Service user involvement in social work education

There are weak traditions for involving users in the social work and social education courses. Traditionally people with user experiences are used in single lectures; otherwise the students mainly meet them as clients in their practice placements.

Since 2009 the course “Empowerment: meeting face to face creates new insights” (5 ECTS-points) has been organized at Lillehammer University College as a joint course for bachelor students in social work and social education together with students with experiences as users of welfare services. About 100 internal and 60 external students have since taken part in the course.

The title of the course, declares its goal: to create new insights for both groups. The intention is to give the participants new knowledge about the possible implications of marginalization and powerlessness and how they could be challenged when user knowledge and professional competence are regarded as equally valid approaches to these problems. More specifically the goals are to give the students insight into:

  • How power and powerlessness are created in the relationship between service users and professionals
  • What empowerment can involve at different levels (individual/systemic level)
  • How user competence and professional competence can complement each other
  • How empowerment can be realized in practice

Most of the external students have experiences connected to mental-health problems and are recruited through their user organization or a user-led regional center. Another main group has user experiences relating to drug abuse. Additionally some students have user experiences caused by physical impairments, sensory impairments or more mixed problems. At the end of the course the students in mixed groups elaborate an idea for a project promoting empowerment and present and discuss their ideas in a plenary session.

The evaluations from the students show that both internal and external students have come to new understandings about each other and about the use of theoretical concepts in practice. At the same time the relationship challenges established attitudes and roles. The course make both parties reflect upon their roles and attitudes. The “us-and-them” distinction between the parties dwindles.

Another important project in Norway is the so-called HUSK-project. In the years 2006-2011 the Norwegian Directorate of Health and Social Affairs provided funds to establish a university research program for selected municipal social service offices (The Norwegian abbreviation is HUSK). The main goal of the project was to improve the services for the users by strengthening the quality of the services. A main strategy was to promote structures and arenas for binding cooperation on an equal footing between municipal social service providers, social service users, social researchers and social/welfare educators. The Directorate provided funds for four regional HUSK projects. Participants were universities and university colleges in the regions, the social service in 20 municipalities in eight counties and service users. A couple of persons with user experience were employed in HUSK, in other projects persons with user experiences were engaged as members of the user organizations. A couple of books and reports have been published from the project.

In May 2012 a Norwegian Network to promote user involvement in Social work education was established as a national branch of PowerUs. Participants at the network meeting were representatives for many of the universities and university colleges educating social workers and representatives for the user organizations. A working committee for the network was elected and a web page for the network is established where information from different projects will be collected: http://www.powerus.se/countries/norway.

By Ole Petter Askheim, Lillehammer University College


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