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Evolutionary challenge

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IN his speech to the RCVS annual general meeting last month, the outgoing President, Sandy Trees, referred to the rapid evolution of the veterinary profession, both demographically and in terms of the range of services provided (see p 271 of this issue). An indication of how things are changing demographically is provided by the ‘facts and figures’ section of this year’s RCVS annual report,* which provides a statistical update on the veterinary and veterinary nursing professions in the UK.

As in previous reports over the past few years, one of the most striking illustrations is a bar chart giving a breakdown of home-practising veterinary surgeons by age and gender. This clearly illustrates the remarkable shift in the gender balance of the profession which has occurred over the past 30 years, showing that, whereas in the 51 to 55 age group, there are twice as many male vets as female vets, in the 26 to 30 age group, women outnumber men by more than two to one. Women now account for 53 per cent of home-practising veterinary surgeons, compared with 40 per cent 10 years ago.

Figures provided elsewhere in the report suggest that the upward trend is set to continue. Of the 4355 undergraduates currently studying for a veterinary degree in the UK, 3393 (78 per cent) are female, and women accounted for 640 of the 846 students admitted to the first year of the veterinary course last year. An increase in the number of veterinary students has been another phenomenon of recent years: 757 students obtained a veterinary degree in the UK in 2009, compared with 588 in 2004 and 460 in 1999.

Until fairly recently, the number of UK graduates registered by the RCVS each year was more than matched by the number of vets registered from overseas. However, with the rise in the number of UK graduates, along with a fall in the number of registrations from overseas, that situation has changed. The past five years have seen a decline in the number of overseas registrations, from 821 in 2005/06 to 529 in 2009/10.

Most veterinary surgeons in the UK work in general practice, while 4.7 per cent are employed in government service, 2.8 per cent work for charities and trusts and 1.3 per cent work in industry and commerce. Although more than 5 per cent work in universities and colleges, only 0.1 per cent are employed in research institutes.

It is interesting to speculate on the factors that may have contributed to the changes in the make up of the veterinary profession in recent years, although there is a limit to what can be determined just by looking at the figures. It is also interesting to speculate on the extent to which some of the trends apparent from the statistics presented in RCVS annual reports over the years are likely to continue. In the week that students in the UK get their A level results, and at a time when the way in which higher education in the UK is to be paid for in the future has still to be decided, this question seems particularly pertinent. Until now, unlike the situation in some other science-based disciplines, there has been no shortage of high-calibre applicants to veterinary school, although there has been concern that the socioeconomic mix of applicants is not representative of society as a whole. The veterinary course can be expensive for students and is expensive for universities to run and all the indications are that the costs to students are likely to increase. There must be concern about the effects of any increase in costs on future applications to veterinary school, particularly in relation to the efforts being made to increase applications from a wider cross section of society. As at present, there must also be concern about the effects of student debt on career choices made by graduates, particularly in relation to important activities which may seem less financially attractive, such as research.

In another speech at the RCVS annual general meeting, the incoming President, Peter Jinman, referred to the roles and responsibilities of animal owners, veterinary surgeons and government in relation to animal health and welfare. As far as government is concerned, he referred, in particular, to ‘a responsibility of government to ensure that there is proper provision of the necessary infrastructure to allow education, research and surveillance to flourish’. It was clear from the speeches that the profession faces a number of challenges as it continues to evolve and public expectations increase. Not least among these, in the current economic and political climate, will be making sure that education and research can continue to thrive, as is so necessary to meet the demands of the future.

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