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Social Work Education in Sri Lanka

Amarawansa Ranaweera


Sri Lanka School of Social Work


1. Introduction

The aim of this article is to discuss briefly the value of Social Work education and the related issues in providing this education in Sri Lanka. The social work education started in Sri Lanka in 1952. Though it has a long history the growth of social work education has been very slow and it is not expanded to all over the country yet. The Sri Lanka School of Social Work at the National Institute of Social Development, which is functioning under the purview of the Ministry of Social Services, is the only institution that provides professional social work education in the country. The social work education is conducted at the tertiary level.

2. Tertiary Education in Sri Lanka

The tertiary education in Sri Lanka was commenced with the establishment of the University of Ceylon in 1942. Today there are four categories of institutions provide tertiary level education in the country. They are the State Universities, Private educational institutes in collaboration with the foreign universities, Professional organizations and the Government and Private educational institutes. The government shares more than 80% responsibility in providing tertiary education. At present there are 19 universities in the country and out of them 15 universities are functioning under the University Grants commission (UGC), which. Four Universities are functioning under three other Ministries. Apart from those universities there is the Open University which provides distance education leads to tertiary level and there are twelve degree awarding institutes, out of them eight are providing post graduate degree programmes.

3. Admissions to the Universities

The students who sit for General Certificate in Education (Advanced Level) have to obtain minimum passes in all three subjects they offered for the examination to be qualified to enter the university. Nearly 210,000 students sit this examination annually, out of which nearly 90,000 students qualify to enter the Sri Lankan university system. But the system as it exits with 15 universities can absorb only 17,000 to 18,000 students – the maximum being 20,000. (Warnapala, 2009:7) This numbers have been increased today. More than 100,000 students qualify to enter the university but only about 22,000 students get the opportunity. Many students who are not granted admission are forced to find other means of higher education. Children of affluent families go abroad to pursue their studies in foreign universities, others enroll themselves at the Open University of Sri Lanka or at the few state-owned degree awarding institutes or study as external students of traditional universities or at private institutes that conduct classes and exams on behalf of foreign universities. Some study for membership for professional bodies both foreign and local or do vocational studies at vocational technical colleges which specialize in mechanical and electronic subjects. But the majority gives up any hope for higher education due to inability to fund their studies or due to some other reasons. These young people are an asset for the country. They should be trained to shoulder the socioeconomic development of the country.

4. Professional Education

Most of the degrees offered by the Sri Lankan Universities are academic in nature. This is more applicable with the degrees offered by the Faculties of Humanities and Social Sciences. The academic degrees are more knowledge oriented and not focused on developing skills and values to practice in a special area of practice. The professional education programmes are provided by few faculties in Sri Lanka. Some of them are the faculties of Medicine, Engineering, Law and Education. Some of the students in academic degrees follow professional courses conducted by other institutes after their graduation in seeking employment. The Medical College is a part of the university system but the Law College is not a part of the university system. The LLB is an academic degree and the graduates have to follow a three months practical course at the Law College for them to be qualified as Lawyers. The Charted Accountants, Charted Engineers and Architects are some of the professional institutes which offer professional education courses in their respective fields. Social Work education is coming under the category of professional education. The students train to work at different levels in order to empower and help people to find out their own solutions to the problems faced by them. The students are provided with necessary knowledge, skills and attitudes to work with individuals, families, groups, communities, welfare organizations and at social policy development. 

5. Social Work Education in Sri Lanka

It was already mentioned that professional education for Social Work started in Sri Lanka in 1952. The Sri Lanka School of Social Work at the National Institute of Social Development (NISD), which is functioning under the purview of the Ministry of Social Services, is the only institution that provides Social Work professional education in this country up to now. This means social work education has been providing by the Sri Lanka School of Social Work for nearly 60 years by now. After about 50 years it was recognized as a degree awarding institute. None of the Universities paid any attention to the field of social work until the Tsunami disaster happened in Sri Lanka in 2004. Most of the people do not understand the difference between Social Work and Sociology. Four universities have introduced some course units in Social Work in Sociology special degree courses. They are just introductory courses in Social Work. Social Work is a separate discipline, a field of study and a profession. It has its own internationally designated titles for degrees as Bachelor of Social Work and Master of Social Work. They are the basic qualifications to be registered as Professional Social Workers in most of the countries. The NISD conducts three levels of professional courses in Social Work. They are the Diploma in Social Work, Bachelors degree in Social Work and the Masters degree in Social Work. The Diploma in Social Work commenced in 1978 as a full-time two year programme is conducted in local languages; Sinhala and Tamil. After the NISD was declared as a degree awarding institute by the UGC in 2005 it was empowered to conduct and afford Bachelor of Social Work degree. The BSW course was started in 2005 and the Masters in Social Work programme commenced in 2008.

The common features of the curricular of the three educational courses are that they consist of both theoretical learning at the classroom and the practical learning at the field. The theoretical knowledge provided in two major areas as understanding human behaviour and social work methods on working with individuals, families, groups, communities and organizations. The field work is organized by the Field work coordinator of the School of Social Work. There is a cadre of local supervisors trained by the school to supervise students. The students are placed in social welfare agencies to practice case management and group work and for community work. Some students are directly sent to the communities by the school and some are through NGOs who are having community work programmes.

6. Role of Social Workers in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has experienced rapid socioeconomic changes during the past. The prolonged civil war was over and the country is reawakening. The society will have more changes in the future with having more emphasis in economic development. It is inevitable that people have to adapt to these changes and those who cannot adapt to the situations will have to face with problems. There could be multiple reasons for the development of the problems. It is the role of the social scientists to study these situations, analyze and interpret the situations but the role of the social worker is to intervene at the situations of human interactions to find out solutions for the problems faced by the people for their well-being. Problems could be located with individuals, families, groups and communities. They could be related with lack of availability of service delivery systems or due to absence of social policies. Sri Lanka needs thousands and thousands of social workers to work in variety of field settings. They are required to work in institutions as well as in the communities. They have to engage in curative, preventive and developmental social work. Some of the institutions which need social workers are mental hospitals, schools, prisons, camps for displaced people and resettlement villages. Some of the categories of populations which need social work interventions are disable people, children, victims of the crimes, single women headed families, workers in the industries and people living under poverty.  

At present there are about 1500 social workers trained by the Sri Lanka School of Social Work. However there is no system of registration and issuing licenses for social workers in the country to identify them as professional social workers. The Sri Lanka Association of Professional Social Workers has proposed to bring legislation through a Parliamentary bill to establish a Regulatory Body for Professional Social Workers in Sri Lanka.  It is the duty of all to join hands with the association to bring it to a reality.


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