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Straws in the wind?

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THEY may be little more than straws in the wind, but two surveys reported by the national media last week give pause for thought, particularly when considered in conjunction with figures in the RCVS annual report for 2005, which demonstrated an increase in the number of students graduating from Britain’s veterinary schools (VR, June 18, 2005, vol 156, p 789). According to the BBC News website, the first survey, from Mintel, indicated that pet ownership in the UK was falling, with only 48 per cent of British homes owning ‘a bird, fish or animal (sic)’ in 2004, compared with 55 per cent in 1999. Dogs were becoming less popular as pets, with ownership having fallen by 26 per cent between 1985 and 2004, to just 19·8 per cent of households. Cats fared rather better in terms of popularity, with the level of ownership in 2004 – 22 per cent – being virtually the same as in 1985. Fish, meanwhile, had become more popular, with 16·5 per cent of households owning them in 2004, compared with 13·5 per cent in 1985. The website reported that lifestyle changes had ‘squeezed pets out of British households’, and that people were increasingly favouring ‘lower maintenance’ animals that were less time-consuming to look after.

The second survey, conducted by the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), concerned levels of student debt. According to a report in The Daily Telegraph (June 20), it found that nearly 60 per cent of graduates are still being supported by their parents three years after leaving university. Students leaving university this summer could expect to have debts of £13,501. It was further reported that the 2006 intake of students could start working life owing as much as £33,708.

The RBS survey concerned students in general, but the trend towards higher debts clearly applies to veterinary students. A BVA survey of students in the six UK veterinary schools in 2001/02 indicated that students were then graduating with debts averaging £9000, rising to £14,000 for students entering university following the introduction of tuition fees in 1998. With the introduction of top-up fees in 2006, levels of debt can be expected to increase further, and, according to information on the Department for Education and Skills website, veterinary students entering university in 2006 might expect to graduate with a minimum debt of £30,000.* The BVA has recently repeated its survey of veterinary undergraduates. The results will be presented at the Association’s Congress at the end of September and should give a more precise indication of the debts now being incurred.

The Mintel survey on pet ownership indicated that, although ownership was falling, those still keeping animals were prepared to spend more on their pets, seeing them more as a member of the family. Even so, it does raise the possibility that growth in the demand for companion animal veterinary services, so much a feature of the veterinary scene in recent years, will plateau at some stage; as in any other field, the market cannot be expected to grow indefinitely. Small animal practice has advanced significantly in recent years, and has provided new opportunities for graduates as the number of opportunities in other branches of practice has declined. However, as the number of graduates increases, and if the market indeed levels off, that particular career avenue could become rather more crowded in the future.

Higher levels of debt among new graduates must be of concern across all branches of practice, as well as in other areas where veterinary expertise is needed, most notably, perhaps, in research. Graduates will want to pay off their debts, and will aspire to salaries that will enable them to do so. Whether those aspirations can necessarily be met for all graduates is debatable. Market forces will no doubt assert themselves, and something may have to give somewhere if veterinary services are to continue to be available at prices that clients are prepared or able to afford.

It may be just another straw in the wind, or perhaps that should be on the airwaves, but, in the meantime, there is distressing news from Ambridge, fictitious home of Radio 4’s The Archers. Alistair, the mixed practitioner looking after the livestock on Brookfield Farm, has recently been ousted by a specialist dairy vet. Whether this is an accurate example of art imitating life, or whether all life ultimately reflects what happens in The Archers, is, perhaps, a matter for debate, but there is no doubt that there are some in the profession who see this as the direction in which large animal practice is heading. What it does do is provide another illustration of how life in practice is constantly changing, and of why today’s students should approach their degree with an open mind: they should maximise the wide-ranging potential of veterinary undergraduate education and keep their options open for the future.

    Footnotes

    • * Gateways to the Professions Consultation, Consultation Event January 10, 2005, Case study – vets. www.dfes.gov.uk/hegateway/hereform/gatewaystotheprofessions/

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