Social Dialogue Magazine
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Sharlotte Tusasiirwe, assistant lecturer of Social Work, Makerere University, Uganda. PhD candidate, Western Sydney University, Australia.

“They teach us as if we are from the same country” : stories from a social work classroom with international students

In this article, I share my experiences as a social work educator in an international context where I have had to adapt my approach to cater for the needs of international and domestic students pursuing their careers in social work. While Australia is a destination to many international students and is also multicultural and with indigenous communities, social work education and practice has remained predominantly western and stubbornly resistant to draw on plural epistemologies that inform diverse ways of doing social work.

International students

For the last three years, I have had an opportunity to teach at two higher institutions of learning in Australia where a master’s degree in social work is offered to domestic and international students. In Australia, the current debates and tensions are not about how international students are a ‘cash cow’ to universities and colleges in Australia (Burton-Bradley, 2018) but discussion is about how problematic, challenging, it is to teach and supervise international students. While the blame has been placed on international students’ poor English proficiency, only few if any social work educators and practitioners have critically examined their teaching and understanding of social work and epistemological assumptions. The concerns for social workers are that international students have no or limited understanding or knowledge of (western) social work and therefore they are a risk to Australian social work in particular and the social work profession in general.

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There are serious tensions around international students’ lack of knowledge of ‘social work’. I have had conversations with some of the educators who have been frustrated by international students’ responses when asked about the social welfare system. Some of the students’ responses have been that ‘they do not know about social welfare system’, which some of the educators have taken to mean ignorance of students about formal systems of social work operating in their contexts. One only wishes that the educators could ask students about social work beyond what governments or welfare states do. But some who have managed to ask students to write about social work in their contexts have complained, rather bitterly, that what the students write is not social work, that it is something like social development or something very unclear which educators do not think is even social work.

However, as Carson (2017) notes in her talk on decolonising pedagogy, in the west, there is a really specific idea about what social work is and what social workers do which tends to be mostly limited to social welfare-related work. The teaching of social work including its history tends to be centered around social work as informed by mostly European events and ideas. For example, predominantly, the history of social work is traced from English Poor Laws of 1601 and Charity Organisation Society. Most of the western texts about social work emphasise this history even when it is acknowledged that this is not the universal history in all contexts (Chenoweth & McAuliffe, 2017). One would assume that since Australia has Indigenous communities and is also multicultural, the history of social work as organised differently in such communities, is given utmost consideration. Also given the fact that international students are coming from very different countries like Nepal, India, Philippines, Kenya, Nigeria, among others, one would assume that history and organisation of social work as it applies in those diverse contexts would be deconstructed to help students critically think about the profession they are pursuing. Instead, as authors Walter, Taylor, & Habibis (2011) have argued, Australian social work education and practice still remains predominantly white and all the other non-white have to re-orient themselves and their experiences. The western hegemonic thinking about social work only in specific ways is prioritised silencing the opportunity of learning about social work as organised differently in diverse contexts.

This is why during class discussions, international students do not actively engage because they do not have adequate understanding of western social work and policy context to be able to critique it. With emphasis on western social work, some of the international students have made very concerning comments about social work in their contexts. Some have stated that “we really don’t have social work in our countries”; Social work is not even recognised as a profession in our countries, people do not even know what a social worker is, that’s why we are here to learn about what these developed countries are doing so that we can go and set up the same in our countries to have a strong profession”. Among what the students wanted to set up in their countries included aged care facilities and homes for people with disability, foster care homes for orphaned children, setting up child protection legislations and policies in their countries, among others. While it is not a crime to copy what others are doing, have we helped students critically reflect about the cultural appropriateness of some of the interventions? Indeed, among the reasons why the students were paying hefty amounts of money to study is to attain a degree from an ‘international’ university that would give them an edge over others who have studied from local contexts.

The most concerning thing for me as a teacher was that students felt so inferior that their social work profession was still “behind” since it was not like western social work. This was amidst some belittling comments from some of the other students from contexts where welfare state interventions existed. One approached me and sympathised with me that “let us see if they will write the assignments since they are not really familiar with social work”. Assignments requiring critical analysis of the policies and interventions in social work become an uphill task for international students who have to first of all understand western social work and later on be able to critique and bring forth the strengths and crisises of a model of social work they are being taught to revere. Some of the students have informally complained that we teach them as if they are from the same country and context. “They do not engage us in group discussions, they have given up on us; when we ask for literature, they say that is our role to find the literature ourselves as students, but we are not from here and we don’t know how and where to find it”. Domestic students are complaining too as they are burdened because they have to take on roles of experts in their groups where they have to explain to international students about domestic policies and ways of helping. The question is do we want to continue engaging in social work education and practice that perpetuates marginality of the many in our social work courses, and privileges the few who are already privileged?

What is the major issue in social work education?

One of the major issues that needs to be addressed is about epistemological diversity. Mainstream social work remains predominantly informed by western ideas and knowledges denigrating and silencing all other ways of knowing and doing social work that international students come with. Some of these students have lived experiences and stories from their contexts regarding how vulnerable people are helped in their communities. For some of the students, the role played by collectives or mutual aid community groups are well known. Through reciprocal living is how the vulnerable are supported in communities. When I mentioned some of these alternative ways of doing social work- identifying and responding to social problems, some students really became active, engaged, excited, because these were familiar. However, some students also questioned if this was really social work because for them social work is what is done by the government and NGOs. This is a narrow way of understanding social work especially in collective communities where community-based ways of helping embedded in local epistemologies are at the forefront while governments and NGOs have a limited presence or even non- existence particularly in rural areas. However, unsurprisingly, as a person from African context where social work was introduced as a colonial product and tool, such collective ways of being were demonised as primitive and this colonial indoctrination still plays out in social work students and educators delegitimising local ways of knowing and mutual helping.

Moving forward, a shared space where voices from diverse social work are centred rather than western epistemologies dominating the discourses is urgently needed. I make this recommendation because I have the interests of communities we work to help at the back of my mind. We need social work that builds on rather than silence and marginalise ways of survival of vulnerable communities. This way we educate students to work alongside communities facilitating and building on the knowledges of these communities. This is decolonising practice by legitimising local ways of knowing and doing (Tusasiirwe, forthcoming). What social work educators in Australia and beyond need to be aware about is the risk of perpetuating cultural and epistemological imperialism and colonialism through upholding west- as-best and west-to-the-rest attitudes. This perpetuation is likely if the current way of teaching social work is not re-examined by the social work educators and the Association of Social Workers accrediting and regulating social work practice in Australia.

A few attempts of what has worked for me is to incorporate some international literature and knowledges beyond Australia. When I am teaching introduction to social work, I have to also draw on the history of social work in other non-western contexts. I have had to read about social work in some of the countries where the students come from. In my teaching, I aim to help students envision some areas they can make a contribution in Australia but also in their countries. For example the global definition of social work (IFSW, 2019) recognises indigenous knowledge as theoretical knowledge informing social work yet there is still limited understanding of this knowledge in different parts of the world. This is an area that some of the students can contribute to understanding. I also think about domestic students and how they can contribute to challenging neoliberalism, privatising and managerialism that is threatening the welfare state we revere in Australia (Ife, 1997). My intention as a teacher is to make sure that each student is valued and learning. All students need to be included and all knowledges that can help empower vulnerable communities need to be drawn on. We need to put first communities, their local epistemologies and how social work can work alongside.

In all, Australia is increasingly becoming a destination of many international students pursuing a career in social work. While some want to remain in Australia, others want to go back to their communities with an international degree that will land them jobs in reputable international organisations. Social work education must be seen to cater for all these students, drawing on pedagogy that relates and shows interests in the international contexts where these students come from and want to practice. Australian social work educators must practice the critical social work they claim to believe in by beginning to question their mainstream social work education and the epistemological assumptions. Social work educators must create shared space for multiple epistemologies and uphold understanding of social work as diverse. Surely human and social problems are not defined and responded to in universal ways around the world and its high time that we legitimised rather than othering other ways of helping, for the sake of finding ways to strengthen and build on local communities’ ways of survival.


Burton-Bradley, R. (2018). Poor English, few jobs: Are Australian universities using international students as ‘cash cows’? ABC. Retrieved from abc
Carson, Q. (Producer). (2017). Pedagogy of the decolonising. Retrieved from youtube
Chenoweth, L., & McAuliffe, D. (2017). The road to social work and human service practice (5th ed.). Victoria Australia: Cengage Learning Australia Pty Limited. Ife, J. (1997). Rethinking social work: Towards critical practice. South Melbourne, Australia: Longman.
IFSW. (2019). Global definition of social work. Retrieved from IFSW Tusasiirwe. (forthcoming). Decolonising Social Work through learning from experiences of older women and social policy makers in Uganda. In S. Tascon & J. Ife (Eds.), Disrupting Whiteness in Social Work: Routledge.
Walter, M., Taylor, S., & Habibis, D. (2011). How White is Social Work in Australia? Australian Social Work, 64(1), 6-19. doi:10.1080/0312407X.2010.510892