Rae, Rosemary (2012) Trust, Power and the New Professionalism: A Case Study of Service User and Carer Involvement in the Selection of Social Work Students. Doctoral thesis, University of Huddersfield.

In June 2002 the Department of Health upgraded social work training in England, resulting in the Diploma in Social Work being replaced by a new undergraduate and masters’ level qualification. The requirements outlined for the new degree in social work included the provision that programmes approved to provide the new training had to involve representatives of stakeholders, particularly service users and carers, in the selection of new students (DoH 2002). This thesis investigates the tensions implicit in this policy from the perspective of service users and carers involved in recruitment to one university between 2002 and 2005. To this end, a critical theoretical framework was employed, which recognised the importance of power relationships within the field of study. This framework draws on the work of Bourdieu, Abbott and Foucault, and incorporates feminist and critical theory, in order to conceptualise the issues raised by the study.

The intended outcomes of involvement in recruitment were unclear, in contrast to the case of involvement in social work education and practice. However, the policy of involvement in recruitment exemplified various tensions in service user and carer involvement in general, which the study sought to clarify. Service users were required to operate within a cultural context that they had little part in shaping, and this tended to reinforce the asymmetrical distribution of power which is seen as characterising relationships between professionals and those who use their services. Nonetheless, there were no disagreements reported between service users, carers, agency representatives and academic staff regarding the suitability, or otherwise, of individual candidates. Service users and carers looked for candidates who were trustworthy, anti-discriminatory and could relate to service users and carers – attributes which academic staff also valued.

Despite appearing beneficial to service users and carers and therefore, by default, social work within this University, the policy of involving service users and carers in admissions was not as beneficial as it appeared. It could disadvantage some service users and carers financially. The policy does not specify what service users and carers can contribute to the admissions process, and the policy can be conceptualised as one that assumes social work educators are inept at choosing social work trainees, despite the lack of evidence that this is the case. This can, in turn, be seen as both contributing to a negative discourse regarding social work, and as a means by which a more regulatory role by the State can be justified. This more duty-based role for social work, I have argued, can be at the expense of a more altruistic approach to assisting vulnerable people, which was so valued by participants.

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