Academic social work education in Finland

prepared by the Finnish National University Network for Social Work (Sosnet)

Social work is a profession, a discipline and a service system provided by society, and it consists of research, training and social work in practice, and of interaction between these three aspects. Simply put, social work is research-based professional activity oriented to the prevention and alleviation of social problems. In Finland, social work has been closely bound up with the social welfare service system and especially with social welfare work at local level. Of late, social work has expanded into other fields of activity in society. In Finland, social work has been developed as an independent field of study with its own problem-setting, epistemological and ontological assumptions, research targets and ways of knowledge formation.

Starting points for social work education

The key skills required of social workers are social scientific problem-solving skills as well as reasoning and argumentation skills. These are practiced throughout the education. The methodological studies included in the basic degree are considered vital for the competence needed in practical social work. As society is growing more and more complicated, social workers have to deal with more and more complex phenomena, which call for an ability to perceive and untangle complex webs of problematic issues analytically. The task of social work deals with complex linkages at the level of individual, community and society, the task of social work in the local welfare policy is a good example of this.

Three basic tasks form the mission of Finnish universities: research, teaching and the university’s influence as a social actor through being a regional actor. Influencing regional decision-making is seen as part of social interaction. Social work education at university level puts these interrelated tasks into practice. Research, teaching and practical aspects form a whole that is reflected in the content and pedagogical solutions of the education. Social work education is based on the tradition of combining academic education and research.

The task of social work education is to produce skills that are needed in practical social work and in social work research. What is of central importance in practical social work is the preparation of alternative communal and individual solutions and processes on the one hand and solution-oriented client-centered work on the other. An essential part of social work consists of problem prevention and intervention, planning of welfare policies and other tasks related to welfare policy. Social workers are involved in producing information with scientific methods and they apply this information in their work. Social work competence is based on a wide basic knowledge of social sciences.

The goal of social work education is to ensure the development of the field and to strengthen its scientific foundation. The aim is to build professional expertise to develop social work as research-based profession. The education facilitates the application of social scientific theory and methodology to understand the phenomena and issues social workers are confronted with in their work, to gather information for the basis of professional decision-making and to develop social workers’ own practice and the entire field.

During their education, students learn about the history of social work, the theoretical and professional-ethical foundations of the work and skills needed in practical social work. Through theoretical insight, a foundation is laid for a strong professional identity and a deep understanding of the starting points, character and conditions for development of the field. The education is built on the tension between theory and practice with theoretical thinking and practical work interacting with each other.

Skills and core contents of social work education

Social work education provides students with the knowledge and skills necessary for client-centered work and social development, which are intertwined in social work practice. The curriculum is designed to prepare graduates for analyzing and understanding clients’ different life situations, meeting clients and defending their social rights, raising social awareness and influencing political decision-making, writing reports and other documents, planning and leading different projects, multi-professional cooperation and for the ways of legal argumentation of the field as well as for application of legislation.

Social work education prepares graduates for the management of communal and individual solution processes. The teaching is practice-oriented, and the whole discipline is heavily based on practical implications. In this aspect social work distinguishes itself from traditional social sciences. The starting point for social work is the human being in their social context. What is of central importance is client- and citizen-oriented perception of social situations and systems in the perspective of people’s and communities’ lifespans.

Social work education is characterized by criticality. Social scientific, research-based education guides students to critical thinking. The information contents conveyed by education are based on reflection and critical analysis of existing professional practices, administrative policies and ways of thinking. The aim of this critical orientation is to anticipate the future of practices.

In social work education and research, special emphasis is put on the exploitability of knowledge. Social work education aims to produce professionals who can analyze their working environment, follow research and do research themselves. In changing society ideas concerning the exploitability of professional knowledge are under constant revision. Social workers apply scientific methodology in their practical work.

In society social work carries out a task based on its ethical foundation which includes promotion of social justice and equality, alleviation of inequality and defending of the less well-off. Everything starts from the principle of human dignity. In social work education special attention is paid to the ethical principles of social work, through which the self-understanding of the field is mostly built.

Social work education prepares students for understanding and studying how the diverse problems people encounter in their lives come about, how they manifest themselves and how they affect people’s lives. Social work as a discipline pays attention to the ways people cope with their everyday life, as well as to what the conditions of welfare are and how it is distributed. Research targets include different client groups of social work and their problems, social work methods, practice cultures and practical work processes among other things. Social work also studies its own knowledge and value base, history, educational issues and development of social work organizations and administration.

Due to its multifaceted character, social work requires diversity, comprehensiveness and generality of education. The goal is to give students generalist skills to carry out social work in different contexts. Students can focus on some branches of social work while taking their basic degree, but the degree does not contain actual specialization courses. The professional licentiate degree programme of social work includes the following specialization fields: social work with children and young people, empowering social work, social work in the field of marginalisation, community social work and specialisation in welfare services.

Employment and careers of social work graduates

Those graduated from the social work master’s degree programme are employed in various positions in client-centered work, administration and development in social and health care, and some take up positions in social work education. In addition, social work education prepares graduates for doing research on, managing and developing welfare services. Moreover, social work graduates work in other disciplines as experts of social work and social sciences. Social work education awards three academic degrees, the master’s degree, the licentiate degree and the doctoral degree.

The master’s degree in social work provides the qualifications for the position of social worker. Social work graduates can be employed in various positions in client-centered work, development and management. Some of the typical settings employing social workers include local social services centres, family counselling centres, A-Clinic units for alcohol and drug abusers, schools, governmental institutions dealing with intoxicant abusers or criminals, health care agencies, institutions for elderly people or children, the police and social and health care organizations. The degree also gives the graduates qualifications to play their part in roles of social work at international level.

As to their own discipline and professional expertise, graduates holding the master’s, licentiate or doctoral degree act as equal research partners and experts in the field of social sciences and in multi-professional networks. The master’s degree in social work offers qualifications for postgraduate studies in social sciences.
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