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A difficult balance

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COMING, as it did, just four days after the new veterinary school at Nottingham admitted its first intake of students, the debate on veterinary education at this year's bva Congress was timely — and not just because it provided an opportunity to find out what was happening at the new school. Called ‘Minding the quality — and the width’, the session also gave delegates a chance to catch up on developments at other uk veterinary schools and the challenges facing veterinary education generally (see p 542 of this issue). There have always been challenges in veterinary education but, with the expansion of higher education and increased competition in the university sector, the stakes are getting higher. Providing a brief overview of developments, Professor Sandy Trees, dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Liverpool, discussed some of the issues confronting the veterinary schools, and the efforts being made to address them.

Ensuring adequate numbers of students has not been an issue for the veterinary schools so it is interesting that, in discussing ‘key challenges for veterinary education’, Professor Trees put student recruitment first on the list. Unlike the (highly worrying) situation in some science subjects, the number of applicants to veterinary schools easily exceeds the number of places. However, the number of uk applications has fallen over the past couple of years (from 6136 in 2003, to 5584 in 2004, to 5190 in 2005), while the number of students accepted has increased. If this trend continues, it could ultimately cause difficulties for the schools, which need to maintain their intakes in order to safeguard their income while, at the same time, maintaining the quality of entrants to the course.

The Government's widening participation programme, which aims to address discrepancies in the take up of higher education among those from different social and ethnic groups perhaps presents an even greater challenge, not least because the majority of applicants are middle class and white. As Professor Trees remarked, ‘The socioeconomic, ethnic and indeed gender mix of the [veterinary] profession does not reflect the nature of the society in which we live, and that is not a good thing in the long term.’ Widening participation aims to do something about that, and various initiatives are being undertaken by the veterinary schools, either individually or in collaboration with each other, in an attempt to address the imbalance. The most recent of these is ‘Vetnet’, a collaborative initiative led by the Royal Veterinary College. The Higher Education Funding Council for England has agreed to award £3·7 million to this project, the aim of which is to develop a lifelong learning network in veterinary and related disciplines, to facilitate the progression of students on vocational programmes into professional academic programmes in higher education. In a separate initiative, the rcvs, in conjunction with most of the veterinary schools, has applied to the Department for Education and Skills for support for an investigation into why school students choose to study, or might get put off studying, veterinary medicine at university.

Recruitment of academic staff to deliver both teaching and research also presents challenges, although this is an area where the Veterinary Training and Research Initiative (vtri), designed to strengthen training in infectious diseases and clinical research, could potentially pay dividends in the future. As the Government recognised when it launched this £25 million initiative in 2004, research-trained staff who develop new skills and pass on those skills to the next generation of students will be essential if future disease outbreaks are to be dealt with effectively, and the initiative aims to fill a ‘knowledge gap’ in this area. Appropriately qualified veterinarians are needed not just in the veterinary schools but also in research institutes, and effort must continue to be devoted to this area.

Veterinary education does not come cheap, and the schools must constantly juggle their teaching and research activities while trying to maintain appropriate funding. At the same time, they must produce graduates with the potential to practise across the whole spectrum of veterinary endeavour. As Professor Trees put it, ‘In a world that is changing rapidly, where the veterinary industry is changing, where the particular disease threats are changing, we must be constantly responding to those changes in a way which provides veterinary graduates who are fit for purpose now, in five years, and in 10 years time. While responding and evolving our curricula and the content and quality of our programmes, we must maintain enduring standards. We must ensure the provision of quality assurance and, of course, meet the needs of professional accreditation.’ This, in itself presents challenges, and the congress heard of some of the innovative approaches being adopted by the veterinary schools, including the new school at Nottingham. Meanwhile, under the new system of modular postgraduate certificates recently agreed by the rcvs (see VR, June 10, 2006, vol 158, p 780), accredited universities, rather than the rcvs itself, will undertake the assessment of modules. As a result of the new arrangements, universities may be expected to play a greater role in cpd provision in the future.

Meeting teaching and research requirements with finite funding has long been an issue for the veterinary schools. It was clear from the session at the congress that the challenges show no signs of diminishing, but that the schools are responding in imaginative and energetic ways.

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