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Great aspirations

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'ELITISM in the professions and a lack of focus on careers in schools mean that bright young people from middle class as well as lower income backgrounds are being shut out from professional jobs.

'Without action to address Britain's "closed shop" mentality, tomorrow's generation of talented young people will miss out on a new wave of social mobility.'

Those comments were not specifically addressed at the veterinary profession, but they might have a familiar ring. They were made by Alan Milburn MP last month on publication of a report called 'Unleashing Aspiration' from the Panel on Fair Access to the Professions, which he chaired.*

The panel was set up by the Prime Minister at the beginning of this year to examine 'the processes and structures that govern recruitment into key professions'. In April, it published a research paper highlighting 'key trends and issues in access to the professions', the principal conclusion of which was that many of Britain's professions have, if anything, become more socially exclusive over the years, with the result that bright children from middle class families, as well as those from poorer backgrounds, are missing out on top professional jobs (VR, April 25, 2009, vol 164, p 509). Its latest report reaffirms that finding, and makes numerous recommendations aimed at putting things right.

Another reason they might sound familiar is that this is not the first time that the issue of access to the professions has come under scrutiny. In 2005, another governmentcommissioned report, 'Gateways to the Professions', by Sir Alan Langlands, vicechancellor of the University of Dundee, also looked at factors affecting recruitment into the professions and (unlike the fair access panel's report) identified some key issues specifically affecting the veterinary profession. These included: 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; and the effect of increased tuition fees on applications for veterinary degrees, and of high levels of debt among graduates on the numbers going into less well paid areas of the profession such as farm animal practice and veterinary research (VR, February 4, 2006, vol 158, p 141).

The Gateways report was helpful, as a number of these issues had been of concern to the veterinary profession for some time. It also resulted in a number of initiatives aimed at widening participation, including a project involving the RCVS and the veterinary schools to improve the careers information available to schools (VR, June 30, 2007, vol 160, p 885; May 17, 2008, vol 162, p 635).

Such initiatives inevitably take time to show an effect and it is still too early to say how effective they will be. Whether the fair access panel's report will provide a further stimulus for change also remains to be seen, although schools, colleges, universities and the professions will clearly have to pay heed to what it says.

There is, of course, a fundamental problem in all of this, in that a veterinary course is expensive for universities to run and, for those not eligible for bursaries, expensive for students to take. The potential costs to students are higher than in many other subjects, both because of the length of the course, which means that annual tuition fees have to be paid for more years and debts can be incurred over a longer period, and because extramural studies requirements and the intensive nature of the course make it almost impossible for students to supplement their income through part-time work or by working in vacations. The issue of debt among veterinary students on graduation is already of concern to many in the veterinary profession, not least the students themselves, and, as highlighted in a recent survey of undergraduates by the BVA and the Association of Veterinary Students, shows no signs of diminishing (VR, May 23, 2009, vol 164, pp 638-639). School students are not daft and, no matter how good their careers advice or how motivated they might be, they will be unlikely to want to embark on a course that could saddle them with high levels of debt unless there is a clear prospect of a return in the future. Inevitably, and particularly in the current economic climate, this will be more of a concern among those from poorer backgrounds.

The Government is right to draw attention to social imbalance in the professions and to itself aspire to 'unleashing aspiration'. However, at a time when the funding available for teaching in universities is being squeezed and there is a real prospect of the current cap on tuition fees being raised, it is leaving the veterinary profession with some difficult circles to square.

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