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IT's not every day that a new UK veterinary school gets recognised by the RCVS, so the recommendation from the Royal College Council last week that students graduating from the new veterinary school at Nottingham should be eligible for RCVS membership and to practise as veterinary surgeons is clearly a significant event. For more than 50 years there have been six fully fledged veterinary schools in the UK: now there are seven, and the fact that recognition has been achieved before the first cohort of students receive their degrees reflects well on the university and its staff. It also reflects well on the students themselves. When the veterinary school took in its first students in 2006 there was no guarantee that their degree would qualify them to practise after five years of study, so to some extent they were acting on trust.
In fact, the university and the RCVS have been in contact since before 2005, when the RCVS was asked by the university to comment on the draft curriculum. An RCVS-appointed team of expert visitors carried out an interim inspection of the veterinary school in 2009 and a further full inspection in February this year. In addition, it appointed two external examiners to monitor the assessment and examination process for final-year students to ensure that the degree meets the required standards.
Both the visitors' and examiners' reports were discussed at the RCVS Council meeting last week where they were described as ‘glowing’. From the start, the veterinary school has adopted an innovative, ‘outcomes-based’ approach to the curriculum, underpinned by the principle that the veterinary course should comprise both basic veterinary sciences and clinical subjects, delivered progressively in a clinically integrated programme using a problem-orientated approach. Students are provided with animal and practical experience from the first day of the course, with the aim that they graduate as research literate and practically competent veterinary surgeons with an in-depth knowledge of relevant veterinary science that underpins the clinical subjects. The curriculum is structured around body system-based modules covering all the common domestic, wildlife and exotic species, with the modules having been developed in consultation with veterinary academics, veterinary practitioners and specialist divisions of the profession.
In its report, the RCVS visitation team commends the school on creating an innovative new curriculum, applauding the introduction of clinically relevant material early in the course and praising the early introduction to some diagnostic techniques. It also commends the school on establishing what it describes as a workable ‘distributed model’ to allow students to gain their clinical experience; unlike the other UK veterinary schools, Nottingham does not have an on-site hospital but has instead developed a relationship with a network of local veterinary establishments to ensure that students are exposed to an appropriate caseload.
In a remark that could be considered to have relevance beyond the confines of veterinary education, the visiting team's report commends the University of Nottingham on ‘its substantial financial undertaking in establishing the veterinary school, its continued commitment and investment made to date, as well as the far-sightedness of its budgetary provision and its commitment to devolved authority of the Dean’. If only the same kind of thing could be said of the Government's approach to the funding of higher education as a whole. The Government's plans certainly seem to be in some disarray, as illustrated again this week by a report from the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee suggesting that England's universities could face a significant funding gap as a result of miscalculation of the number of universities planning to charge maximum tuition fees. The continuing uncertainty surrounding tuition fees and the income they might expect to receive is confusing the universities, let alone prospective students, and severely inhibiting their ability to plan ahead. As far as the veterinary profession is concerned, the planned hike in tuition fees from 2012 is of particular concern because the length and nature of the veterinary course mean that would-be students will have to consider the prospect of debts on graduating of at least £45,000 in tuition fees alone. This seems almost certain to affect the career choices made by prospective students and graduates and will do nothing to assist the efforts being made to widen participation in the profession (VR, February 19, 2011, vol 168, p 170).
The establishment and formal recognition of Nottingham veterinary school is a significant success story, particularly in the current climate. However, it comes at a difficult time for higher education and, for all of the veterinary schools, there are clearly some challenges ahead.