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Removing barriers

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PEOPLE have been concerned about the limited socioeconomic mix of the professions for some time. The issues were examined in a Government-commissioned report entitled ‘Gateways to the professions’ published in 2005. This looked at factors affecting entry into the professions, including the veterinary profession, identifying a number of potential barriers to recruitment and resulting in various initiatives aimed at widening access (VR, February 4, 2006, vol 158, p 141).

More recently, the Cabinet Office has been taking an interest in the subject and earlier this year set up a ‘Panel of Fair Access to the Professions’ to look at ‘the processes and structures that govern recruitment into key professions’. The panel has just published a research paper highlighting ‘key trends and issues in access to the professions’ which, although it does not consider the veterinary profession specifically, is clearly of interest.

One of the main observations in the panel’s research paper is that many of Britain’s professions have, if anything, become more socially exclusive, with the result that bright children from middle class families, as well as those from poorer backgrounds, are missing out on top professional jobs. It found, for example, that professionals such as lawyers, doctors, bankers and senior civil servants typically grew up in families with incomes well above the average family’s income, and that fewer people from average income families in the generation born in 1970 got into the professions than in the generation born in 1958. It notes that over half of professional occupations like law and finance are currently dominated by people from independent schools, which are attended by just 7 per cent of the population, with 75 per cent of judges and 45 per cent of top civil servants having gone to independent schools

The report emphasises that the data reflect entry to the professions in previous decades. It points out that recent initiatives could help remove some of the barriers but that, for the most recent generation, born in 1990, trends in access will not be known until after 2010.

It would be wrong to draw too many parallels with the veterinary profession, but there are clearly comparisons to be made. The ‘Gateways’ report discussed a number of issues affecting recruitment into the veterinary profession, noting, among other things, that far more women than men were training to become vets, with a bias towards higher socioeconomic groups, and that the high levels of debt that can be incurred during a veterinary course might well deter students who do not receive state or parental support from studying veterinary medicine. A recent survey by the BVA in conjunction with the Association of Veterinary Students suggests that the proportion of entrants to veterinary school from state schools is higher than that reported by the fair access panel for the professions generally. However, no one could argue that the socioeconomic, ethnic and gender mix of the veterinary profession reflects society as a whole.

The veterinary schools, both individually and collaboratively, have undertaken a number of initiatives aimed at widening participation, including development of the VetNet Lifelong Learning Network to help students on vocational courses get into higher education. In addition, the RCVS, in conjunction with the veterinary schools, has undertaken research into factors influencing school students’ decisions about whether to study veterinary medicine (VR, June 30, 2007, vol 160, p 885). On the basis of the findings, it has produced and distributed improved careers information for 14- to 16-year-olds. The information, ‘Veterinary Science . . . for all Walks of Life’, is available at www. walksoflife.org.uk. It explores the diversity of career options available to those with a veterinary degree and aims to broaden the range of applicants to veterinary school.

Such initiatives inevitably take time to show an effect, but the question arises whether they will prove to be sufficient. It is ironic that, at a time when the Government is again taking an interest in access to the professions, debt among veterinary students is rising – and there could potentially be a further step increase in the future when the issue of variable tuition fees is reviewed (VR, March 21, 2009, vol 164, p 347). The length of the veterinary course, coupled with the requirement for extramural studies, means that debt is a particular issue for veterinary students, and it is appropriate that the BVA’s Member Services’ Group is looking into ways of alleviating some of the problems (VR, April 4, 2009, vol 160, p 417). Student debt is a significant issue and, to ensure fair access, the emphasis must be on removing barriers, not on building more.

The fair access panel’s research paper is available at www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/strategy/work_areas/accessprofessions.aspx

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