Social Work Education in Northeast India: Some reflections

Dr Joseph Riamei *

MOSAIC - a festtival of N-E Students at TISS - was celebrated on January 31st, 2010 where diverse culture of north- east region is showcasted.
MOSAIC - a festtival of N-E Students at TISS - on January 31st, 2010 where diverse culture of north- east region is showcasted :: Pix - Samson Kamei

Social Work Education in Northeast

The journey of Social Work profession in India began with the first school of social work namely the Sir Dorabji Tata Graduate School of Social Work (now known as the Tata Institute of Social Sciences) established in Mumbai in 1936. Seventy five years of Social Work education journey is marked with experimentation, expansion, stagnation and sudden explosion of social work institution. There are about 350 schools in India as per the sources gathered from experts of social work from across the country. Professional social workers in India are engaged in development and welfare activities, from micro to macro levels, by governmental, voluntary, corporate and international organisations, and also through people oriented community based social movements and action groups.

Social work profession works towards empowerment of marginalised and vulnerable groups, actualising their rights by democratisation of social systems. The profession is guided by secular professional values of human dignity, human rights and social justice that promote self worth, people's participation and self determination, democratic pluralism, local self governance, and peaceful collaborative social relationships. In the current times there have been lots of debates and deliberation on the approach of professional social work.

India's Northeast region is popularly celebrated for its cultural diversity and also well know for numerous of problem ranging from conflict, governance issue to insurgencies. Education system in Northeast has not gone beyond the border of traditional social sciences for many decades. Like the sudden explosion of Social Work education in other region of India in 1960s and 70s, for the past decade especially during 2005-2010 there has been sudden blooming of Social Work profession offered by Government and Private Institution in Northeast. Needless to say Social Work education was neither recognised as profession nor a professional practice like other professional course by the people in the region. Though there has been escalating numbers of Institution offering social work education there is considerable challenges and tasks ahead.

Social Work education can play a vital role in many different ways and can act as a changing agent in numbers of field from Health, Education, Livelihood, Peace Building and so on. There is also a great potential to do research and documentation which can result in unlocking the issues which are pertinent in the changing realities. Unlike the other social sciences, a trained social work professional has a great potential to engage in different level and change the realities especial of the poor, marginalised and down trodden people.

Social Work profession traces its central tenets of helping vulnerable and oppresses groups in society to the efforts of many historic figures. This profession especially in the context on Northeast region is still in its cradle stage and care must be taken in its curriculum, approaches and methodology so as to become a catalyst profession that is the need of the hour in the region.

Social work education in the region was introduced by Assam University in 1997 and Mizoram University was the second university that started offering Social Work education in the year 2008. These two universities were the only university till late 90s and early 2000 that offer social work education in the region. Lokopriya Gopinath Bordoloi Regional Institute of Mental Health (LGBRIMH) is another regional institute that offers Mphil in Psychiatric Social Work in the region for quite a long time now.

The recognition of Social Work as a profession was not well known in the region for many decades like in the other regions of the country. Interestingly by 2005-2012 there has been unexpected blooming of social work education offer by Government and Private Institution. Currently there are twenty four Institutions/Universities that offer social work education and 17 of these institutions started by 2006 onwards.

For many years students from Northeast studied Social Work in Institutions outside the region and many ended up working outside the region. Nevertheless, it must be noted that since the past two-three years the trend towards recognising social work education as an professional and career option is picking up pace with many institutions offering social work programmes.

These initiatives received a further fillip with the entry of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Guwahati, Assam. Currently there are many students who have started opting for Social Work programmes as compared to other traditional social science disciplines such as Sociology, Political Sciences, etc. Another important factor relates to employability which makes social work programmes attractive as many of the Social Work graduates are absorbed in jobs whether in Governmental or Non-Governmental organisation. In comparison to disciplines of the Social Sciences, the possibility of being employed after a Postgraduate degree in Social Work is quite high.

This employability factor seems to have contributed greatly towards mainstreaming of social work education in the region. For instance institution like TISS have campus placement where many NGOs from across the country and Governmental organisation come for recruiting students. Another aspect is that most of the graduate social work students are absorbed in regional based NGOs. These factors have contributed in attracting the students to opt for social work profession and also in streamlining the profession in the region.

However even though there has been a drastic increase in institutions offering social work programmes, these institutions are mostly confined to the State of Assam, which currently has eleven institutions out of twenty four in the whole of Northeast. Meghalaya has four institutions and other states like Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram have two each while Arunachal Pradesh has one institution. It is interesting to note that other states like Tripura and Sikkim do not have institutions that offer Social Work programmes so far.

A fact that must be taken into consideration is that most of the Institutions offering Social Work programmes are private or affiliated to University and in some case institutions where only Sciences and Management programme are offered, Social Work education is also offered as part of their programme. On this count certain questions arises related to the intersection of Social Work Education and the Science / Management stream. Is it because Social Work education has become marketable? Or is it that social work education is seen as an outreach for trainees in other streams?


At the Northeast zone consultation on Social Work education held in March 2012, it was discovered that there were many issues and challenges faced by different Institutions/Universities from different states. Nevertheless it was learned that increasing number of students are opting for social work course as compared to four or five years back. There has been increasing numbers of Institutions offering social work course both in graduate and postgraduate level.

It was noted during the consultation that each department, college or institution vary in terms of methodology in relation to students' selection process, students' intake, curriculum, pedagogy, field work structure, faculty-student ratio, assessment and placement. Social work education has developed its own unique standards in different states of the region.

Each state has its own unique contextual challenges and opportunities in regards to social work education. There are numerous issues and challenges in the context of social work in northeast region and as the profession is still in its nascent stage, there is need to re-look and re-learnt from the other institutions that have grown through many phases and might probably have pass such.

The word 'social work' is not new to the region. Politicians, local leader, community leader or someone who works for the people are known as Social Workers or so they claim to be. Interestingly, the layman's perception is located at such a level accepting the terminology to apply to everyone who is socially engaged. In this context, Social Work as a profession is yet to receive an acceptance and thus remains vague and unknown to most people of the region. In the report of National Network of Schools of Social work for Quality Enhancement of Social Work Education in India, the report positions Social Work as a Profession in northeast as suffering from being fully developed pertaining to a lack of awareness and understanding of the social work profession by other professionals.

Social workers are generally considered 'sidekicks of politicians'. Societal recognition of social work as a profession in the region is minimal as people think that social work is synonymous with cleaning roads, drains and markets or running projects etc. There is lack of regulatory body as well as an active professional and educator's forum. Therefore an accepted criterion / framework for setting the standards of social work education in the region remain vague and nonexistent. Though the number of Social Work programmes is increasing, there is a need to streamline Professional Methods, Values, and Ethics that helps the profession qualify as one.

Mass awareness both at the micro and macro level, career guidance, orientation and also involvement of the Government agencies is a strategy that can be adopted by each of the educational institutions both at the state and regional level. As compared to other region of India, Social work still needs to be defined in the process of the contextual reality of the region. Currently there are many 'dropout' and 'blind out' students who enrolled in social work courses just because it is a new profession in the region with promises of job opportunities after graduation.


As noted by Saldanha (2008) Professional social workers in training offer a significant ray of hope in the face of darkness. If they are to be an important agency contributing to major social transformation, it is relevant that they be exposed to the basic causes of the darkness through a relatively comprehensive theory that has ideological and practice implications. Northeast today is faced with many challenges from rapid development, ethnic conflict, state and non-state conflict, unemployment, insurgencies and problem of governance.

While showing rapid growth, it is also necessary to seriously reflect and introspect its role in producing agents of change. Given the complexity of the region and the sudden increase of Social Work Institutions in the region, the direction for social work education and its educators should be to deepen itself to its context and build a new liberator practice paradigm that will nurture students to respond to the social, political and economic realities brought about by complex and dynamic regional realities.

* Dr Joseph Riamei wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at josephtiss(aT)gmail(doT)com
This article was posted on July 27, 2015.

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