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Building a broader base

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What makes students want to take a veterinary degree, and what might be done to attract a broader range of applicants? These questions are important – not just in the context of the Government’s ‘widening participation’ agenda, but also, and perhaps more fundamentally, because it is on today’s students that the future of the profession depends.

In a paper on p 744 of this issue, Jane Tomlin and colleagues from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) attempt to provide some answers. They describe a survey undertaken among undergraduates at different stages of the course at the RVC to investigate what influenced them to study veterinary medicine. The study aimed to find out what motivates students to select veterinary medicine as a career, and whether male and female students are motivated by different factors. It also aimed to find out whether students entering the course under the ‘Gateway’ widening participation scheme are motivated by different factors from students entering the course by the traditional route. As things stand, the student veterinary population is predominantly white, middle-class and female, and the Gateway scheme is designed to attract students from a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds and ethnic groups on to the course.

Among other things, the study found that wanting to work with animals and exposure to a veterinary role model as a result of having taken an animal to a vet were the major factors influencing the undergraduates’ choice of a veterinary career, regardless of their socioeconomic background. Overall, women undergraduates were more strongly influenced than the men by owning animals, and the men were more positively influenced by the challenging nature of the course. Men appeared to be more likely than women to be attracted by the scientific nature of the undergraduate degree although the numbers giving this as the main reason for taking a veterinary degree were small.

The results reported in the paper illustrate the capacity of schoolteachers to influence students’ decisions on whether to become a vet, either positively or negatively. An interesting and somewhat worrying finding was that almost one-third of the students responding to the survey felt that careers advisers had been a negative influence on their choice of career. On the basis of an earlier study (see VR, June 30, 2007, vol 160, pp 885, 886), the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons produced improved careers information aimed at 14 to 16 year olds, highlighting the opportunities for would-be vets, but it seems that effort still needs to be devoted to getting the message across. The careers information is available at www.rcvs.org.uk/visitors.

Another finding of the RVC study was that the number of students with relatives who are vets was relatively low; as the researchers remark, it would be interesting to find out what career paths the children of vets do take and what percentage follow in their parents’ footsteps.

About 90 per cent of the RVC students wanted to work in general practice when they graduated. A second paper by the RVC research team, to be published in next week’s Veterinary Record, evaluates whether students have a realistic view of what a career in practice entails. One finding was that, although most of the students wanted to work in practice, and generally had a realistic view of what would be involved, other career options did not appear to be well understood, particularly by entry-level students. Such findings highlight a need to educate school students, careers advisers and the public in general about the many career opportunities arising from a veterinary degree, and this, too, is an area where attention might still need to be focused.

A better understanding of the wide range of opportunities available as a result of a veterinary degree might not only help widen participation; it could also attract those with a wider range of interests into the profession than is currently the case. Given the vocational nature of the course it is understandable that the majority of students entering veterinary school envisage a career in practice. However, as highlighted by Professor Sandy Trees in his plenary Wooldridge Memorial Lecture at last year’s BVA Congress, there are many other career avenues that veterinary surgeons can usefully pursue (VR, October 24, 2009, vol 165, pp 486-487). Drawing from a wider pool of applicants with a wider range of interests could help the profession fulfil its full potential, to the benefit of the profession and society as a whole.

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