Social Dialogue Magazine
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Stefan Borrmann

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Claudia Steckelberg

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Sonja Kubisch

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Dieter Röh

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Barbara Thiessen

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Michaela Köttig

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Christian Spatscheck

What makes for a good social work program?

Standards of quality for higher education in times of change

This article identifies and describes important standards of quality for social work education at the university level in order to provide lecturers and teachers, students, and practitioners in social work, as well as policymakers, with criteria for assessing and designing good social work programs and curricula. Situated in the context of a rapidly changing educational landscape, evolving welfare states, the impacts of digitalization, and changing attitudes toward democracy, social work programs need to redesign their form, content, and organization. Based on discussions with different professional associations during a consultation process with academics and practitioners in social work, this article highlights standards of quality for such programs. After describing the current situation of social work education in national and international contexts, the article identifies recommended standards of quality for social work programs and closes by summarizing short-term tasks and challenges for them.

Social work education in changing contexts

Our reflections on the standards of quality for social work education at the university level—their changes, their consequences, and their necessity—derive from the context of higher education and welfare systems in Germany. This context can be characterized as having a growing need for qualified social workers in practice. But simultaneously having a higher-education policy that does not increase the number of tuition-free, state-funded educational institutions for social workers. This gap has been filled by a growing number of private universities who funded their social work programs by tuition fees paid by students, parents, or employers. For the German education system, in which degree-awarding programs at the university level typically do not charge tuition, such developments have caused unprecedented changes in the academic landscape for social workers. Changing funding structures threaten to introduce influences that could compromise established standards of social work education and academic freedom. Some schools have already experienced effects that have lowered their academic standards and had to meet requests for more functional, uncritical, “employable” social workers. Many new social work programs have also begun to shift from offering general academic study to providing degree- oriented curricula in small, specialized fields such as integration management, school social work, social management, and music education.

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The national situation in Germany reflects broader trends that can be recognized in many other countries. Locally and worldwide, societies currently face a proliferation of social problems, often rooted in expanding forms of social inequality and mounting economic and ecological problems. Such problems also increase the need for academically trained social workers who can overcome them. At the same time, the logics of the market could gain ground in the global landscape of universities, as relations between state-owned and private providers in higher education in numerous countries shift due the increasing number of universities with fee-based business models. Beyond that, the possibilities of digitalization offer new models of online, distance, and blended learning settings that counter classical face-to-face education in classrooms and group work situations. Rising internationalization also makes it necessary to reflect on the effects of migration and develop new concepts of identity, new institutions with global, transnational perspectives, and new forms of teaching and academic reflection with new content. Last, increasing political polarization between liberal and fundamentalist groups challenges the creation of a new basis for solidarity and social cohesion.

All of those developments formed the basis for a series of discussions within the German Association of Social Work (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziale Arbeit, DGSA), an association of social work academics and professionals in Germany that we currently represent as board members. With reference to an empirical study on changes in the landscape of social work education, a consultation process within the DGSA and with other professional associations, and public forums at conferences, a position paper on standards of quality for social work education was published that summarized major recommendations for social work education from an academic perspective on the profession and discipline of social work.

Standards of quality for social work programs in higher education The following paragraphs highlight the major standards of quality described in the DGSA’s position paper, with additional consideration of the Core Curriculum for Social Work Studies of the DGSA (2016), the competence-oriented objectives in the Qualification Framework for Social Work of the German Association of Schools for Social Work (Fachbereichstag Soziale Arbeit [FBTS], 2016), the recommendations of the German Sciences Council (Wissenschaftsrat, 2013), and the broader debate among social work academics.

a) Standards of quality for program content

The chief factors of quality in social work education are the content of the curricula and its relation to the academic debate on social work theory, methods, and research. Along those lines, three criteria for curricular content have been identified: quality curricular content and design, academic autonomy in designing curricula and research- and theory-oriented teaching.

Quality curricular content and design: All curricular content needs to derive from reflections on the available knowledge base of social work theory, methods, and research. As a whole, the curriculum needs to promote a meaningful depth of reflection and scientific reasoning and reflect the broader academic discourse within the field of social work. Core curricular and professional qualification frameworks can guide analyses of whether a curriculum encompasses relevant areas of study and whether a program is oriented toward a generalist profile of social work as a profession and discipline.

Academic autonomy in designing curricula: It is critical to decide who should have the authority to define the content of a program of study. Universities and their faculty need the right to influence the design of the curriculum according to the standards of academic freedom and scientific debate. At the same time, policymakers, employers, or other funding parties need to be prevented from gaining the power to design a curriculum that suits their interests and meets their demands. Instead, curriculum design needs to remain under the governance of academic staff and the scientific community.

Research- and theory-oriented teaching: Social work research, theory, and academic discourse need to be connected to social work teaching. Such a disciplinary foundation needs to foster a research- minded culture at universities, and teaching needs to refer to the instructor’s research activities as well as the ever-changing state of research in the field.

b) Standards of quality for structural conditions

A good social work curriculum also requires a structural environment that supports the development of the program. To that end, five structure-related criteria have been identified: a sustainable model of study, quality teaching settings, quality practice placements, appropriate program density, and academic governance.

A sustainable model of study: Social work programs can be completed in full-time university courses as well as in dual forms with partners in the practice field or in online, distance, and blended forms of learning. The primary criterion for a model of study should be its adequacy in meeting the program’s aims. Higher ratios of practice- based and online learning should be chosen for didactic reasons, not due to financial considerations. An increase in practice-based units should also not be dictated by employers to create more uncritical, functional social workers who can be better subordinated in contexts of practice and in organizations. Instead, every model of study should be designed to support the education of academically trained, reflective social workers who can find a professional basis for practical interventions and establish a critical, reflexive relationship with contexts and policies of practice.

Quality teaching settings: The majority of teaching staff in a social work program needs to be academically qualified in social work theory, research, and methods at the doctoral level. To recruit qualified professors and lecturers, universities need to grant academic freedom for teaching and research as well as positive, long-term professional positions. At the same time, social work programs need to be accredited by independent accreditation agencies oriented to professional standards. To be an active part of the scientific community, a school of social work needs to be a member of professional social work associations for practice, education, and research on the national and international levels. To enable social workers to be effective and reflective in their practice, the teaching program needs to build upon an elaborated theory-based, practice-oriented model that both meets the requirements of social work practice and the academic standards of the discipline.

Quality practice placements: Typically, integral in social work curricula, practical placements provide social work students with phases of supervised action and reflection as well as afford them experiences for reflection on theory. To accompany those phases, universities and organizations in the field have to recruit and train supervisors who can create settings for reflection on practical experiences related to the academic discourse in social work. Moreover, the roles of supervisors, university mentors, and organizational managers need to be performed by separate persons.

A contract for practice should clarify the rights and duties of each party, and especially when the employer pays the student’s fees, students need to receive fair, transparent conditions regarding their obligations to the employer in terms of the contract’s duration and the possibilities of reducing the workload and changing positions. Students who assume responsibilities in an organization also need to receive adequate financial compensation for their work.

Appropriate program density: The amount of time devoted to completing university courses, work in practical fields, and individual study to pursue personal academic interests should be reasonably balanced. Students need challenging but realistic learning-oriented tasks in transparent, reliable settings. Programs also need to develop accommodations and procedures for crises, illness, and disabilities.

Academic governance: Structures are necessary to enable students and academic staff to engage in adequate forms of democratic participation at their universities. Managerial and senior positions need to be filled in transparent elections, and all groups of stakeholders need to be represented in decision making. Policies that promote equality should also be mandatory at universities.

c) Standards of quality for organizational settings

A good social work curriculum and its structural contexts need an organizational, policy-supported environment that supports its creation and development. To that purpose, two criteria for the organization of social work programs have been identified: sufficient funding and a political context.

Sufficient funding: Various forms of funding are available for social work programs, such as full state funding, mixed models involving fees and state funding, models with full private funding by students, parents, or employers, and loan-based funding to be repaid by students once they earn their degrees. In any case, it is imperative for social work programs that their interests are not superseded by the interests of their funders. Instead, social work programs need to have the liberty to design their curricula and forms of teaching and research according to the criteria of scientific rigor and academic freedom and the standards of the social work discipline and profession. Moreover, the possibility for eligible students to matriculate into the program has to be fair and equally available.

Political context: The establishment and implementation of programs of study need to prevent individual financial interests or the interests of individual groups of stakeholders from overriding policies of higher education and welfare without democratic legitimation. To that end, governments need to establish suitable forms of and settings for higher education in consultation with all stakeholders, as well as provide adequate funding for up- to-date infrastructure for higher education.

Summary and outlook

In recent decades, an impressive number of social work programs in higher education have been established in a wide range of countries. Their establishment has prompted a robust increase in research, the development of theory, and the expansion of social work professions and the discipline itself at both national and international levels. In that process, the academic profile of social work has also influenced contexts for social work practice and continuing education.

However, those developments are currently jeopardized by ambivalent forces, including new influential groups that risk the de-professionalization of social work in education and practice. In settings of higher education, a multi-tiered landscape of universities with high academic standards and ones that no longer meet adequate academic requirements can be anticipated. Beyond that, undemocratic, illiberal, and fundamentalist groups in many countries have gained increasingly more influence over programs of study, universities, academic societies, publishing organizations, research projects, and even forms of teaching. In response, it remains crucial to reconsider how the academic standards of teaching and research can be safeguarded in both the short and long term.


Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziale Arbeit. (2016). Core curriculum for social work studies. Retrieved from dgsa Fachbereichstag Soziale Arbeit. (2016). Qualifikationsrahmen Soziale Arbeit (QR SozArb) des FBTS. Retrieved from fbts Wissenschaftsrat. (2013). Empfehlungen zur Entwicklung des dualen Studiums. Retrieved from wissenschaftsrat