Social Work: Putting care into professional practice
Features | Governance and Social Policy | Social Welfare | Subscription-only Content
China’s top leaders recently recognised the need for a corps of professional social workers. Chang Tianle (常天乐) reports on ongoing efforts and challenges in building the new profession.
China’s top leadership publicly stressed the importance of social work for the first time in a communiqué from the October, 2006 plenum of Central Committee of the Communist Party.
In order to construct a harmonious socialist society, the communiqué says, it is high time to build a large, well-structured and qualified corps of social workers, and to “have policy and relevant mechanism in place to educate, assess, employ and encourage social workers.”
Social work practitioners, educators and students have been greatly encouraged by the Party statement, anticipating a real breakthrough in China’s social work profession. But they still have concerns about government’s role in developing the profession, the quality of education and the career structure for social workers.
Until two decades ago, social work was not recognised as a profession in mainland China. The government, including state-owned factories and institutions, used to be the sole caretaker for the whole society. People such as Youth League secretaries, neighbourhood committee officials, trade union leaders and teachers, carried out “political work” (政治工作), “mass work” (群众工作) or “community work” (社区工作) that included some dimensions of social work in the sense of “work with society.” But they usually operated within the “work-unit” (单位) system that has been progressively dismantled since the late 1980s, when state-owned enterprises and units began to retreat from such functions.
“At that time, the government felt the need to introduce a modern approach in social service, which is the concept of social work,” says Chen Tao (陈涛), Dean of Department of Social Work and Administration at the China Youth University for Political Sciences (中国青年政治学院).
With government support, Beijing University launched the mainland’s first social work programme in 1988. Now, about 200 universities and colleges have social work departments or programmes, producing nearly 10,000 graduates every year.
However, social work remains in its infancy in terms of both education and practice. Only a very small proportion of graduates go on to work in fields where they apply what they learned in school. Experts and practitioners blame the immature education system and limited career opportunities.
As a new subject, social work courses are generally affiliated to Sociology Departments whose faculties come from various backgrounds, such as sociology, history, politics and Marxism.
Chen says that mixture of teachers from different background is not necessarily a bad thing as they bring a wide range of expertise to the students. However, he also concedes that it takes time for those teachers to “transform their value” and obtain a deep understanding of social work.
Six year ago, seeing the shortage of qualified teachers, Beijing University and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University jointly developed a “train-the-trainers” Master’s programme for social work educators. Funded by German Catholic church charity, Misereor, the programme has nurtured a core group of dedicated and competent social work educators in China.
“The students are very motivated,” says Ruth Schimanowski of Misereor. “When they go back (to their universities), they want to bring what they have learned in Beijing and Hong Kong to their teaching.”
Chen Tao is one of the graduates from the programme. Before that he had obtained a doctorate in sociology and had taught social work for several years. He says that with professors from Hong Kong and Beijing the Beijing University programme blended local expertise with perspectives from mature, external models.
Now, a number of mainland universities have teamed up with Hong Kong counterparts to develop similar joint programmes to train professional social workers and educators.
A cohort of qualified social work educators is thus emerging in China. In the department Chen now leads, half of the 13 social work teachers have overseas degrees in the subject.
But it takes longer to combine theory and practice in taught courses. Owing to the short history of China’s social work profession, most of the teachers themselves have little experience in front-line work. When students encounter problems or confusion during work placements they find it difficult to get support and advice from their teachers, and this can be frustrating.
It also affects social workers’ performance at work. Patricia Crouan, a French social worker with Beijing Huiling (北京慧灵), an NGO serving mentally handicapped people, has worked alongside many Chinese social workers and students. She says her Chinese colleagues are energetic and fond of the work, but they are very inexperienced. “They have learned something from school,” she says. “But when they face problems, sometimes they don’t know how to deal with them.” Formal education does not prepare them to deal with frustration, which, according to Crouan, is the most important thing she learned from school.
Moreover, most Chinese social work students do not themselves choose to study social work. Rather, they are usually assigned to the programme because their score in university entrance examinations is not good enough to secure them a seat in subjects like law, finance, economics and foreign languages, which are believed to have brighter career prospects. Many of them are not at first even aware of the existence of a major in social work.
After four years study, some understand the value of social work and decide to stay in the profession, but more choose to pursue a different career.
Applying the skills
“The recognition and understanding of the profession is still at a very low level in China,” says Wang Sibin (王思斌), Former Dean of Beijing University’s Sociology Department and Chair of the China Association for Social Work Education (中国社会工作教育协会). The government does not give strong support to the profession and there is no clear position or career structure for professional social workers to fit into.
Wang says that rapid economic development and social change have made it increasingly hard for government departments to respond effectively and efficiently. The complexity of social issues creates enormous potential for professional social workers. However, without a proper employment system and financial support from the government, the number of appropriate jobs is still very small.
Shanghai has played a pioneering role in nurturing the profession. In 2003, the municipal government facilitated the creation of three social worker agencies to work with troubled youngsters, drug abusers and disadvantaged people. For each social worker the agencies employ, the government pays an average of CNY 40,000 (US$5,000) to cover their salary and overheads. Now, Shanghai has about 8,000 social workers certified by the municipal government, about one third of who are social work graduates from universities.
To create a supply of social workers Shanghai has developed a certification system but the qualification threshold is not high. Anybody, not necessarily a university social work student, can enter the exams and get the certificate. Indeed, part of the motivation behind Shanghai’s initiative is to create more jobs for middle-aged and young people without sophisticated skills.
This year, three ministries—Civil Affairs, Personnel and Labour—are adopting a national certification system that, like Shanghai’s, will grant the title of social worker to whoever passes a set of exams, regardless of their educational background. The first exams will take place next year. Experts say it will create a national standard, but with a low, entry threshold.
Jane Pierini, Director of peopleLINK, a Beijing non-profit social work consulting and training provider, worries that the immature education plus unsophisticated certification system may blur the role of social worker and decrease the quality of the profession.
“It is true that China needs many social workers to deliver services, but the quality is of equal importance,” she says.
But in Chen Tao’s eyes, the new certification system may be the best way for China to develop its own social worker profession in the present circumstances. China, he points out, is not like Hong Kong where the government used to play only a small role in social services, so it was easier to create an independent and new social worker force. “Here, the government has built up a huge team and institutions in public services. Even though most of the staff are not well-trained, it is impossible to exclude them,” he says.
Chen expects that with improved training and exams, current government staff can be better equipped with social work methodology and values, thus improving their capacity, while new social work graduates can inject new blood into the profession.
Blending theory and practice
In addition to full-time programmes, universities also work with government agencies and NGOs to train practitioners in social work skills. For example, Save the Children and Beijing University have just launched a two-year in-service training programme in “child protection” for staff of Save the Children partners, mostly from government social service providers. The first programme enrolled 39 trainees who will participate in four courses at Beijing University over two years, each lasting about two weeks.
The China Youth University for Political Sciences has also trained staff of social service providers, both run by government and non-government organisations.
Another pressing issue is the creation of jobs. Both the academic community and the government have seen the roles social worker can play in many areas, such as prison, hospital, school, rehabilitation centre and government run care facilities. Bejing University’s Wang Sibin even sees a role for social workers in rural development and in military and industrial settings, in areas such as working with army veterans and easing worker-management relations. “But it requires government’s policy input and high level support,” Wang says.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs will hold a national conference in December to discuss the development of the profession, and this may result in concrete policies to create more jobs within the Civil Affairs system.
Chen Tao expects to see similar approaches in other government departments.
The embrace of social work also poses great challenges for China’s social service providers that have been running for decades without qualified social workers.
Zhang Wen (张雯) holds a social work Master’s degree from Washington University and is Director of the Children’s Hope Welfare Committee of the China Social Work Association （中国社工协会儿童希望救助基金工作部). Based on her experience of many charity and welfare organisations, she says that the leaders and staff are caring and passionate but often lack a comprehensive understanding of what they do, which leads to inefficiency and disappointment from donors.
Also, there is an information gap between teaching institutions and NGOs that provide social services.
Helping to bridge that gap is peopleLINK, founded three years ago to foster the professionalism of social work among Chinese NGOs. Diector Jane Pierini earned a Master of Social Worker degree at Hong Kong University and went served as a co-director Beijing Huiling before establishing peopleLINK.
Pierini says that at first many NGOs and schools that provide social work education simply did not know about each other. “Social work teachers didn’t know what NGOs were and NGOs didn’t know what social workers could do for them.”
Some NGOs have now started to understand the value of hiring staff who have undergone professional social work training, but face challenges in transforming their organisations and making better use of social workers. peopleLINK thus provides NGOs with support in applying social work principles to their operations, and is now seeking funding for a "social work employment project" to match graduates with NGOs and provide essential "marriage guidance". Pierini says that inexperienced young social workers and their employers both need support to cope with challenges and develop a long-lasting and productive relationship.
peopleLINK has also created a social workers’ club to promote experience-sharing and organise professional exchanges.
“We have seen the changes of grass-roots NGOs. They are more willing to recruit social workers and provide them space to develop,” she says. “Some see social workers as an integrated part of organisation’s strategy.”
As the government starts to encourage the development of social work, she expects to see similar challenges within government institutions and agencies they support.
Wang says the development of social work heavily relies on government’s policy and support.
“In China, the biggest difference from western countries is that social workers act as assistants for the Party to provide social work and management,” he says.