This article appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of SSA Magazine.
Mo guides the tour down a colorful hallway decorated with paper cutouts, craft projects and beautiful scrolls of Chinese calligraphy. At the first stop, a visit with seniors participating in the Adult Day Service program, Mo tells the group about CASL, a 36-year-old institution that provides services such as pre-school, a chef training program, immigration and ESL classes to more than 17,000 people of all ages annually.
“Our visit to CASL was very informative and impressive,” says Yuegen Xiong, professor and director of the Centre for Social Policy Research in the Department of Sociology at Peking University, who is leading the Chinese social work educator delegation visiting CASL. “We learned a lot from social work colleagues there. I was very surprised by the ideas and approaches that the CASL’s social workers used to build their social work practice models with Chinese culture in American society.”
Xiong and his colleagues—representing Peking, Nankai, Shandong, and Shanxi Medical universities, China Youth University for Political Sciences, Minzu University of China, and the University of Science and Technology Beijing—came to Chicago for a week to learn more about the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration's field education model and how SSA faculty integrate theory and practice with classwork and field work. They met with clinical and administration faculty and with field education staff, visited field agencies like CASL with SSA student placements, and talked with the growing number of Chinese students studying at SSA.
All this is in service of a big goal: collecting ideas to advance the establishment of social work education in China. As the country continues to grow and urbanize, the Chinese government has ambitious plans to train a professionalized social work workforce while developing social welfare services on a massive scale. With its established history and programs, SSA is one of a handful of social work schools that is actively providing insight and consultation to guide these developments in China.
“We listened to our Chinese counterparts and shared with them our experiences and the pedagogies of our schools,” says Stanley McCracken, who participated in many of the week’s meetings and site visits. “SSA has made itself available to help, but we’re not here to proselytize. China is a different country, with different needs. We adhere to the ‘person in environment’ guideline of meeting clients where they are, and this is the same approach we need to take in sharing ideas about social work education. What works in one place may not work at all in another. China needs to find its way and it will.”
“We are trying to figure out a strategy for social work education,” says Fengzhi Ma, professor and director of the Social Work Division in the Department of Sociology at Peking University, who participated in the visiting delegation, “not only for our own universities, but for all of China, integrating Western ideas with our culture.”
To help address the needs of more than 1 billion citizens, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) wants to educate and professionally train almost 1.45 million new social workers in the next five years. Xinhua, the official government news agency of the PRC, reported that there would be 500,000 trained social workers in Mainland China by the end of 2015, up from about 200,000 in 2012.
To compare, the United States, with a population of 331 million, currently has 650,000 people with either a bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate social work degree, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and about 23,000 master’s students graduated from one of the 228 schools of social work in the U.S. in 2013, according to the U.S. Council on Social Work Education (CSWE).
Social work first arrived in China in the 1920s, informed by Westerners involved in its growth as a profession in the United States and Europe and by Chinese academics trained and educated in the West. But in the early 1950s, the Communist Party decided that social work was “no longer needed,” and it was not taught in universities for thirty-some years. In 1988, the Chinese government formally recognized social work as a discipline, but only a small number of academic programs were developed in the 1990s.
Over the last decade, though, the Chinese government determined that social workers will be able to help with both challenges that are inherent to the human condition and those that are emerging due to China’s rapid development. To achieve this ambitious goal, the Chinese Ministry of Education formally approved Master of Social Work programs in 2009 with the first students graduating in 2012. Today there are almost 300 bachelor’s and more than 70 master’s programs throughout the People’s Republic of China that offer social work education and training, according to the CSWE.
“By realizing social work is a scientific, practice-based and helpful profession toward solving individual, community and societal problems, the Chinese government made a huge plan to rebuild the profession in order to echo the fundamental objectives of building a harmonious society,” explains Xiong. “They initially used a roughly calculated ratio between social workers and the general population, using a very broad definition of social work and set a goal to educate 3 million but have since revised their goal to 1.45 million social workers with a master’s degree and professional certificates.”
University leaders in Mainland China recognize that rebuilding the profession means they must address issues that are limiting the education of current students: There are few professionally trained social workers to teach them while in school, few agencies at which to gain experience, and too few trained professionals to mentor them. Professors who teach social work in Chinese universities are usually sociologists and psychologists—and the few who have a social work education usually attended a school in Hong Kong or the West.
One of the biggest challenges in developing Chinese social work education lies in field-based education (internships). “Here at SSA, students learn clinical and administration and policy skills in the field and in the classroom side by side,” explains Robert Chaskin, an associate professor at SSA and the deputy dean for strategic initiatives. “Theory and practice and the experience of the field placements are all tightly integrated into our curriculum, but in China, fieldwork is not yet integrated into classroom instruction.”
Not only do very few professors in China have experience in fieldwork as part of their own education, but there are a relatively small number of agencies at which to train. Prior to the economic liberalization that has been occurring over the last several decades in China, social services were a state function.
Now, non-governmental agencies and social work education—including field education—are developing at the same time.
To build the social work education system, Chinese universities have turned to the international social work community for ideas, looking at models across the world, as near as Hong Kong and as far away as the United States and Europe, including former Eastern Block countries such as Poland, which are also facing the challenge of reintroducing social work. “Chinese political culture and policy approaches tend to more or less focus on the interests of the collective more than that of individuals, which explains why macro practice (e.g. social policy and planning) has been better developed than clinical practice,” Xiong says. “The use of personal networking in solving individual problems is prevalent in Chinese communities, where formal rules sometimes fail [to provide a solution].”
The China Collaborative, a project of CSWE, the China Association for Social Work Education (CASWE) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), is helping to develop social work education in Mainland China. Partnered with Peking University in Beijing and a set of schools in the north (see “An Education in Hong Kong”), SSA joined the China Collaborative in 2010, one of seven participating U.S. social work schools.