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Bracing up for the future

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IN the old LNER travel posters, it was Skegness that was described as ‘so bracing’. However, for anyone attending the annual conference of the Association for Veterinary Teaching and Research Work (AVTRW), Scarborough can be invigorating, too. This year’s meeting, held in the Yorkshire seaside town in the week before Easter, was no exception and, as reported on pp 527-530 of this issue, successfully combined discussion of developments in veterinary education with presentations on the latest research findings to create the special mix that only this conference can provide. Coming within days of all the publicity surrounding the discovery of H5N1 avian influenza virus in a dead swan in Scotland, the plenary lecture, discussing how the virus has spread around the world as well as the human influenza pandemics of the 20th century, could hardly have been more topical. Meanwhile, discussion of how the curriculum is being developed at the new veterinary school at the University of Nottingham highlighted some current challenges in veterinary education while also hinting at those to come.

Developing the veterinary curriculum presents challenges in itself, not least because knowledge is increasing all the time, and this, coupled with the fact that time for undergraduate study is limited, means that tough decisions have to be made about what must, and what need not, be included. This is not a new problem and has led the RCVS to define core ‘day 1’ competences required of new graduates, as well as proposals for a professional development phase and continuing professional development leading to lifelong learning. The veterinary schools, meanwhile, continue to explore new teaching methods and examine the curriculum to see what should be kept in and what can be left out, all the time trying to produce ‘well-rounded’ graduates, enthusiastic for further learning and capable of adapting to changing circumstances. It would be wrong to suggest they have not been successful in this.

In starting with ‘a blank sheet of paper’, the veterinary school at Nottingham, which will start teaching its first students this autumn, has taken a fresh look at the curriculum and adopted a novel (at least for the UK) ‘outcomes-based’ approach. As Professor Gary England, dean of the new school, explained in Scarborough, the course will differ from that available at the other schools in a number of ways; it will, for example, be clinically integrated from the start and will take a different approach to clinical teaching and extramural studies. It may also, perhaps, be more specifically geared to meeting the particular requirements of practice.

A new approach is always refreshing and many people will be watching with interest to see how things work out. The approach being taken seems likely to find favour among practitioners although, as pointed out at the conference, it will also be important to prepare graduates for other careers where veterinary expertise is so essential.

An expanding curriculum is by no means the only challenge facing the veterinary schools. The number of students accepted on to a UK veterinary course increased by 33 per cent between 2000 and 2004 and, with the new school at Nottingham, is set to rise further. In 2004, there were 1·8 applicants for each place at UK veterinary schools, compared with 2·1 the year before. The falling ratio led one recent correspondent to this journal to suggest that ‘there has never been a better time to apply to veterinary school because of the number of places now available’ (VR, February 18, 2006, vol 158, p 248).

It could be argued that this is no bad thing and that, in previous years, the number of unsuccessful applicants was excessively high. However, it is not too hard to envisage a situation where, if present trends continue, rather than simply selecting from the best candidates, the veterinary schools, like university departments in other disciplines, are competing for students and having to work to attract suitably qualified applicants. This, again, might not be such a bad thing, and could provide a further stimulus for the ‘widening participation’ programmes in which the veterinary schools are already engaged. However, there will clearly be a need to monitor developments, and to plan accordingly.

The introduction of variable tuition fees from autumn this year will not help in all this and is likely to make students take greater care when choosing a university course and demand more of the courses on offer. Concern has been expressed about the impact of higher tuition fees on applications to some of the longer courses in basic science subjects and, while the five/six-year course leading to a veterinary degree remains popular, it is hard to believe that applications to veterinary school will not be affected. Of equal, if not greater, concern, is the impact of the higher debts that will be incurred by future students, both on the students themselves and on the career choices they make as graduates. This is a problem not just for the veterinary schools, but for the profession and society as a whole. Higher debts may already be affecting recruitment to the less well paid areas of practice. They could certainly affect the number of graduates pursuing a research career, and undermine initiatives described at the conference to address current shortages in this area.

This year’s AVTRW conference was bracing in a very positive sense. However, in discussing developments, it also identified some important issues and made it clear that the profession should continue to brace itself for challenges to come.

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