Austerity measures will not tackle society's 'wicked' problems

Last week, Theresa May and the Tory Party managed to alienate young and old alike with policies which initially sought to ‘equalise’ a negative balance between younger and older people and ended up by confusing all concerned.

There were many reasons why Theresa May lost her majority, but an insidious adherence to austerity and cutting benefits particularly for older people, undoubtedly played a part.

When shared adversity is put forward as a means of winning an election, then it really can appear that there is no real commitment to addressing the ongoing challenges of poverty, division and inequality which continue to drag down communities and society generally.

Adversity is often seen as something which only happens to some people and as such, its effects are frequently minimised and pathologised. Although this serves as a convenient justification for austerity measures, society cannot be so clearly compartmentalised. We all experience adversity at times in our lives and we all are vulnerable. As such, we are all affected and we all need to be involved and to focus on what brings us together rather than on what serves to divide.

Within social work, we contend all too often with an emphasis on negativity, with individuals, families and communities being held responsible for intractable structural problems and with complexity being given a superficial veneer and largely responded to by governments with condescension, a lack of understanding and ‘quick fix’ solutions. All societies have ‘wicked’ problems, but a starting point is to meaningfully involve all those concerned and to effectively combine experiential, practical and theoretical knowledge to view wicked problems in creative, innovative and relevant ways. Continued emphasis on cutbacks, on shifting responsibility to hard-pressed local authorities and on procedures designed to further limit eligibility will not change the dynamics, nor start to tackle the issues we face.

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn managed to rise above the vilification and emerge out of the dustbin of The Sun to motivate and energise. This is not to look for heroes and villans, but, in the events of last week, to search out context-specific examples of how it is possible to make a difference. This is what social work seeks to do and it is making a positive difference that not only brings new people into the profession, but also serves to stimulate and inspire.

The Social Work course at the University of Birmingham is the oldest in the country, dating back to 1908. Over the years social work students have gone on to work in a variety of settings both in the United Kingdom and overseas. Their achievements, collectively and individually, have been meaningful and significant. Although the challenges continue, the motivation to do something to make a positive difference and to work with people to achieve outcomes which are important to them, is as strong as ever. Within social work education at the University of Birmingham, we involve local authorities, those with experience of utilising services and those engaged in providing physical and emotional support in our courses and in our research. We continue to be pioneers, to reflect critically and to act positively and to play our part in promoting inclusiveness and in celebrating and incorporating difference and diversity. Social work education is about producing practitioners, managers, researchers and policy makers who have vision, tenacity and a belief in transformative change. At Birmingham, these are all areas which we remain fully committed to and which we will continue to promote.

Professor Barbara Fawcett

Department of Social Policy and Social Work