Social work academics are concerned that the government's drive towards competences and vocationalism could undermine the academic content of the new three-year degree-level qualification.
Last month, the government ended a long period of planning blight in social work by announcing that the two-year diploma in social work, which serves as a licence to practice, will be replaced by a three-year degree in 2003. The postgraduate route to a social-work qualification will remain.
The Department of Health said: "The new training course will include a much greater input on practice learning to ensure that social workers coming off training courses are better equipped to provide high-quality services to the public."
Education and employment minister Baroness Blackstone said: "We are committed to ensuring students have the skills that employers need through raising standards in higher education and raising students' aspirations."
But Joan Orme, professor of social work at Glasgow University and chair of the United Kingdom-wide joint university council social work and education committee, said that social work had a strong research tradition that needed to be maintained.
Professor Orme added that universities often found it difficult to secure placements for students. "We want monies to continue to go to the local authorities as this secures their commitment and involvement. However, we also want placements to be fully funded. We are proposing a three-plus-one approach where students spend three years studying, with time allocated for placements, and a registration year before they receive their license to practice."
Professor Orme said: "There is a recruitment crisis in social work with a shortfall of roughly 40,000 qualified social workers. Social-work students should get a bursary in line with that received by nurses and trainee teachers."
Any new course will have to satisfy a number of stakeholders. In October, a new General Social Care Council comes into being and will regulate qualifying and post-qualifying training. The new Social Care Institute for Excellence will work with the council to tackle variations in quality of service.
The National Training Organisation for Social Care is also developing national occupational standards for social workers. This will inform the requirements for the new courses.
"We have also worked closely with the Quality Assurance Agency to establish benchmarks for degrees and hope these would provide the starting point for the new degree," Professor Orme said.