New study to probe challenges faced by overseas social workers in the UK

King's College to investigate if there is a "lasting sense of unease" amongst social workers recruited from overseas

Pic credit: Anthony Fella on Flickr

By Dr Allen Bartley

Working overseas can be a tempting prospect for many and social work is a profession in demand in many parts of the world. Places like Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as many developing countries, are all experiencing shortages of social workers that precipitate the recruitment of overseas-qualified professionals.

The UK has in turn aggressively recruited and marketed to migrants the benefits of living and practising in the UK in an effort to fill gaps in its social care system.

Between 2003 and 2004 there was an 82 percent increase in the number of overseas qualified social workers entering the country, with the greatest numbers coming from Australia, South Africa and the USA. Recent changes to UK immigration policies have seen a shift towards recruitment from across the European Economic Area.

Lyons and Hanna (2011) report that ‘international social workers’ (i.e. those who gained their professional qualification in one country but practice in another) comprise 8% of the English social work workforce – and that figure is much higher in London.

Similarly, nearly 10% of all registered social workers in New Zealand gained their qualifications elsewhere.

This globalised market is premised on an assertion that social work adheres to a central set of values and ethics that transcends national boundaries. Similarly, higher educational programmes in social work in a number of countries now stress ‘universal social work professional values’ such as self-determination, confidentiality, being non-judgmental, acceptance and the respect for diversity.

But, however universal they may be, social work values and ethical codes are always interpreted through the lens of national or regionally-specific historical, social, political and cultural norms.

These norms are manifest in a range of challenges that confront “transnational” social workers: in employment practices and workplace cultures; negotiating new sets of legislative imperatives and political tensions; gaining recognition of the validity and transportability of their overseas educational qualifications, skills and practice expertise; and in navigating the particular forms of ethnic and cultural diversity and attendant politics that manifest in local sites and impact on social work practice.

Thus, professionals who choose to pursue opportunities to practise in other countries not only cross national borders, but may enter unfamiliar professional territory as well. This seems to extend to more than the initial transitory period where migrant social workers should expect (and reasonably be expected) to adapt personally and professionally in a new country.

A recent New Zealand study found that this unfamiliar professional territory created in some transnational social workers a profound, lasting sense of unease linked to the disjuncture between the practice environment on the one hand, and their perceptions of the status of the profession and their own professional identity.

Researchers from King’s College, London, and the University of Auckland (New Zealand) are currently investigating the transnational dynamics of the social work profession in the UK.

They have devised two related studies: an online survey of social workers living in UK who gained their professional qualifications from outside the UK; and a qualitative study of social work employers and managers in London about their experiences of supervising non-UK-qualified social workers practicing in the local context.

Interviews for the managers’ study are being conducted now, and will continue through the end of July (Skype interviews may continue through August). Researchers would like to interview anyone who is:

  • -a registered social worker who has supervised or managed a social work team; and
  • -have worked closely for at least 3 months with a non-UK-qualified social worker; and
  • -willing to talk about your experiences and reflections.

Please contact Dr Shereen Hussein at King’s College to arrange an interview: 020 7848 1669;

We invite participation from professionals in both statutory and NGO organisations of varying sizes (from very small to very large), and across a range of fields of practice. This study is part of a larger comparative study involving professionals in New Zealand and Australia.

More information, including access to the Participant Information Sheet, is available on the King’s College webpage:

Dr Allen Bartley is a New Zealand-trained sociologist who migrated to New Zealand from the United States in 1992. Based at the University of Auckland, he is part of a research team investigating the transnational dynamics of the social work workforce in New Zealand. Additionally Allen is involved in a project exploring the use of social media by migrants in Auckland, and the impact on their sense of identity and belonging.

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.