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Changing fast

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CHANGE has been a recurring theme of annual reports from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in recent years and, as Miss Jane Hern, the RCVS Registrar, points out in the report for 2005, which was posted to members last week, the past 12 months have been little different. The annual report serves to emphasise that changes are occurring both within the profession and in the environment in which it operates, and to identify areas of uncertainty about the future. Uncertainty is very much a way of life these days but, Miss Hern remarks, over the past year &*x2018;it has been possible to begin to sketch a picture of what the future might look like.

Much of the uncertainty as far as the veterinary profession is concerned stems from the prospect of a new Veterinary Surgeons Act. DEFRA has said that it intends to update the existing Act, but it is still not clear when this might happen. The RCVS, for its part, has made significant progress during the year in defining its own vision of what is required of new legislation and will be consulting with members of the profession shortly. It remains to be seen whether the profession&*x2019;s view of what will be required of new legislation will ultimately find favour with the Government, but it will be important to be prepared when the Government decides to act.

The report notes the launch of the RCVS Practice Standards Scheme in January this year, as well as outlining progress in developing the framework for lifelong education and training of veterinary surgeons, along the lines set out by the College&*x2019;s Education Strategy Steering Group in 2001. Both of these initiatives anticipate a new Veterinary Surgeons Act and are important elements of the College&*x2019;s plans for developing an appropriate regulatory framework for the future.

The emphasis of the report is on the College&*x2019;s role in maintaining professional and educational standards but, as the President, Mr John Parker, points out in his introduction, the College has been active in many other areas, on issues such as TB testing, proposed legislation on medicines and the draft Animal Welfare Bill. He suggests that the plethora of activities undertaken by the College may be responsible for &*x2018;confusion&*x2019;within the profession as to what the RCVS stands for and what it does. Some members seem to see the College&*x2019;s job as being to safeguard the profession, which is, in fact, more the remit of the BVA. As far as the RCVS is concerned, Mr Parker remarks: &*x2018;We have to answer to law in maintaining standards and handling complaints, and we cannot be seen to toady to the profession. Whilst we naturally have the profession at heart, we will only retain the privilege of self-regulation and maintain the public&*x2019;s confidence in professional veterinary care by upholding the highest standards.&*x2019;He adds, &*x2018;In this day and age, it [the profession] must balance practicalities and consideration for its members against public perception and expectation.&*x2019;

With regard to veterinary nursing, the report notes that veterinary nurses (VNs) are &*x2018;increasingly keen&*x2019; to become a self-regulating profession and discusses attempts being made to develop a voluntary system of regulation for VNs, as well as a guide to professional conduct. On VN training, the College accepts that the VN NVQ system requires further review and development, but notes that the number of training practices increased in 2004 and that, in recent years, retention rates among student nurses enrolling for the NVQ and then qualifying have improved.

Statistics in the report illustrate the changing gender balance in the veterinary profession, with women veterinary surgeons now outnumbering men in all age groups under 40. However, some of the most striking &*x2018;facts and figures&*x2019; concern the number of graduates emerging from the UK veterinary schools. A total of 588 obtained a veterinary degree in 2004, an 18 per cent increase on the 498 graduating in 2003. Looking ahead, the numbers are set to increase further. A total of 729 students were admitted to the six UK veterinary schools in 2003/04, compared with 622 in 1999/2000. With the new veterinary school at the University of Nottingham expected to admit its first group of students in 2006, and at least one of the existing veterinary schools having recently indicated that it plans to increase its intake, the numbers graduating in a few years time will be higher still.

Predicting future manpower requirements is notoriously difficult but, in 2003, the RCVS commissioned a study to assess the extent to which the supply of veterinary surgeons might be expected to meet or exceed future demand. On the basis of information available at that time, the study &*x2013; a workforce modelling exercise undertaken by the Institute of Employment Studies &*x2013; suggested that the annual intake of veterinary surgeons was &*x2018;sustainable, but only just&*x2019; and that &*x2018;if the demand for services stabilises or even decreases, the current number of student places could lead to future surpluses of qualified veterinary surgeons&*x2019; (VR, February 28, 2004, vol 154, pp 249-250, 252). A veterinary degree is inherently flexible and there are many roles that graduates can usefully fulfil to the benefit of society. However, the continuing increase in the intake &*x2013; and the output &*x2013; of the veterinary schools does raise questions for the future, and suggests that many of tomorrow&*x2019;s graduates may end up following different career paths from those traditionally provided by practice.

Overall, the RCVS annual report tends to confirm that change is happening, and that the veterinary profession in a few years&*x2019; time will be very different from the one that exists today.

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