The crisis in social work education deepened this week as the Department for Education and Employment announced that there will be no funding concessions to halt sharply falling applications.
Since 1995, the number of candidates applying for the diploma in social work has dropped by a third. The Central Council for Education and Training in Social Work says the trend may worsen.
Andrew Skidmore, CCETSW registrar, said the decline was due mainly to students' rising debt burden. It had been hoped that numbers would be protected by a special funding deal. "Now we anticipate that the shortfall will get worse, and the question is whether a diminishing pool can bring forth enough well-qualified candidates," he said. "We could be looking at a very serious situation for the profession and for university departments, where course viability could come into question."
Social work courses have already been axed at the London School of Economics and the University of Kent, and more could follow, Mr Skidmore said. This year 6,200 applications have been received for 5,000 places, although late candidates are expected. In 1995, 11,500 applied.
CCETSW has been working with the Department for Health to support its argument that social work applicants are a special case as they are older - average age on entry 32 - and less likely to be able to take on debt. The Dearing report, too, supported the argument recommending that social work be giving special financial assistance along with professions allied to medicine. CCETSW had wanted students exempted from fees or eligible for a Department for Health bursary like other professions allied to medicine.
Jennifer Bernard, CCTESW chief executive, said the case for a special funding arrangement was to prevent the number of suitable candidates "drying up".
Mr Skidmore said social-work training needed stability and confidence after the upheaval wrought by the General Social Care Council, which will replace CCETSW.