University of Edinburgh

Deaf Students in Scottish Higher Education

Chapter 1: Deaf Student Numbers and Study Sample

The participation rate of deaf students within Scottish HEIs can be considered equitable when the incidence of deaf HE students within the national body of HE students approximates the incidence of deafness within the national population as a whole. The relative participation rate of deaf students is therefore the expression of the difference between the incidence of deafness in the general population, and the incidence of deafness in the student population.

Incidence of deafness in the national population

Estimating the size of the deaf cohort in any specific population is problematic. There is no national register of deaf children, youngsters or adults in either Scotland or in the UK. At lower hearing loss levels, systems vary in the threshold-level of hearing loss that triggers inclusion in the target population. Hearing loss can be congenital, acquired in early infancy, or acquired in (later) adult life, and prevalence rates vary greatly across specific age-ranges. Accurate statistics on the prevalence of permanent hearing impairment within the national population are unavailable. The main deaf organisations offer slightly varying information about the incidence of deafness within the population, although they agree on the incidence rate in childhood1.

The most authoritative source of information regarding the UK is the Institute of Hearing Research (Nottingham). A recent prevalence calculation focuses on the population aged 9-16 and is based on 26,000 notifications from Health and Education sources (Fortnum et al 2001). The authors report an estimated prevalence of 1.65 per 1,000 live births, adjusted to 2.05 to compensate statistically for underascertainment. These adjusted estimates confirm the Royal National Institute for Deaf

People (RNID) and National Deaf Childrens’ Society (NDCS) guidance figures of 2 in every 1,000 children aged 9-16 (thereby excluding from the calculation the late onset of deafness in adulthood).

Participation rates in HE: HESA statistics

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) collects information about disability, and includes deafness as a sub-category. Their figures are based on student self assessment, and are consistent with numbers known to UCAS. These figures may not accurately reflect the true incidence of deaf students in HEIs for two reasons: firstly, students are not obliged to report a disability (there are examples of that in this report). Secondly, institutions occasionally do not return disability data for continuing students, an effect of the recording options for those students.

For the year 2002–2003 (the year of this study), HESA recorded 197,365 students in Scottish HEIs, of which 505 (0.26%) self-identified as deaf2. This suggests a participation rate of 2.6 per 1,000 students — a figure considerably higher than the estimated prevalence of 2 in every 1,000 in the general 9-16 age population, and perhaps cause for cautious optimism about deaf student participation in HE. The comparison contains a quantity of error, not in the least because it contradicts the known underachievement of deaf pupils in compulsory education (cf Powers et al 1998). In addition, students who tick the box on HESA forms to indicate 'hearing impairment' may not have the 'moderate to profound' hearing loss used to calculate the 2 per thousand statistic. Further work is needed to identify the sources of error and explain the relationship.

Study sample

In this study the response-rate from Scottish HEIs (21 HEIs and 2 randomly selected FECs) was 100%. A total of 363 deaf HE students were reported (71.8% of the HESA figure3). 23 HE students (6.3%) responded to our invitation to contribute further information. A self-selected sample of 16 (4.4%) completed a questionnaire4, while a further 7 HE students (2% of the study sample) were interviewed.

In addition, 21 FE students each participated in one of four group discussions. An assessment of FE provision for deaf students went beyond this study’s limited focus on FE-HE transition issues, but it would clearly be of interest to also look in more detail at the figures of deaf student participation in that provision in future research.

The HEI returns may provide a global HE participation figure for 2002–2003 (the questionnaire year) that approximates that recorded via HESA/UCAS. However, the returns varied in the level of detail provided, and so the figures may not accurately reflect the number of deaf students actually benefiting from support or access arrangements (the appendix gives a summary of the data returned in the questionnaires sent to HEIs).

One institution, for example, provided a figure of 48 deaf students. Of these 48, approximately 20 came forward as having an access requirement, and out of these 7 or 8 were in receipt of DSA. This HEI noted that they had not had a BSL user within the last four years. On the other hand (as we shall see in the discussion of student perspectives), some individuals who initially disclose a hearing loss, but do not then seek further information or support, may actually benefit from access provision.

Entry routes for deaf students in the sample

Questionnaire returns indicate that during the academic year 2002/2003 the deaf students in the sample accessed higher education via a variety of routes. The main entry points for students were:

  • Directly from mainstream school (n=83)
  • FE college (n=32)
  • Directly from employment (n=10 mature students)
  • From another HE institution (n=7)
  • Access courses at HE (n=7)
  • Special schools (n=5)
  • Access courses at FE (n=5).

Subject choices of deaf students in the sample

The sample of deaf students known to Disability Offices were undertaking a wide range of academic and vocational courses in the HE and FE sector, including:

  • Architecture
  • Medicine
  • English
  • Law
  • Computing
  • Engineering
  • Management
  • Social work
  • Nursing
  • Health and Welfare.

A breakdown by broader categories will give an indication of the spread of the deaf student sample across subject areas:

  • Sciences (n=61 students across 13 institutions)
  • Arts (n=58 students across 17 institutions)
  • Social science (n=40 students across 14 institutions)
  • Medicine (n=26 students across 8 institutions)
  • Education (n=8 students across 5 institutions)
  • Veterinary science (n=1 student).

Reporting on low numbers

As a result of the modest number of respondents providing qualitative data, the information that these students provided is treated as casestudy material (that is, it is not further quantified) within the chapters that follow; a discursive approach better reveals salient underlying patterns among the particular instances of individual student experience, while quantification of sub-themes for a sample that may not be representative of the target population (it was self-selected) may skew their relative importance. Hence, caution needs to be applied with regard to generalising from the findings reported here; at the same time, some broader issues stand out, and these are summarised at the end of each chapter.

Other information collected

Seven interviews were conducted with DSA assessors who had experience of undertaking assessments of deaf students. 11 staff in HE Disability Offices were also interviewed, as were 6 staff in FE Disability Offices. In addition, 7 lecturers in HE and 3 in FE were interviewed with respect to their particular expertise concerning access arrangements for deaf students. Phone discussions were recorded with staff from the RNID, Deaf Connections, and Students Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS).

Key points

  • An accurate assessment of the relative participation of deaf students in Scottish HE is difficult to make, but HESA figures for 2002–2003 suggest that 2.6 in every 1,000 students self-report being deaf.
  • The study sample comprised 363 deaf students, 71.8% of all those known to HESA (N=505) in the year 2002–2003. 23 HE students provided further detailed qualitative information in this study.
  • The sample of deaf students came to HE from a variety of entry routes to undertake a broad range of courses.


1.1. Further study should aim to identify error in the relationship between prevalence of deafness and the incidence of deaf students among the HE student population, in order to arrive at a reliable estimate of an equitable rate of participation.

1.2. Closer liaison between schools/services for deaf pupils and HEIs will assist in enabling ongoing estimation of future numbers of applications from deaf students.

1.3 It would be of interest to study access figures for FE as well as HE.

1.4 The interaction between HE participation and prior placement in compulsory education should be investigated further lest inappropriate conclusions be drawn, for example in relation to the effects of educational inclusion on HE participation rates.