The death of healthcare interpreting in the Netherlands

This is a reblog of a piece I wrote for the AIIC Blog. You can find the original post here.

When patients must provide their own interpreters, the healthcare system itself becomes ill. The ensuing social and personal toll is once again being ignored in the name of transient budgetary savings.

Most people with even a marginal interest in the interpreting profession will have heard about the events involving the UK Ministry of Justice’s changes to court interpreting procurement and the scandals arising from service provider Capita’s mismanagement of interpreter resources (if you haven’t, you can read a summary of events here and follow the interpreter response here). It will come as a sad surprise to hear that something even more worrying is going on in the Netherlands. There, healthcare interpreters have seen their profession effectively erased out of existence as a result of a government decision to no longer pay for interpreting services in healthcare settings.

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The University of Westminster closes its training program

The Announcement

This is the news I woke up to last Monday morning:

“It is with deep regret that we are writing to inform you that the University of Westminster has decided to close the MA Conference Interpreting course.  It is a shame that a respected course so close to its fiftieth anniversary should be wound up.  As you doubtless are aware, the Coalition government recently made severe cuts in Higher Education funding, leaving the University with difficult – and sudden – decisions to make about how to effect savings.  We were informed of this in early April, made a counter-proposal for a streamlined course, with full staff support, but it has not been accepted.”

The news of this closure dropped like a bombshell on the interpreting community. Readers who may not be familiar with the interpreter training course at Westminster may wonder why. To help you understand the situation better, I’ll just briefly give you some background information on the course that has just been disbanded.

The interpreting training course at the University of Westminster was established in 1963 at what was then the Polytechnic of Central London. Westminster was a founding member and the original coordinating institution of the EMCI (European Master’s in Conference Interpreting) consortium. This is a group of 18 universities that cooperate in the post-graduate training of conference interpreters through student and teacher exchanges, resource sharing, videoconferences, and liaison with the EU institutions. Westminster is also one of only two courses in the United Kingdom recommended by AIIC, the International Association of Conference Interpreters.

Countless graduates of the PCL/Westminster training course have gone on to successful careers as conference interpreters as staff or freelancers at the UN, the EU and other institutions, as well as on the private market. There is currently even one alumnus working for the Canadian government! Some alumni have reached important positions in interpreting administrations, others are active as trainers, and many also contribute actively in other ways to the promotion of the interpreting profession.

Despite being located in the UK, Westminster does not train only English booth interpreters. The course follows the tradition of other illustrious schools such as the ETI in Geneva and ESIT in Paris, training a broad mix of interpreting students with different language combinations. French, Spanish, Italian, German, Polish, Swedish, Hungarian, Czech, Bulgarian, Russian and Chinese interpreters have all been trained there. Westminster was also the first school to train interpreters in the Maltese and Irish booths. The school has also organized short courses for working interpreters as well as for the SCIC (the Interpreting Directorate of the European Commission) and the European Parliament.

The Justification

Anyone who, like me, wanted to find out more about the closure would have quickly come across this notice posted on the official course website:

Statement for Applicants on Closure of MA/PG Dip in Conference Interpreting

MA/PG Dip Conference Interpreting is a well-respected course that has been recognised by the EMCI, AIIC, the EU and the UN in various ways for the quality of its graduates. The closure of the course is not a decision that has been taken lightly and it has not been taken because of any quality, teaching, management or recruitment problems.

The training of conference interpreters to the level to which the course aspires is a resource-intense activity and the course generates a significant deficit each year. Whilst the Department has worked closely with the course team to develop a sustainable model of delivery, and has looked at a range of options to achieve this, this has not been possible.

Higher Education sector in the UK is currently subject to a range of financial pressures. In the present climate, the Department is no longer able to subsidise course delivery to the extent required by a conference interpreting provision and has been unable to identify a sustainable business model for the long-term future of the course.

Given the very limited choices available, a strategic decision has been taken to withdraw permanently from the training of conference interpreters, rather than attempt to reduce delivery costs and compromise quality, and thereby to refocus the resources of the Department on other activities.”

The Reaction

Now, I don’t think anyone needs any help to grasp the importance of the points being made in this notice. It’s made quite clear that despite the fact that the course is recognised for excellence in its field, budget cuts had led to the decision to disband it.

I think that this decision marks a serious precedent in higher education, particularly with respect to the field that concerns me most: that of post-graduate interpreter training. When the value of an education is converted into little more than a dollar sign (or in this case, pound sterling), then alarm bells should start going off everywhere. Stakeholders, and society as a whole, have a responsibility to recall the bigger picture. If conference interpreter training is considered “too expensive”, what will happen to the values of multilingualism so championed by the European Union? If the training of interpreters suddenly becomes unaffordable, what will happen to the quality of global political debate and intercultural discourse? These, and many other underlying questions, are thrown up by the decision to close Westminster.

The Response

With all this in mind, the interpreting community has decided to speak out on the decision. In the past days, I have heard many different people, all linked in different ways with the interpreting world, express their shock and dismay at the decision to close the Westminster training course. This is a message that should reach the ears of those who took the decision, if only so that they understand the reception that their decision has had among the wider community.

To this end, the interpreting blogosphere has decided to launch a joint action to raise awareness amongst readers of what has happened at Westminster and encourage individuals to express their views on it. Today, Bootheando, In my words, Cosas de Dos Palabras, the blog of Judith Carrera, Aventuras de una traductora-intérprete en Madrid, and The Interpreter Diaries are all publishing posts with the news. At the end of each post, you will find a link to a Facebook page that has been set up to allow members of the interpreting community to express their views on the matter. If you have a view you would like to share, or would simply like to express your support to the course coordinators in these complicated times, please take a moment to post a comment on the wall.

We encourage readers who are also fellow bloggers to take the information given here and publish it on their blogs as well. All readers are invited to share the news with the broader interpreting community using the available channels.

We may not change anyone’s mind, but at least we should speak out about how we feel about the decision to close the interpreting course at the University of Westminster.

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