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Widening participation?

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NEW arrangements for university tuition fees come into effect in the autumn. It remains worrying that, for all that has been written on the subject, no-one, including the Government and the universities, seems to have a clear idea about the effect they will have on student recruitment. The uncertainty was underlined last month by a report commissioned by the Government to establish baseline data against which the effects of the new arrangements can be assessed at a later date. The research, 1 by a team at the Institute of Education in London, indicated that universities and colleges generally were uncertain about the impact of the new arrangements on undergraduate recruitment, although there was concern that recruitment to four-year courses would be adversely affected, because students might baulk at the extra year’s cost of the course. Many of the four-year courses were in science, engineering and languages – subjects where demand was already relatively weak.

Those findings, while worrying in themselves, cannot be related directly to undergraduate recruitment to the veterinary schools where, for the time being, demand for courses remains strong. Nevertheless, the concerns identified in relation to longer courses are clearly relevant. The veterinary course lasts five years (six in the case of Cambridge); the costs involved will be higher again, which could well affect recruitment into the profession in the future. Some students will qualify for support through grants and bursaries, while others may feel able to make use of the new loan system. However, others will inevitably be put off by the prospect of higher debts, which runs counter to the Government’s policy of trying to widen participation in higher education generally.

The veterinary profession is not alone among the professions in facing challenges in improving recruitment opportunities for students, although it could be argued that, in view of the shortfall in funding for veterinary education generally, it faces greater challenges than most. These have been neatly encapsulated in another report commissioned by the Government, which specifically identifies potential barriers for people wanting to enter the professions. The report, ‘Gateways to the Professions’,2 by Sir Alan Langlands, vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee, was published last November. It again highlights the uncertainty surrounding the new tuition fee arrangements, noting that it is difficult to assess their impact in advance. It concludes, however, that ‘the introduction of the new financial arrangements from 2006 and the prospect of increased student debt may well influence career choices and undermine the policy of widening participation in universities and other higher education institutions and in the key professions.’

The report includes useful comparative data on the UK professions, highlighting their diversity and identifying factors in common. Key issues for the veterinary profession are identified as: the lack of grants for UK students taking veterinary medicine as a second degree; the effects of far more women than men training to become vets; the effect of increased tuition fees on applications for veterinary degrees, and of high levels of debt on the numbers going into less well paid areas such as farm animal practice and veterinary research; and the movement of many young vets into small animal practice, leading to a loss of large and farm animal veterinary skills. The report notes that veterinary degrees are expensive courses to fund and that the level of debt among veterinary students is already of concern. It predicts that students who do not receive state or parental support could build up debts of up to £30,000 in fees and living expenses under the new arrangements. This, it says, ‘may well put young people off applying to study veterinary medicine. It may also deter graduates from entering careers in areas of greatest public interest where salaries are lowest, such as veterinary research and farm and livestock animal practice’.

The report also points out that ‘Veterinary training includes 38 weeks of unpaid work experience, usually done in vacations, which leaves students little time for part-time work to reduce their debts.’ It notes, too, that ‘the [veterinary] profession is mainly made up of very small, private practices, ill placed to offer financial support through student bursaries, or to increase salaries to new graduates.’

Concerns about rising debt levels among veterinary students are borne out by the results of the most recent BVA/Association of Veterinary Students survey, for the 2004/05 academic year, which found that first-degree students expected to graduate with debts of £19,000 in 2005; for second-degree students, the debts were considerably higher (VR, November 19, 2005, vol 157, p 637). The new arrangements will add £10,000 in tuition fees. Veterinary students will be harder hit than medical and dental students, for whom the Government will meet the cost of tuition fees during the clinical years of the course.

The report makes general recommendations about improving access to the professions, some of which, as it acknowledges, will be difficult for the veterinary profession to apply. Finding solutions is not going to be easy, and is something in which the whole profession must be involved.

1 New variable fee arrangements: baseline institutional case studies for the independent commission. Research report for DfES. December 2005. Institute of Education, University of London. Available at www.dfes.gov.uk/research/data/uploadfiles/RW55.pdf

2 Available at www.dfes.gov.uk/hegateway/hereform/gatewaystotheprofessions/index.cfm

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