As an ideology, neoliberalism perpetuates the belief that the market cannot only solve all problems but also serves as a model for structuring all social relations. It is steeped in the language of self-help, choice and individual responsibility, purposely ignoring the effects of inequalities in power, wealth and income and how these shape individuals and families lives. As such, it supports a society which cruelly others those who require support, and is scornful of a critical and politicised social work profession founded on compassion and notions of social justice, equality and respect.
Back in 2013 Michael Gove, then education secretary, claimed too many social workers had been filled with idealistic dogma and theories of society that viewed people as victims of social injustice. Gove vowed to “strip this sort of thinking out of the profession”.
More recently Ray Jones argues politicians are stealthily trying to take control of social work, possibly because social workers expose the failings of their ideologically driven policies?
Maybe this is why Government would like to diminish the role of Universities in social work education, to depoliticise the profession and create a beige curriculum. A painting by numbers programme of training, rather than a vibrant colourful education that prepares social workers to support, and challenge those in power. The extension of neoliberal ideology and discourse into higher education already provides a framework to socialise academia into working in a manner akin to managerialism i.e targets/NSS, where knowledge is viewed as a commodity for customers (students) to purchase and consume. Packaged as one dimensional capabilities rather than multifaceted knowledge and skills .
(see Grant and Radcliffe, 2015, whose paper on higher education in mental health nursing has many synergies with social work).
Arguably an effective social work profession is a political profession as well, able to critique and analyse, to challenge, rather than accept the status quo. As Henry Giroux eloquently states
“At a time of increased repression, it is all the more crucial for educators to reject the notion that public and higher education are simply sites for training students for the workforce, and that the culture of education is synonymous with the culture of business. At issue here is the need for educators to recognize the power of education in creating the formative cultures necessary to challenge the various threats being mobilized against the ideas of justice and democracy, while also fighting for those public spheres, ideals, values, and policies that offer alternative modes of identity, thinking, social relations, and politics.
Pedagogy is always about power, because it cannot be separated from how subjectivities are formed or desires mobilized, how some experiences are legitimated and others are not, or how some knowledge is considered acceptable while other forms are excluded from the curriculum.”
Whilst we have a plethora of educational routes into social work, Frontline;Think Ahead;Step-up;Apprencticeships and HEI’s no one appears to be asking any political leader of any persuasion one very important question as far as I can see.
Given our politicians feel their governments policies and leadership over the last 3 decades has led to continuous improvements, why is society in such need for ever increasing numbers of social workers?
If we can move beyond the divisive narratives of ‘broken families’, ‘recruitment and retention’, ‘the demographic time bomb’, ‘austerity’ and ‘we can’t afford X’, and consider addressing the structural issues that impact on individuals lives, such as housing, benefit reforms, energy prices, the environment, job insecurity, food insecurity, low wages, affordable higher education etc, we might then be able to formulate a different ideology, a different discourse, one that unites us for the good of all.