The Swedish Agency for Public Management

The future need for sign language interpreters and speech-to-text interpreters. A review of interpreter programmes at folk high schools (2015:25)

The Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) has completed its commission from the Government to conduct a review of folk high school programmes for sign language interpreters.­­ Our results are presented in this report.­

Training is over dimensioned

In recent years, between 40 and 60 sign language interpreters and speech-to-text interpreters have been trained annually.­ Our assessment is that this is too many, in view of expected interpreting needs and the labour market for sign language interpreters.­­

Needs for sign language interpreters will decrease in the long term

One important factor in our assessment is that the need for interpreters will decrease in the future since fewer people will have sign language as their first language.­ Since 2004, 95 per cent of all deaf new-born babies receive cochlear implants that enable hearing.­ Of those who undergo the procedure as infants, 70–80 per cent gain spoken language as their first language. This means that about 57 children a year receive an implant, of whom 40–45 will use spoken language rather than sign language as their first language.­

The labour market for sign language interpreters is saturated

The labour market for interpreters is already bleak. Statskontoret's questionnaire to newly trained interpreters reveals that they are able to get work, but not to the extent they would like.­ Many work part-time, and a minority have permanent employment.

On average, professional interpreters have work equivalent to around 65 per cent of a full-time position.­­ In addition, employers anticipate that the demand for sign language interpreters will decrease or remain unchanged in the coming years. By contrast, the majority of employers anticipate that the need for speech-to-text interpreters will increase.

Weak interest in a demanding programme

Training is also over dimensioned in relation to interest.
The number of applicants per place is lower for interpreter programmes than for other folk high school programmes, and has also decreased in recent years.­ More than half of those applying to interpreter programmes are admitted. If it is easy to obtain a place, there is a risk that it is not the most qualified and motivated students who are admitted. That this risk is real is evident from the high drop-out frequency for these programmes.­ In general, fewer than half of the participants who commence their training go on to complete it with a passing grade.

Too many folk high schools offering interpreter programmes

Considering the number of applicants, there are too many folk high schools offering interpreter programmes. This is argued both by the folk high schools themselves and by representatives of user organisations. A certain number of students is also necessary for the programmes to be financially viable and for the opportunity of students to develop their skills through mutual exchange.­ However, looking at the past three years, there are only a few cases of a school having more than ten students in the final year.­ As a rule, there have been three to seven participants per folk high school each year who have completed their training with a passing grade.­

Sufficient but fragmented resources

Our analysis shows that central government funding is fully sufficient to finance the current training volume. However, there are potential problems with this funding coming from two different sources. The Swedish National Agency for Higher Vocational Education (MYH) and the Swedish National Council of Adult Education have different aims with their activities and each of them finances interpreter programmes through their own state subsidy based on different criteria and allocation principles. If MYH, for example, were to impose stricter quality requirements on the programmes, this could be in conflict with the Council's task of safeguarding the freedom of folk high schools.­­­

Educational quality called into question

There is no central government control over the content and design of sign language interpreter programmes. To achieve equivalence, the folk high schools have agreed on an indicative programme syllabus. However, this guidance has a general design and, in Statskontoret's view, is insufficient for achieving programme equivalence.­

That the programmes are offered as folk high school training partly manifests itself through the forms of assessment and evaluation. At present, these rest largely on a continuous dialogue and discussion between teachers and students, rather than on tests and examinations. No school makes use of a final examination. The schools instead make an overall assessment of whether students have achieved the programme's goals.­­­

Both users and the interpreters' employers have criticisms of the interpreters' skills.­­ Employers maintain that students have an insufficient knowledge of sign language and a limited vocabulary in Swedish.­ Some employers also argue that the admission and graduation requirements are too low. Users also argue that the interpreters' skills are lower than before.

Professional interpreters need continuing professional development

Four years of training is not enough to become a fully-fledged interpreter. Professional interpreters need continuing professional development.­­ Among other things, there is a need for a knowledge of English and conference interpreting and for further training in the various languages of the deaf and in video telephony.

Some further training courses are provided by certain folk high schools, the interpreters' own association STTF and certain employers, but these are few in number and are not provided on a regular basis.­

Statskontoret's proposals

Statskontoret has a number of proposals regarding how future training is to be dimensioned, financed and controlled.

Reduce the number of places on programmes for sign language interpreters and deafblind interpreters

It is already the case that too many sign language interpreters are being trained for the needs of the labour market, and our forecast shows that the number of interpreter users will decrease by one fifth over 50 years. This means that the number of newly trained sign language interpreters can be halved in the future, from today's 35–45 to around 17–26 newly trained interpreters per year.­­ With the current student completion rate, there should be 43–65 training places on folk high school programmes.

Reduce the number of folk high schools offering sign language interpreter programmes

The reduced need for new interpreters in the future also means that training should be offered at fewer folk high schools than today.­ We assess that at least 20 training places are required to achieve the necessary financial conditions and quality of programmes. This would entail a need for two, or at most three, folk high schools providing interpreter training.­ This can be compared to the current situation, in which seven folk high schools provide this training.­­ Fellingsbro and Södertörn folk high schools have the training volume that would be required. If the Government believes that proximity to a deaf environment is particularly important to the programmes, Västanvik folk high school could also be a possible third folk high school for training sign language interpreters. 

Statskontoret estimates that the proposals to reduce the training volume could lead to an annual saving of up to SEK 20 million in central government expenditure.

Increase the number of places on programmes for speech-to-text interpreters

The need for speech-to-text interpreting will increase, partly due to more deaf people receiving cochlear implants. For this reason, Statskontoret proposes a slight increase in the number of newly trained speech-to-text interpreters.­­

Assign sole responsibility for financing interpreter programmes to the Swedish National Agency for Higher Vocational Education

Statskontoret argues that the training of sign language interpreters should primarily be seen as vocational training and be adapted to labour market requirements. We therefore propose that the Swedish National Agency for Higher Vocational Education be assigned sole responsibility for financing interpreter programmes.  

Invest in continuing professional development for teachers and interpreters

Our assessment is that there are enough competent teachers to enable us to offer interpreter training of the dimension we propose. Rather than introducing a new teacher education, it is better to invest in the professional development of existing teachers by enhancing their pedagogical competence and sign language skills.­­­

There is also a need for the continuing professional development of interpreters, for example, in terms of

  • interpreting between Swedish Sign Language and English
  • video telephony, deafblind interpreting, speech-to-text interpreting and signs as support (TSS) interpreting
  • expertise in various areas, such as law
  • interpreting in connection with conferences.

The current supply of continuing professional development does not satisfy these needs. Statskontoret's assessment is that Stockholm University should, in most cases, be a suitable provider of such continuing professional development.­