It has been suggested that the emerging generation of social workers tend to be motivated primarily by a perception of the individual as the locus of 'social problems', ignoring the structural factors that shape and constrain the conditions of agency. Questionnaire research with 150 students on an undergraduate Social Work degree programme in the north-east of England investigated student perceptions of the origins and causes of social problems. It was found that student discourse appeared to operate within a context shaped by neoliberal assumptions regarding the nature and causes of social problems. Within that frame, however, students contested the idea that social problems are simply a result of poor individual choices and recognised the impact of inequalities on opportunities and outcomes. Findings showed that students' awareness of these issues increased as they moved through the social work programme. This provides grounds for optimism about the potential of social work education to nurture the development of a more radical discourse for social work practice among social work students.