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Ajwang Warria,
Senior Lecturer, Social Work, University of the Witwatersrand

Social Work Education in the 21st Century: Some thoughts from the heart

If I were asked to describe the social work profession in the 21st century, I would say, social work is fading into the background – meaning, it can barely be differentiated from other helping professions (i.e. psychology or counselling). This may sound a little cynical. Still, I fear education institutions are teaching social work students to support individuals inserting them into societal norms rather than to question such norms and the social structures that underpin them. I believe we need to rethink the relevance and purpose of social work education. We are experiencing an increasing misalignment between what social workers are doing in the field and what happens in classrooms. There is an increasing role strain between the values, principles and aspirations of the profession and the requirements of social work jobs.

Not so long ago, while reading Staub-Bernasconi (2017), I realised how much we struggle to articulate our mandate and practice domains. Staub-Bernasconi’s point of departure was a critique of the 2014 definition of ‘social work’, as outlined by the International Federation of Social Workers: “Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing” (IFSW 2019). Staub-Bernasconi argued that this definition lacked clarity, and without a clear differentiation from other professions, we run the risk of being defined or annulled by them (Staub-Bernasconi 2017). While Staub-Bernasoni’s argument took a different much more sophisticated turn, there were a number of propositions in her article that resonated with me. Without a strong sense of who we are as social workers, we will continue to struggle to assert what our profession is about; as social work educators, we will continue to perpetuate this fuzzy identity. Without a clear mandate, our profession is easily pushed by neoliberal forces towards a shallow analyses that embraces a symptom-focused approach void of a root cause analysis. I agree with Staub-Bernasconi that the value overload and potential contradictions in values inherent in the above definition causes problems when articulating a clear mandate in the classroom.

For example, from my point of view the alignment of social work course education with specified fields of practice in Australia turns the curriculum into a fuzzy mix of approaches that are increasingly divorced from the core ideals that are supposed to underpin social work: universal human rights and social justice. To be an accredited Australian social work education provider we are required to demonstrate that courses include sufficient content with regard to child protection, mental health, cross-cultural practice, and practice with Aboriginal and Torre Strait Islander people and communities in the curriculum. These content areas are undoubtedly important. However, by privileging these domains over others we introduce a certain ‘canon’ into the curriculum (i.e. assessment and counselling techniques) that may inadvertently shift the learning focus from the root-causes of social problems to the psychological pathologies of individuals. There is a distinct risk of adopting a superficial emphasis on the symptomatology of social issues such as homelessness, domestic violence, drug and alcohol etc. This impoverished analysis may then lead to individual-focused technical solutions translating into an inadequate service design and the subsequent failure to resolve social problems [see for example, Sousa Santos]. In short, AASW accreditation rules may inadvertently cause mission drift.

This mission drift is exacerbated by the cross disciplinary delivery of social work units. Cost cutting within higher education has led to the outcome that many courses are co-delivered by disciplines that may not have the same code of ethics, ethos, or mandate. For example, mental health-focused social work units are often delivered by counselling or psychology departments that espouse individualistic approaches at the expense of a critical approach focusing on social root causes. Some social work education institutions have built strong critical social work curricula. Such courses provide students with a solid understanding of the root causes of social problems locating the realm of social work in the broader context of social structures. However, even when the curriculum provides a robust critical analysis of social issues, students may still be at risk of not visualising the potential of community development, policy and research work in shaping society due to the extensive use of cross-disciplinary teaching. Three decades ago, when I was studying for a Bachelor of Social Work, all units were delivered by social workers. Today, after three decades of higher education reforms, neoliberalism, managerialism, cost containment, and the push towards efficiency gains, social work courses are cross-disciplinary. For students this often leads to confusion in terms of the professional ethos they are socialised into and the analytic approaches that are discipline specific. As a result, this cross-disciplinary approach, the social work mandate (and ethos) in the mental health area has been heavily diluted and is becoming blurred with that of counsellors and psychologists. Nowadays, in the mental health field, there seems to be an over-emphasis on individual diagnosis and treatment. Narrative therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and others are dominating the curriculum. Despite their importance, they should not replace an in-depth exploration of the socio-cultural, political and economic construction of mental illness, and the vital role social structures play in the recovery and in preventative approaches. As social work was tempted to carve a clinical space for itself in mental health, we entered in competition with other professionals employing their methodologies rather than cultivating our own creating a knowledge gap that many social workers are no longer able to fill.

This trend has been accentuated by a sector whose professional practices have been shaped by 20 years of neo-liberalism. In many of the practice settings that typically employ social workers, structural analyses have given way to making individuals responsible for their ‘pathological’ behaviour. The authoritarianism that underpins much of behaviour modification approaches that have come to replace rights- based welfare is reliant upon counselling and psychological skills. CBT and mindfulness go hand in hand with punitive approaches to welfare. For students, clinical social work skills are often the pinnacle of the profession. Their acronyms pepper staff meetings to a point where they, shrouded in mystical veneration, become the quintessence of social work rather than one minor aspect of a social work profession that has lost its ways and that has forgotten the social determinants of health.

There are a range of organisations that continue to make the link between social structures and mental health outcomes. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics in its socio-economic disadvantage report shows a clear relationship between poverty and poor health outcomes (ABS, 2010). The Victorian Council of Social Services in its submission to Commission’s inquiry ‘Issues Paper into the Social and Economic Benefits of Improving Mental Health’ highlights the importance of broader reform and focus on solutions that are outside the clinical domain (VCOSS 2019). Their recommendations include adequate income, housing, carer support and respite, intervention at school and community levels. And while a range of community organisations are committed to services that are grounded in an analysis of social structures, large segments of the mental health sector are captured by an analysis that focuses exclusively on the individual. Recent research highlights the role of income support programs, nutritional support, housing, community outreach, and care coordination in order to address health and mental health issues (Taylor et al. 2016). CBT without programs that address the social determinants of mental health largely fail to achieve changes that address the root cause that makes CBT necessary. In other words, social determinants, human rights, and collective action to achieve social change should be the focus of social work education. This is our domain – not CBT. Our mandate is to work toward social justice and universal rights. This might involve CBT as part of a strategy towards change and empowerment. However, CBT should not become an end in itself.

Social work theorists often acknowledge that particular contexts cause stress that excessive stress might be correlated to mental health conditions. However, such insights are only partially translated into action. I think that we have done well in the bio-psycho sphere but have neglected to teach what we ought to do in the social sphere. Some schools are exemplary at delivering theoretical knowledge around the socio-economic and structural determinants of health. However, when it comes to skills development, we seem to be stuck and have been unable to move beyond counselling and casework.

While we often state that social workers should not engage in one- dimensional work when it comes to direct practice, we are commonly retreating to one-dimensional skills. I have not seen many examples of social workers discussing direct practice in terms of social determinants, human rights, and social justice. Policy, research, and community development skills are often neglected in direct practice training. Without these complementing counselling techniques, the liberation of individuals cannot be achieved. As it stands, students are likely to acquire a skewed view of direct practice work. Many students attracted to this field of practice, graduate without the plethora of practice approaches that could address structural disadvantage and oppression.

Clarity of purpose is linked to professional relevance. As voters in the developed world are voting with their feet in the face of technocratic solutions that fail to resolve abject social conditions, social work professionals with a mandate form part of the solution – social workers without a mandate are part of the problem. To foster the social work mandate, however, social work curricula need to teach students about (dialogical) human rights-based collective action, critical analysis, planning and the development of a more comprehensive social architecture. Such measures can be further enhanced by the creation of professional practice spaces in domains often neglected by social work education (i.e. the environment, workplace, housing, building collective solutions). Most importantly, however, we need to de-clutter our mandate bringing into focus (again) human rights and social justice. This focus may assist students in understanding the locus of the profession, giving them a solid foundation to not only resolve social problems but also giving them the capacity to design and implement preventative programs. To learn about social problems is important, but essential is our ability to articulate and bring about social change. Some readers might argue that, at present, social work education does exactly that. In response, I would say, we are failing to translate the ‘social’ of social work into practice - the focus on the individual has become an end in itself.


Australia Bureau of Statistics (ABS). 2010. Health and Socioeconomic Disadvantage, ABS Australian Social Trends 4102.0, March 2010.
International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). 2019. Global Definition of Social Work. In IFSW.org. Retrieve 16 October 2019, from IFSW Perlman, E. 2019. Workers feel more stress and anxiety than ever before. We need to talk about this. In The Guardian Australia, September 28.
Staub-Bernasconi, S.(2017) The problem with ‘social problems’ as domain of social work: a critical approach to the Melbourne ‘global definition of social work’ of 2014 and constructivist theories of social problems, European Journal of Social Work, 20:6, 958-971, DOI: 10.1080/13691457.2016.1278522., C.E.,
Taylor, L.A., Tan, A.X, Coyle, Ndumele, C., Rogan, E., Canavan, M., Curry, L.A., Bradley, E.H.(2016). Leveraging the social determinants of health: what works?. In PLoS One. 11.8; e0160217. doi:10.1371/journal.
Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS) 2019. Submission to Issues Paper into the Social and Economic Benefits of Improving Mental Health.