Up to 50 postgraduate student social workers in University College Dublin (UCD) may be unable to graduate this year due to disruption of placements related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Social Work Masters students in UCD are required by CORU, the Health & Social Care Professionals Council, to complete 1,000 hours of placement work over the two-year programme. However, a large number of second-year students fell short of the placement requirement before UCD ceased sending students on placements in March due to COVID-19.

CORU says that the requirement must continue to be met, even in these exceptional circumstances. As completing the placement is a core part of the programme, students are unable to officially graduate as planned this June.

In May, CORU issued a statement to the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) with regards to disruptions to education programmes, nearly two months after UCD ceased placements for students.

Although they are able to adjust the minimum placement hours required, CORU is adamant that students must still complete at least 1,000 hours of placement. Saying- “It is the function of the Social Workers Registration Board to provide assurance to the public that registrants meet the threshold regulatory standards and are safe to practice. This statutory requirement must continue to be met, including placement requirements, even in these exceptional circumstances.” 

“The regulatory requirements are principle-based and there is scope for flexibility in how an education provider can meet these, as long as any changes do not prevent the programme from meeting the Criteria for Education and Training Programmes and learners from attaining the Standards of Proficiency for the Social Worker profession”, CORU remarked.

Module Co-ordinator for the programme Muireann Ní Raghallaigh contacted students in May following a meeting with CORU. She explained that UCD was informed verbally by the Acting Head of Education, Marion Christiansen, that the requirement to do 1,000 hours of placement remains in place and will not change. 

Students were also told that UCD hopes to resume placements as soon as it is safe and feasible to do so, although they have not specified a timeline for placements to resume again.

Aine McGuirk, Chair of the Board of the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW), acknowledged students’ dilemma in an email: “The IASW urges all those concerned with the graduation and registration of Social Work students to resolve the issues presenting as a result of COVID-19 so that the current final year students can complete their courses, register, and join the workforce.”

She also stated: “The IASW are willing to contribute to this conversation on behalf of our student members if issues cannot be resolved between those with responsibility”.

“Surely we value the investment in education and the work these students have done to get to this point as well as the need for them to join the workforce and contribute to the services for vulnerable people and families”, she concluded.

Despite this, students have still not received any clear information from UCD in regards to how or when they will graduate. They also have not received any confirmation as to when placements will resume. A number of student feel as if UCD is not advocating enough for them at such a vital stage of their education.

Social Work students from Trinity College Dublin and Technological University Dublin have also demanded exemptions from their remaining student placement hours. In two change.org petitions, which have collectively gathered over 2,500 signatures, students say they are willing to compromise and are open to “finding new ways of fulfilling the CORU requirements if necessary”.

In Northern Ireland, over 100 final year students from Queen’s University Belfast have opted to fast-track their studies and qualify early in order to join the frontline during the pandemic. This was possible as, instead of partaking in placement, students in Northern Ireland generally complete a degree in social work theory followed by an assessed year in employment. The university has also suspended intake for multiple social work postgraduate programmes until 2021 due to COVID-19. 

Nessa Collins – Reporter