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How do students perceive the international dimension in social work education?: an enquiry among Swedish and German students.

THIS STUDY EXPLORES students' perceptions of the international dimension in social work, along with their own responses to and engagement in these issues. But what is internationalization, and how is it understood by students within their educational system?

Internationalization in academic education, including social work, concerns cross-border activities between nation states (Teichler, 2004). It is often discussed in terms of the physical mobility of students and academic staff, academic cooperation, recognition of studies abroad, knowledge transfer through the media, changed attitudes and orientations, and reflection on international standards and differences (Teichler, 2007a, p. 6-7). In discussion of internationalization, the relationship between internationalization and globalization is often mentioned (Enders, 2004; Healy, 2008; Payne and Askeland, 2008; Teichler, 2004). Also regionalization--for instance the European Union (EU)--as a change where nation states become part of a bigger entity is related to internationalization.

Enders (2004) makes a distinction between globalization and internationalization, pointing to globalization as a process of increasing interdependence and convergence of economies along with the liberalization of markets and trade. But globalization also has political and cultural dimensions. On the political level we have seen a restructuring and challenging of the nation state through deregulation. On the cultural level, new ideas, lifestyles, music, and more are disseminated through modern communication techniques (Payne and Askeland, 2008) (though despite this mutual exchange, Western values still tend to dominate the world). However, globalization affects the social policy discussion in a number of ways (Cousins, 2005) and consequently affects social work and social work education.

Regionalization (in our case Europeanization) is the third dimension. The creation of the European common market is a concrete example of diminished national power through the implementation of a single market and the rifles of free movement. From a European educational perspective, internationalization is far reaching through the Bologna Process, a strategy to create the European Higher Education Area "to ensure more comparable, compatible and coherent systems of higher education in Europe" ("The Official Bologna Process," 2012). To increase the international competitiveness of Europe, a common European education system built on two main tiers-undergraduate and postgraduate---was adopted.

The qualifications received at the undergraduate level will have relevance both for further studies at the postgraduate level and for the labor market. A common structure of exams and formulated learning objectives has been developed to make the national education systems compatible and to support the mobility of students and staff. Joint degree and student exchange programs have also been institutionalized. A recent article describing this background argues in favor of a comparable social work curriculum under the Bologna system (Engelberg, Limbach-Reich, Maus, & Mayrhofer, 2012). Academic exchange and international cooperation are intended means, and mobility is a key issue. All three terms--internationalization, globalization, and regionalization--imply a trend toward changes in national views (Teichler, 2007a).

The internationalization trend presents a major challenge for social work education. Social work is described as contextual, that is, bound to national traditions, laws, and local culture (Lorenz, 1994). The conditions for social work practice vary between nations because social policy ambitions and social needs differ, and the economic conditions to address them also vary widely. At the same time, the exchange of knowledge and ideas across borders has always taken place, and international textbooks with theories and examples developed in one country are used and transformed into practice in other national contexts (Payne and Askeland, 2008; Trygged, 2007; DomineUi & Thomas Bernard, 2003). Social work history is characterized by its efforts both to solve local problems and to maintain an openness to the outside world.

International Perspectives in Social Work Education

There seems to be consensus among scholars that globalization, internationalization, and regionalization affect social work. But how these changes affect social work education is unclear. Nagy and Falk (2000, p. 49) claim that the impact of ongoing global processes on the social work profession is dramatic and that reformulating the education to include more international and cross-cultural content is needed. They suggest the incorporation of international issues and comparisons between the approaches, theories, and programs of other countries into the mainstream of social work education, along with the creation of more specialized professional programs. One could perhaps add the growing interest for indigenous social work around the world--a reverse movement, in which instead of adapting developing countries to Western models, social workers, researchers, and teachers adapt to local cultures, at least until universities and other institutions in the developing countries are strong enough to manage capacity building on their own (for examples, see Gray, Coates, & Yellow Bird, 2008). This perspective may not be entirely new, but it is a more clearly expressed dimension requiring special skills of the social workers involved.

Payne and Askeland (2008) point out that rapid communication across the globe might give the impression that theories and ideas are universal and applicable to different societies. But people are formed in their own local context, and even the basis for social work might differ. To be open to new theories from other cultures, including critical reflection in education is important so that students may understand the construction of social work models, theories, and practice within a specific context, and thus be able to reflect on the possibilities of transformation in their own context (Payne and Askeland, 2008, p. 32; Trygged, 2010). Critical reflection, as discussed by Payne and Askeland, is a means of giving students the possibility to take part in developing a contextual social work, implying a development of knowledge from the bottom up. This perspective on education emphasizes raising the level of consciousness among the students and also developing the reflective practitioner. No distinct dividing line exists between globalization and internationalization, but this article focuses on internationalization given that, by our understanding, it most clearly refers to cross-border activities, whereas globalization is about reducing the impact of national borders.

How is internationalization manifested in the education of undergraduate social work students? That is what we investigated in this study. The overall aim of the study was to explore from a comparative perspective the students' perception of international aspects of social work and students' own responses to and engagement in these issues. We focused on five questions:

* Do students receive information and gain knowledge about international issues in their education?

* Do national students meet foreign ones? * Do students take courses or practice abroad?

* Do students receive preparation for working with refugees and immigrant groups?

* Does the department prepare students for international social work?

We sought to answer these questions through a questionnaire administered to Swedish and German students. The questionnaire and the proceedings are described below, and the questions asked are shown in Table 1. But we start with a brief introduction to social work education in Sweden and Germany today.

Sweden and Germany--Different Social Work Educational Systems

How does internationalization influence national education systems aimed mainly at preparing social workers for domestic social work? In the Swedish welfare state, social workers have largely been employed in the public sector, fulfilling services regulated by the state and the municipalities. Social workers therefore represent government authorities. The German welfare state, on the other hand, is based on a system of subsidiarity, in which social workers are largely hired by nongovernmental organizations, often with an ideological or political profile.

Sweden and Germany have different academic traditions, but both are members of the EU and have signed the Bologna Declaration. By adopting the Bologna Process in their educational systems, the structure of studies has become similar so that students can study part of a semester or whole semesters in a university abroad and the credits will be recognized in their national exam. The rules of final exams are different, however. In Stockholm students study seven semesters to attain the socionom degree as a professional social worker. One semester of master's-level studies is included in this degree. In Darmstadt the students receive a BA after six semesters. In both systems 2-year postgraduate studies result in an MA.

In Sweden, the first public institute for social work education opened in 1921. The rise of the welfare state in Sweden with an expanding public sector serving vulnerable social groups involved an interest on the part of the state in incorporating the education into the regular academic system. Therefore, in 1977, social work was established as an academic discipline with its own professors and PhD education. Social work education is presently growing rapidly and is offered by several universities.

In Germany, social work education has a longer tradition. Alice Salomon founded the first school of social work in Berlin in 1908 (Healy, 2008). The German educational system encompasses mainstream universities and universities for applied science, the latter vocationally oriented and offering social work training at the bachelor and master's levels. To continue with doctoral studies and research, students must enroll in a mainstream university (but because the educational system is decentralized, there may be some local differences). Also, different universities in Germany use different internationalization strategies (Teichler, 2007b).

Examining the formal curricula of the two universities makes elaborating on the international dimension in social work education difficult. Here we refer only to courses students had been taking in the first two years before completing the questionnaire. These covered a number of different topics, but only some courses seemed to include international perspectives.

In the Stockholm social work curriculum, the domestic legal system is related to international law. The social policy class offers an introduction to human rights, and the syllabus states that social policy in Sweden should be seen in an international comparative perspective. The social work program also includes courses on migration and integration and an introduction to Swedish and international drug and alcohol policy.

According to the Darmstadt curriculum, the students encounter from the very start both a national and an international perspective when studying the development of social work in its social, professional, and organizational aspects. An intercultural perspective is generally present in basic social science studies within the social work curriculum, and one course on social policy compares welfare and social security in Europe, with a focus on how the social policy system functions along with economic and other developments.


Given that we wanted a comparative perspective in this exploratory study, a questionnaire was distributed to undergraduate social work students (at baccalaureate programs) at Stockholm University and at Hochschule Darmstadt, an applied sciences university in Germany. Eligible were students newly returned from field practice (semesters 4 through 5). We tried to reach students taking mandatory courses to have as many responses as possible. The choice of schools was pragmatic: Stockholm University is our home base, and the university's department of social work has exchange activities with Hochschule Darmstadt.

In Stockholm (n=97) the questionnaires were distributed and completed during class. As far as we can see from participant lists, only a small number of students were absent on that day, so systematic missing cases are unlikely. Concerning the German students (n=43), we sent an electronic German-language version to a contact person and later received the completed forms by regular mail.

We have not been able to systematically scrutinize whether many missing cases or other biases are present, so we do not know whether the Darmstadt material is as reliable as the Swedish data. Even with the limitations imposed by the small scale of the study and possible bias among Darmstadt respondents, we decided to use the data despite its limitations to explore student perceptions of international aspects.

Using Healy's (2008) four dimensional categorization of international social work, we created a four-field table to summarize our descriptive analysis. These four categories are internationally related domestic practice and advocacy, professional exchange, international practice, and international policy development and advocacy. According to Healy, the first two dimensions involve all social workers directly, whereas the third and fourth dimensions involve only a small number of social workers directly.

We transformed these dimensions to social work education since we wanted to catch students' views and experiences. This operationalization of the influx of international aspects into social work education gave the possibility of eliciting information both on preparing for domestic social work with clients from different cultures and also on performing social work in international contexts (see Table 2).


Altogether 140 students answered the questionnaire-97 from Sweden and 43 from Germany. There were some similarities: The education in both countries is heavily dominated by women (around 80% among the respondents, somewhat more in Sweden and somewhat less in Germany, but the differences were not significant). Interested in the background and experience of the students, we asked them where they were born and if they had a parent or parents born in another country. Seventeen percent were born outside their country of residence. About one-third of the students have at least one parent born outside Sweden and Germany respectively. Some of the Swedish students have a background in other Nordic countries, but parents of other Swedish students with a foreign background came from 15 countries in different parts of the globe, including Africa and Latin America. The German students with a foreign background mostly had parents from Europe (several from Eastern Europe) or North Africa.

The responses show that a majority of students in both countries wanted to learn more about social work with immigrants or refugees in their own country. A majority also wanted to know more about social work in other countries than their own. Thirty-nine percent of Swedish students said they had read about social work in other countries, but almost none of the German students responded affirmatively to the same question.

A large majority among the Swedish students were prepared to do social work with immigrants or refugees (78%), whereas a minority (23%) gave the same replies in Darmstadt. Almost all the Swedish students (89%) wanted more preparation for work with immigrants and refugees; 53% of the German students expressed this view.

The number of exchange activities was modest. The only exception was that many German students seemed to have more contact with foreign guest students. Some had met exchange students privately, but most had met them in class. Many students in both countries (30% or more) seemed to be open to working in another country. Even though the question measures whether students are interested in doing social work abroad, not if they actually booked a ticket, a potential for more cross-border activities appears to exist.

Finally, we decided to find out whether a foreign or not-foreign background made any difference regarding students' perceptions of the international dimension. To inject more statistical power into this small study, we divided the students into two groups: one group with native Swedes and Germans (n=91) and one group with students in Sweden and Germany who were born abroad and/or who had at least one parent from another country (n=49). We found some differences.

To the question of whether they had read about social work in other countries, the vast majority in either category had not done so, but those who answered affirmatively were relatively more often native Swedes or Germans (p=<0.05). Students in general wanted more education about social work with immigrant and refugees, but students with a foreign background wanted more education about how to work with immigrants and refugees (p=<0.05) and also wanted more education about social work in other countries (p=<0.05). There were no differences in attitudes toward interest in and preparation for working abroad. We also included more specified questions as to whether students read special course literature about social work in other countries and if they had been prepared during their studies to work with people from other countries, but we found no significant differences. This finding seems logical as the students took the same classes in their social work programs, regardless of background.

Further Findings and Discussion

What do international aspects in social work education mean to undergraduate students? We started with a brief look at the students' background. Almost one-third had at least one foreign-born parent. This factor could be important, but we cannot say whether a foreign background makes a student more interested in international aspects of social work.

It perhaps may be even more important to pledge allegiance to the flag, that is, to show that they are integrated and to find a job. According to the somewhat contradictory differences in responses, students born in either Sweden or Germany had read more than foreign-born students about social work in other countries, but students with a foreign background wanted to read more about social work in other countries and about social work with migrants and refugees. Including such demographic data in further studies seems relevant, given that we found some significant differences in spite of the small number of responses. We divided the responses into the four dimensions, but our comparisons were only between Swedish and German students at group level, regardless of background.

Preparing for domestic social work. Do students receive preparation for work with ethnic groups, refugees, and minorities? The answer is yes, particularly in the case of Sweden. Sweden has many refugees and immigrants in proportion to its population size. This fact may be one explanation for increased knowledge of refugees. A recent example is from the war in Iraq, when for a period of time the town of S6dertalje, near Stockholm, received more refugees from Iraq than the entire United States (Jordan, 2008). Up to the end of 2010, the social services system had the responsibility of introducing refugees into the Swedish society. This local response to a global problem must have strongly affected social work on the local level and may in part explain why Stockholm survey respondents showed an interest in learning more about social work with immigrants and refugees--it is an entirely current issue for them. But Germany has also had many immigrants; since 1945, more than 20 million persons have migrated to Germany (Castles and Miller, 2008). However, the German students' responses may also have reflected the national discourse and how demographic situations are defined. For example, in previous years Germany received many German-speaking refugees from Eastern Europe (Poland, Romania, East Germany, and others), but these refugees were defined as returnees rather than refugees or immigrants. The German guest-worker system has also had an impact on the immigration discourse. Germany did not formulate an immigration policy, covering language courses in German and introduction to the German society, until 2004 (Castles & Miller, 2008).

Receiving foreign students. Do native students meet foreign ones? The answer is that some do, but not on a regular basis. Swedish students seem to meet fewer guest students than German students do. German students responded that they meet foreign students at lectures and seminars. However, we do not know the actual amount of contact because the question asked only whether native students had met exchange students; it would be enough for one student group to meet a single exchange student to result in high scores on the questionnaire.

Many practical difficulties are involved in attempting to increase the amount of exchanges, not least of which is the language barrier. Foreign students may have an easier time taking courses and seminars in Germany than in Sweden, depending on their language ability. Exchange students in Sweden, though, would in most cases need to know the Swedish language because few undergraduate courses in social work are taught in English. Even when courses are held in English, few Swedish students may attend, thus limiting exchanges between Swedish and foreign students.

Preparing students for courses or practice abroad. Only a few students take courses or engage in practice work abroad. The number of student exchanges has not seemed to increase in response to globalization (and internationalization). A small number want to practice abroad to obtain additional merits or to gain different experiences or simply because this is what they really want to do, but we figured that they were more likely to reject international exchanges for instrumental reasons, a kind of structural obstacle. During field practice they may simply want to make contact with a potential future employer.

Preparing Students for International Work Within a Truly international Framework

The survey concluded by asking whether students had gained any theoretical knowledge or knowledge about practical social work methods for working in an international organization. According to the undergraduates, limited information about international social work or international organizations was integrated into their lessons or the literature. Here, the differences in responses from the Swedish and the German students were small. In response to the question of whether they could consider working for an international organization after graduation, responses were somewhat higher. But we should keep in mind that not many undergraduate students would have had the opportunity to do field practice in an international organization. For further studies another source of data might be to ask students formally to not just answer the questions but to interpret and help analyze the findings--such an activity could be extremely helpful for the analysis and its implications.

Bearing in mind the Bologna Process and its vision of European integration, the responses pointed at a weaker interest in international social work than we expected. We found the differences between our two groups of students in the domestic sphere (Table 2). The Swedish students seem more prepared and interested in learning international aspects of social work education. This finding resembles Healy's concept of internationally related domestic practice and advocacy. The domestic sphere is influenced by foreign theory, global challenges, and everyday struggle. There is ongoing change, yet perhaps some undergraduate students lack consciousness of the international affect on domestic social work, reflecting at the same time the educational system's inability to visualize these relationships. Payne and Askeland (2008) point to a need for understanding how social theory is constructed and adapted in specific contexts from theories developed in another country to make social workers conscious and able to develop theories and practice on their own.

Attracting foreign students (and foreign teachers) could assist in making comparisons and facilitate an understanding of one's own (domestic) social work. This is important for all students. As a result of the Bologna Process, some significant formal changes in educational structures, such as grading, have taken place in recent years in the countries studied. But the internationally oriented content of the curriculum seems not to have changed as much. The Bologna Process emphasizes that internationalization and mobility are the means of creating an area for European higher education. The vision formulated by the European ministers responsible for higher education is that 20% of the students who graduate in 2020 will have under gone a study or training period abroad (The Bologna Process 2010, 2009). This strategy presents a challenge to the social work educational programs in our study. Although not intended, the Bologna Process may indirectly affect such contacts as teacher and student exchanges with countries outside Europe. The incitement for European exchanges is reinforced. For example, students going to another European country are entitled to extra grants (through the ERASMUS program) to cover costs. Germany has attracted more students from abroad since its universities started offering more social science courses in English-language. As the educational systems develop a more similar structure, participating in exchanges will be easier, but administratively and practically it may be more onerous for a social work department to organize and administrate too many contacts.

Nagy and Falk (2000) stated that social work education has not responded to global changes and new needs, neither international nor domestic. Those words need to be repeated. The authors point to a need to restructure social work education to work more with comparative perspectives and to reflect on differences and similarities. We would like to add three suggestions based not only on this study but also on our broader understanding of the study literature and of social work education:

* Increase awareness in social work education of the international influence on domestic social work--both regarding theory and practice. Also including more comparative perspectives might be helpful, given that the students in the study did not seem to read much about social work in other countries.

* Make sure that students learn more about international organizations and international conventions affecting social work, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Such knowledge is relevant to the social work carried out both at home and abroad.

* Upgrade international experiences, in this case according to the Bologna Process, including informing employers about the usefulness of international exchanges and thus reducing structural barriers that could prevent students from going abroad.


Our study has limitations. This is a snapshot of student responses on just one occasion in Stockholm and Darmstadt, and the students' views may change over time. Also, because the students are still undergoing their education, more international perspectives may be taught in future semesters. The response rate on this occasion was high among the Swedish students. We tried to ensure good coverage in responses also from the German students, but we do not know for sure that our goal was fulfilled. We may also be biased as we have better knowledge about the Swedish educational system than about the German one. Keeping in mind that we only measured at two educational institutions, we can only draw tentative conclusions at best.


The changes taking place within the nation states within Europe seem to influence social work development and education more than international agreements, such as the Bologna Process. The amount of exchange activities are still far from the European goals. Students' responses to international aspects of social work were interpreted along four dimensions.

In this limited study the most compelling dimension was the international aspects of domestic social work, in which students indicated learning about and wanting more education about social work with immigrants and refugees.


The Bologna Process 2010--The European Higher Education Area in the new decade. (2009, April). Communique of the conference of European ministers responsible for higher education, Leuven and Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. Retrieved from Leuven_Louvain-la-Neuve_Communiqu%C3%A9_April_2009.pdf

Castles, S., & Miller, M. J. (2008). The migratory process: A comparison of Australia and Germany (Case Study 11.1). Retrieved from

Cousins, M. (2005). European welfare states: Comparative perspectives. London, UK: SAGE.

Dominelli, L., & Thomas Bernard, W. (2003). Broadening horizons: International exchanges in social work. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Engelberg, E., Limbach-Reich, A., Maus, F., & Mayrhofer, H. (2012). The sum should be greater than its parts: Why comparable social work curricula under the Bologna System? International Social Work. Advance online publication, doi:10.1177/0020872812441643

Enders, J. (2004). Higher education, internationalisation, and the nation-state: Recent developments and challenges to governance theory. Higher Education, 47, 361-382.

Gray, M., Coates, J., & Yellow Bird, M. (Eds.). (2008). Indigenous social work around the world: Towards culturally relevant education and practice. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Healy, L. M. (2008). International social work: Professional action in an interdependent world. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Jordan, M. (2008, April 10). Iraqi refugees find Sweden's doors closing. The Washington Post. Retrieved from article/2008/04/09/AR2008040904319.html

Lorenz, W. (1994). Social work in a changing Europe. London, UK: Routledge.

Nagy, G., & Falk, D. S. (2000). Dilemmas in international and cross-cultural social work education. International Social Work, 43, 49-60.

The Official Bologna Process--European Higher Education Area website (2012). Retrieved from

Payne M., & Askeland, G. A. (2008). Globalization and international social work. Postmodern change and challenge. Hampshire, UK: Ashgate.

Socialstyrelsen [The Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare]. (2010). Interkulturellt Socialt Arbete [Intercultural social work]. Retrieved from

Teichler, U. (2004). The changing debate on internationalisation of higher education. Higher Education, 48, 5-26.

Teichler, U. (2007a). Internationalisation of higher education: European experiences. Retrieved from

Teichler, U. (2007b). Internationalisation strategies of German universities. In Center for Higher Education Policy Studies, University of Twente, Toward a cartography of higher education policy change: A Festschrift in honour of Guy Neave (pp. 227-232). Retrieved from

Trygged, S. (2007). Internationellt socialt arbete--i teori och praktik [international social work--in theory and practice]. Lund, Sweden: Studentlitteratur.

Trygged, S. (2010). Balancing the global and the local: Some normative reflections on international social work. International Social Work, 53, 644-655.

Sven Trygged

Stockholm University

Bodil Eriksson

Stockholm University

Accepted: 07/12

Sven Trygged is senior lecturer and Bodil Eriksson is senior lecturer at Stockholm University.

Address correspondence to Sven Trygged, Department of Social Work, Stockholm University, SE-106 91 Stockholm, Sweden; e-mail:
TABLE 1. Percentage of Students' Responses
on the Questionnaire

                       Stockholm   Darmstadt      for
                        (n=97)      (n=43)     difference

Student born outside     15.5        20.9          ns

At least one parent      33.0        30.2          ns
born outside

1. Has read about        39.2         2.3
social work in other

1. Is prepared to        78.4        23.3
work with clients
from other countries

1. Wants more
education about          88.7        53.5
working with
immigrants/ refugees

2. Wants more
education about          75.3        67.4          ns
social work in other

2. Has met guest
students from other      11.3        51.2
countries at own

3. Has done some
part of studies           9.3         4.7          ns
work) abroad

3. Has participated
in student exchanges
(conferences/ field       3.1         4.7          ns
visits through the
student body or any
other organization)

3. Has gained
theoretical              13.4        16.3          ns
knowledge and/or
knowledge about
practical social
work methods in
other countries

4. Has gained
knowledge and/or         14.4        18.6          ns
knowledge about
practical social
work methods in an
organization (such
as the UN)

3-4. Plans to do         29.9        37.2          ns
social work in any
other European

3-4. Plans to do
social work in any       29.9        48.8          ns
country outside of

3-4. Has looked at
opportunities to do      17.5        30.2          ns
social work abroad
or in an

Note. Numbers 1 through 4 are operationalizations
of the four perspectives presented; ns = not significant.

* p < .001.

TABLE 2. National and International Influences on Education
Preparing Students for Domestic and International Social Work

                National            International

National        Preparation for     Preparation for courses
                domestic social     and/or practice abroad (c)
                work (a)

International   Receiving foreign   Preparing students for
                students (in the    international work within
                national context)   a truly international
                (b)                 (nonnational) framework (d)

(a) Preparation for domestic social work relates to knowledge about
needs in the national arena, including how to interact with clients
from the native population, with immigrants, and with minorities.

(b) Receiving foreign students concerns students from one country
coming as guest students to visit an educational institution in
another country and involves giving both native students and
visiting students opportunities to exchange and compare social work
experiences and to gain a deeper understanding of their own social
work experience. Students should also meet foreign guest lecturers
as part of their education.

(c) Preparation for courses and/or practice abroad concerns
students who travel to another country. This is both about how
students are prepared for studies and field practice in another
country and how the department enhances the curricula by
incorporating some of the lessons that students have learned
through their experiences abroad.

(d) Preparing students for international work within a truly
international (nonnational) framework relates to preparing students
to work outside the national framework. Knowledge of international
conventions, the UN system, and other international organizations
is important. This preparation could also include awareness of
one's own culture (see note a).
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Author:Trygged, Sven; Eriksson, Bodil
Publication:Journal of Social Work Education
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:4EUSW
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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