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Who wants to be a vet?

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WHAT inspires school children to want to study veterinary medicine and how much encouragement do they get along the way? What barriers exist that might be preventing them from fulfilling their ambition? These are not idle questions, but ones on which the future shape of the profession depends. They were also raised by a government-commissioned report, entitled ‘Gateways to the professions’, published in 2005.1 Written by Sir Alan Langlands, vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee, the report looked at factors affecting recruitment into professions generally, at a time when public expectations, and the professions themselves, are changing. In the process it identified some key issues affecting the veterinary profession, including: a 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, with a bias towards higher socioeconomic groups; the effects of increased tuition fees and high levels of debt on graduates; and the movement of many young vets into small animal practice, leading to a loss of large and farm animal veterinary skills (VR, February 4, 2006, vol 158, p 141). The findings, coupled with concern that the number of applications per place at veterinary school was falling, prompted the rcvs to investigate school students' perceptions of the veterinary profession and factors affecting their choice of career. The results of its research are now available2 (see also p 886 of this issue) and will be used to develop better careers information to help broaden recruitment.

The research was carried out as part of a collaborative project involving the rcvs, defra and six of the seven uk veterinary schools, with funding from the Department for Education and Skills. It was undertaken on the College's behalf by the Institute for Employment Studies (ies) at the University of Sussex and used information gathered by various means, including a survey of secondary school pupils aged between 11 and 16, focus group meetings with gcse and A-level students, and interviews with teachers, careers advisers and veterinary school tutors.

Among the conclusions drawn by the ies are that interest in working with animals is high among younger students, but that this interest has waned by the time they choose subjects for A-level. Although girls tended to be more interested in working with animals than boys, they were less likely on average to opt to study science at A-level. Black and minority ethnic (bme) students were more likely than white students to opt for science subjects at A-level, but much less likely to want to work with animals or study veterinary science. Very few students at the veterinary schools are from a bme background. The ies found some evidence that bme students were discouraged from working with animals for cultural reasons, or because being a vet was not seen as ‘a proper profession’ by students or their parents. White students, meanwhile, generally regarded the veterinary profession as having high status.

Other conclusions drawn by the ies are that knowledge about veterinary careers and entry requirements among teachers and careers advisers is patchy, and that teachers and careers advisers tend to perpetuate the idea that veterinary medicine is harder to get into than may actually be the case. It also notes that the science curriculum for gcse and A-level tends to have a human, rather than an animal, focus, which means that there may be limited opportunities for discussion about aspects of science related to the veterinary profession. It found evidence that students in some geographical areas, or from poorer backgrounds, could find it difficult to fulfil veterinary schools' requirements for relevant work experience; while most veterinary schools were willing to make allowances for this, not all careers advisers and students were aware of this. The ies notes that all of the veterinary schools have widening participation policies and are increasing their pre-entry activities as a result of government initiatives and increased competition for students.

While many of the ies's findings might have been predicted, others are more surprising. One of the observations from the focus groups, for example, was that ‘few students could recall instances of vets appearing in the media’. Students also suggested ‘that to study veterinary science effectively places you on a one-track career path, and that if you cannot subsequently get a job as a vet then there are few meaningful alternatives open to you’. This particular view implies a rather narrow perception of the options available to those with a veterinary degree which should perhaps be addressed as better careers information is developed. More generally, the ies reports that several teachers expressed concern about the very low numbers of students now opting to study science at A-level. This particular issue presents challenges not just for the veterinary profession, but for uk science generally and, indeed, the country as a whole.

The ies report makes clear that school students' perceptions of a veterinary career differ. Attitudes can be hard to change and it will be interesting to see what steps can be taken to address this during the second part of the project. Some of the issues will be easier to address than others, but a useful starting point will be to improve the information available while giving a realistic impression of what a veterinary career entails.

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