Social work as an academic discipline has – at least compared to other disciplines – a relatively short history in Germany (Kuhlmann 2013). After their early history as colleges without university status, schools of social work underwent a process of professional development by being changed into universities of applied sciences in the 1960s and were thus incorporated into the tertiary educational system. Virtually all social work courses in Germany have by now undergone the Bologna process and have thus been changed from diploma to bachelor’s/master’s courses. The curricula of social work programs in Germany vary in a number of ways. However, there are a large number of similarities between universities and constant discussion in the Fachbereichstag Soziale Arbeit (Social Work Faculty Council), the German national assembly of deans of social work faculties/departments involved in teaching social work. The Social Work Faculty Council brings together professional, organizational and educational policy-related activities from around 80 locations including universities of applied sciences, former comprehensive universities/polytechnics which now have the status of universities (e.g. Kassel) and the church-funded and managed universities (see http://www.fbts.de/).
The “Qualification Framework for Social Work” (QFSW, Qualifikationsrahmen Soziale Arbeit) edited by the Social Work Faculty Council defines the qualifications that social work education in Germany is supposed to teach at bachelor, master and PhD levels. The qualifications to be obtained during studies are divided into six different areas (see Table 1). As can be seen, there is a strong emphasis on academic content (which is quite typical for German social work, according to Kruse (2004) and Hamburger (2015)) and there are no points specifically related to contact with service users.
These areas are further specified using operational criteria for BA, MA and PhD levels. A consideration of SUI approaches against the elements of the qualification frame reveals that SUI is potentially relevant for all areas mentioned in the qualification framework (see above – Introduction): e.g. service users could be involved in the planning and conception of social work (QFSW area C), in the organisation, performance and evaluation of social work (QFSW area E) as well as in research (QFSW area D).
Table 1: Areas of qualification according to the Qualification Framework for Social Work
A. Knowledge and Understanding/Comprehension
B. Description, Analysis and Evaluation
C. Planning and Conception of Social Work
D. Search and Research in Social Work
E. Organisation, Performance and Evaluation in Social Work
F. Professional General Abilities and Attitudes in Social Work
G Personal Characteristics and Attitudes
Source: Bartosch et al., 2008 (emphasis: the authors), http://www.fbts.de/fileadmin/fbts/Dokumente/QRSArb_englisch_5.1.pdf . Cited: 2016-01-11.
However, as SUI approaches are new to Germany, service user involvement in the teaching of competencies in these areas is virtually non-existent (but poses interesting perspectives for the future). Of course, this does not mean that service users have not had any involvement in social work education in Germany until now; on the contrary, there are numerous examples of service users being invited to discuss their personal history and their experiences with the helping system. Rather, the innovative point is that a coherent conceptual framework is emerging in which service users find their place in social work education and SUI is considered a quality characteristic of training across an international framework.
For the implementation of SUI approaches into individual BA-level courses, the QFSW areas F and G (“Professional general abilities and attitudes in social work” and “Personal characteristics and attitudes”) are of special interest: at the BA level, the qualification framework requires a “strong ability to communicate and interact with all professional and non-professional actors in the field as well as in their context in society” (F-BA-2“). F-BA-4 states as one of the aims of social work education “the ability to recognize and to weigh the interests of clients, client groups or systems”. We expect that SUI seminars, while no doubt conveying information on the areas A to E, can be especially relevant for the contents of areas F and G. While the basics of most of these areas can be learned in an academic setting, practice and application of this knowledge are very important. This need for “hands-on” experience is usually taken care of by including experiential teaching elements such as visiting different professional areas of social work and having students complete an internship semester (30 ECTS) in one of these settings. In spite of this widely acknowledged need for practical experience, there has been heated debate about the role practice should play in social work education (Kruse 2004: p. 118) with strong arguments in favor of a more theoretical approach which would, in turn, strengthen the academic character of social work. In this climate, involving service users or organizations of service users such as self-help groups in social work education is not a priority. Nevertheless, in the German health and social care systems, self-help groups are well established: it is estimated that there are more than 280 administrative centers under professional leadership with the sole aim of supporting self-help groups. Each of these administrative centers serves on average 180 individual self-help groups. (http://www.nakos.de/data/Fachpublikationen/2015/DAGSHG-Jahrbuch-15-Nickel-ua.pdf). However, most of these self-help groups do not have a strong political emphasis in their work but are rather intended to help people cope with their respective conditions or problems.
Including service user involvement elements in the curriculum of a German faculty of social work needs careful planning (indeed, we are aware of a review paper that describes the “participatory turn” in British social work (Leers/Rieger, 2013)- in the German language but, to our knowledge, no service papers describing SUI projects in Germany have been published yet): all bachelor’s and master’s programs in Germany are accredited on a regular basis by accreditation agencies and each department has to make sure that they follow the procedures formulated in the “Module Handbook” which specifies contexts, workload and other aspects of each module taught in the course of social work training. Implementing a service user involvement seminar can thus follow two different routes: 1. setting up a new module that is specifically designed as an SUI seminar (which makes a change to the module handbook necessary) or 2. implementing the SUI seminar within an existing module in the curriculum. As route 1 typically takes a long time to implement, we chose route 2 by organizing the module “student project” as an SUI seminar at our department of social work. To illustrate this process, we will briefly introduce our department and the structure of the curriculum of the BA course in social work. We will then describe how we implemented an SUI seminar within this seminar.