workers.

“The CHE requested that all programmes be aligned with the Qualification Standard for the BSW issued by the CHE. Amendments were made to the programme as part of the general programme review and renewal process, encouraged by the CHE and supported by SU to constantly identify areas where the programmes can be improved.”

He said a report confirming alignment was submitted by SU in 2023, as requested by the CHE. The SU’s department, he said, delivers between 40 and 60 graduates annually.

North-West University spokesperson Louis Jacobs said they offered BSW on their campuses in Mahikeng, Potchefstroom and Vanderbijlpark. After the comprehensive curriculum review in 2014, Jacobs said they changed from the Exit Learning Outcomes to the new BSW standards (a competency-based approach), as prescribed by the CHE.

“The self-evaluation conducted at the time showed limitations regarding how much we could adjust the curriculum. We concluded that redesigning and adopting a new curriculum would be better than attempting to further tweak a programme structure that warranted redesign,” Jacobs said.

Besides the identified gaps, he said the decision to design a new curriculum was further motivated by the CHE’s change from an outcomes-based-oriented curriculum to a curriculum based on standards and competencies.

Between 2000 and 2013, Jacob said they had a total of 1,114 graduates across the three campuses. Between 2014 and 2023, 2,325 students had graduated. Between 2014 and 2023, 11,240 had enrolled for the programme.  

“We did not observe any drastic changes in enrolments or graduates before or after the review process per se.”

He said differences in enrolment numbers in this period had more to do with revised enrolment targets of the NWU and faculty, as prescribed by the Department Higher Education, and the availability of platforms for students’ work-integrated learning activities in the districts of the cities where campuses are located. The total enrolment for 2024 was 360 students.

Unisa on new social work programme

In a statement intended to “set the record straight” following a Daily Maverick report on Tuesday, 9 April, Unisa also finally revealed details about its new programme after being unresponsive for a week to emails enquiring about it.

Unisa noted with “concern” the report, claiming that it contained distortions in the heading and content despite that the newspaper was provided with sufficient correct information.

The programme, Unisa stated, continues to be an integral part of the programme offerings.

Unisa stated that a new programme has been offered by the university since 2018, which “has replaced the old one, which was de-accredited by the CHE”.

It needed to be replaced with a new revised programme.

A teach-out plan, Unisa stated, was approved by the CHE and implemented to support and enable students who were in the pipeline of the old programme to complete the qualification within stipulated timeframes, which were:

  • 2018 for first level students;
  • 2021 for second level students;
  • 2022 for third level students; and
  • 2023 for four level students.

During the entire period of the teach-out plan, Unisa stated that they communicated constantly and provided support to the affected students to ensure that they are able to complete the programme within the required timeframe.

Upon realising that some students were unable to complete the old programme within the stipulated time frame, Unisa stated that they approached the CHE with a request for an extension until 31 December 2026.

“This was done precisely because the university has the interests of the students at heart and wants to ensure that all students are afforded adequate opportunity to complete [the] programme.”

Unisa stated that the CHE has granted the extension of the teach-out plan to 31 December 2026.

“The CHE has also commended the university for its commitment to engage with all stakeholders pertaining to this matter. The university will communicate formally with the affected students; and also urges them to rely on official university communication for accurate and correct information,” Unisa wrote.

Green confirmed on Tuesday, 16 April, that the extension was granted after Unisa requested an extension of the teach-out plan.

In a response to Daily Maverick about the programme on 15 March, Unisa stated that the CHE’s Higher Education Quality Committee, after the review process, decided that the university’s programme should be phased-out and an Improvement Plan put in place to address the gaps identified in the report as well inform the development of a new programme.

In making the decision about the extension of the programme, Green said they considered the following:

. The case made by Unisa for students affected by the discontinuation.

. The university’s commitment to engage stakeholders including the professional body – the South African Council for Social Service Professionals (SACSSP), which is a regulatory body entrusted to set and maintain standards of education and practice of social service professionals.

The registration of the qualification on the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), which allowed for a last date of achievement of 30 June 2030. The NQF is a legislative system governing classification, registration, publication and articulation of quality assured national qualifications.

“The teach out date requested by the institution of 31 December 2026 falls within the last date of achievement of 30 June 2030,” Green said.

But, Unisa failed to disclose that Daily Maverick made several requests for information relating to the new programme without any success and the story published on 9 April contained its detailed response.

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

The first request was sent on 4 April but Unisa never responded to it. A second email was sent on 10 April reminding the university about the enquiry. This email was also not responded to.

It was only after an enquiry was sent on 11 April after the university postponed a media briefing that an official acknowledged the list of questions relating to the matter and details about independent assessor’s review court application.

Read more in Daily Maverick: High court overturns Blade Nzimande’s appointment of administrator for Unisa

Later that day (on 11 April), Unisa indicated that all the questions would be answered at a media briefing that would be held “in a few days”.

This response was later followed by the university’s statement on Friday claiming that the Daily Maverick story did not contain details shared with the newspaper. There were no such details shared about the new programme.

Ecstatic students respond

Students, who spoke to Daily Maverick anonymously in fear of reprisal, said on Tuesday, 16 April, that they were aware aoout the extension.

“Thank you very much for helping the social work students at Unisa,” said a student.

She said they only received the response that Unisa will extend the programme after the story was published that affected students will receive information on the way forward. “We are currently waiting for communication on when to register or how they will assist us to complete outstanding modules,” she said.

Some students, she said, enquired at the university, but staff members are waiting for formal communication as well on how to assist with registration. “We hope to receive more information soon. We are very grateful for your assistance, and the impact it made for us.”

A second student said they only learned about the extension last week after the story and in their WhatsApp groups.

“The student representative council also sent an email to one of the students explaining that the qualification has been extended until 2026. What we do not know is when registration will be opening for students to register. They are just saying that they will formally email affected students. We are still waiting, Sir. I would also like to thank you for the article that you wrote. I’m speaking on behalf of all students. We really appreciate your efforts and hard work in assisting us in completing our studies. Thank you so much Mr. Msindisi Fengu.”

A third student said: “I’m glad that you came back to us. I’m aware. I don’t not know what we would have done without you. You turned our lives around and we will utterly be grateful to you!”

She said Unisa only responded positively after the story was published.

Unisa did not respond to questions on Tuesday relating to the extension. DM

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