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Tuition fee challenge

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THE announcement by the Government last week of plans for ‘ensuring that higher education is open to all’ has done little to allay concerns about the impact that the rise in university tuition fees from 2012 will have on the decisions made by prospective students, nor has it done much to clarify how much money will be available to the universities themselves. Under the Government's plans, universities in England will be able to raise tuition fees to between £6000 and £9000 a year. However, universities wanting to charge more than £6000 will be expected to ‘work much harder to recruit students from disadvantaged backgrounds’ and, in a letter to the director of the Office of Fair Access last week, ministers set out the conditions they want to see applied. They also announced details of a national scholarship programme, which could make scholarships ‘worth at least £3000 for individual students in tuition discounts and other benefits’ available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This, they suggest, could benefit around 50,000 students a year from 2014.

Oxford and Cambridge have already indicated that they hope to charge the maximum £9000 and, although the Government has said that ‘graduate contributions of £9000 should only apply in exceptional circumstances’, other high-ranking universities – which include the universities with veterinary schools – seem likely to follow suit. It takes five years to complete a veterinary degree (six in the case of Cambridge), so most students contemplating a veterinary course will have to consider the prospects of debts on graduating of £45,000 (or £54,000) in tuition fees alone. As Harvey Locke, the BVA President pointed out in a speech at the Association's London dinner last week, where guests included Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State at Defra (see pp 171–172 of this issue), the increase in tuition fees could have ‘a huge impact on the decisions of A-level students, with fewer and fewer opting for an expensive veterinary degree’.

Living costs must also be taken into account and here, he pointed out, veterinary students face a ‘double whammy’ because, on top of the length of the course, they must also fulfil a requirement to undertake 38 weeks of extramural studies, which makes it difficult for them to offset their living costs by taking jobs in vacations. Unlike medical and dental students, they receive no contribution towards their fees from the NHS.

None of these factors is likely to encourage students to opt for a veterinary degree, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds who, despite the possibility of bursaries, are traditionally those who are most reluctant to take on big debts. They will certainly not assist in widening participation, to which the veterinary schools have devoted much effort in recent years.

The impact on the career choices made by graduates must also be of concern. Graduates will need to pay off their debts, and this could make it more difficult to recruit them into some of the potentially less lucrative fields where their skills are nevertheless needed. Research is an obvious example, and the increase could undermine the efforts that are being made to get more vets involved. Similarly, it could affect future provision of farm veterinary services. The potential impact on research and farm veterinary provision is particularly worrying, and could have implications in areas such as food security, public health and control of emerging and exotic diseases – areas where, it could be argued, veterinary input is needed as never before.

Responding to some of the BVA President's comments, Mrs Spelman gave little room for hope that the veterinary profession could expect any special favours in relation to the changes affecting higher education. She appreciated that changes to the loan regime had implications for the veterinary course and, with student children herself, was well aware of the salience of the issue of student debt. However, she said, ‘I'm afraid we're in tough economic times. I'm also sure you want to see the quality of vet schools maintained for generations of vets to come.’

On the wider question of farm veterinary provision and veterinary involvement in the food chain, she drew attention to the recently formed Veterinary Development Council (VR, February 5, 2011, vol 168, p 115). This, she said, was a great example of working in partnership. ‘It gives vets and their customers the chance to think together on current and future demand for veterinary services, and decide how best these needs should be met.’

The increase in tuition fees presents some significant challenges for the veterinary profession, and imaginative solutions will be needed.

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