Frances Lewin: Funding for interpreting support in higher education isn’t working for Deaf students, interpreters and agencies

Posted on June 2, 2017

Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency 2015/16 show 1,105 students undertaking a first degree (full-time and part-time) who identified as ‘deaf’ or with a ‘serious hearing impairment’.

Deaf students studying in HE requiring additional support can access funds via Disabled Students Allowances (DSA). Interpreting support for deaf students in HE falls under the heading ‘Non-Medical Helper’ (NMH) including also specialist note-taking (manual or electronic) and English support.

Since April 2016, those providing NMH support for new students have had to be registered with Disabled Students Allowances Quality Assurance Group (DSA-QAG) and meet the Quality Assurance Framework (QAF) which outlines the mandatory qualifications and roles for NMH. The positive (and there is only one!) is the framework states that interpreters must be either fully qualified or regulated as TSLIs, thus avoiding the use of level three ‘signers’. The fundamental problems concern the quality of the service and lack of choice for Deaf students.

Prior to the changes, Deaf students or universities could select interpreters to provide the support, thus giving deaf students some element of choice to use their preferred interpreters.

Now, agencies register with DSA-QAG, stipulating their fees. A DSA needs assessor must then find two price quotes from the DSA-QAG database, and the cheapest provider will be chosen to support that student.

The agency becomes the sole provider and problems arise when they are unable to provide interpreters with the specific attributes or enough interpreters to meet the demands of the student’s timetable.

The DSA-QAG registration process, with the need to meet their terms and conditions and regulations, is simply unworkable for freelancers – I’m not aware of any interpreters who have registered in a sole-trader capacity. This has a huge impact on the choice and quality of support a Deaf student receives.

One Deaf student described to me their frustration that no interpreting support was in place at the start of their university course in September 2016. For a short time a regular pool of freelance interpreters were used.

“The freelancers had made my time at university enjoyable as the quality of interpreting was high. I got more involved and my confidence grew and grew.”

However, the student was later informed the interpreting support would be provided via an agency. The student explained the interpreters lacked the sign language skills to interpret into BSL, resorting to using Signed English (signs following English word order) and were ‘struggling’ with the lecture content.

“… my learning experience went downhill from there on. I went through 3-4 agencies throughout the year. .. I became more withdrawn and lost confidence in my uni work. I couldn’t trust the interpreters to translate for me, nor did I enjoy their interpreting.”

The lack of consistency in support and lack of choice can only have a negative impact on Deaf students. We must not forget, the current university fees of approximately £9,000 per year also means students experiencing these issues are paying for a course they potentially cannot fully access, unable to achieve their potential, missing out on the university experience or withdrawing from their course (a consideration mentioned by a current student).

The DSA-QAG system is not working for interpreters, Deaf students and many agencies. Interpreting in HE is challenging and interpreting support should be about choice and quality, not which agency puts forward the lowest fee.


DSA-QAG NMH Framework Document

HESA Students and graduates

Frances Lewin qualified as a BSL / English interpreter in 2001 and works in London.

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