By David H. Kirkwood
ATHLONE, IRELAND–The Irish people have long been renowned for having “the gift of gab,” the ability to speak with ease, at length, and in a most expressive and entertaining manner. It’s ironic then, that in a land where people speak so well, there seems to be so little concern about citizens’ ability to hear what their countrymen and countrywomen have to say.
What leads to that conclusion is that, until very recently, it was impossible to become an audiologist in Ireland.
While that situation has changed temporarily, the future of Irish audiology remains murky.
To be sure, there is a well-developed hearing aid dispensing profession with its own professional association, the Irish Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists. However, the country has had no means to train audiologists to provide such services as caring for children with hearing loss, treating people with balance issues, or participating in Ireland’s universal newborn hearing screening program, which was rolled out in 2011.
Instead, Ireland meets its audiologic needs by recruiting audiologists from other countries and by encouraging young Irish people to leave home, usually for England, to get their audiology degree.
FIRST PROGRAM FACES MANY CHALLENGES
All that seemed about to change a few years ago. In September 2010, the Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT), in County Westmeath, proposed to develop a four-year BSc degree program in audiology. The plan, which won support from the Irish audiology community, was designed to address the training and the educational needs of the profession, both in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, the small part of the United Kingdom that occupies the northernmost section of the Emerald Isle.
AIT’s decision to offer an undergraduate degree in audiology was contained in the budgets submitted to Ireland’s Higher Education Authority (HEA) in 2011 and 2012. Also, since Ireland has no accreditation body in audiology, the institute approached the British Academy of Audiology (BAA) in April 2012 asking it to accredit its planned program. AIT advised prospective students that it expected to meet the standards of the BAA and the Irish Academy of Audiology.
In August 2012, the inaugural audiology class at AIT began, with an enrollment of 21 students. In November, HSE, Ireland’s national health service, said that it would provide placements to the audiology students if AIT could get the degree accredited.
However, hopes for accreditation collapsed this summer after the BAA announced on July 29 that it would no longer accredit programs outside the UK. That left AIT and its audiology students in the lurch. When the HEA announced that it would no longer fund the audiology program, the institute announced it was shutting down the program, just before the second year was scheduled to start. In a statement, AIT said that it “deeply regrets this situation and the difficulties which it has raised for the 21 students concerned and their families.”
Some of the students transferred to audiology programs in England, and others considered an offer to enroll in AIT’s new BSc program in Health Science with Audiological Sciences.
However, the students were understandably distressed by the situation and their plight drew much sympathy in audiology circles. Two of them sued AIT, the HEA, and the HSE, and their case was heard in Ireland’s High Court on August 20.
BACK FROM THE BRINK—FOR NOW
The next day, before the court had made a ruling, it announced that all 21 of the students would be able to complete their course. The good news came as a result of an agreement among the various parties.
AIT said the students would be able to resume their studies in audiology, as originally scheduled, in early September. The HSE said it would be able to offer a number of clinical placements for the students when they entered their third year. A representative for the HEA told the court that it would provide funding for the audiology course.
The lawyer who represented the plaintiffs said his clients, their classmates, and their families were delighted with the outcome.
However, the agreement applies only to these 21 students. So, there is no guarantee that Ireland’s first class of home-grown audiologists won’t also be its last.