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Fees and degrees

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SUMMER in the UK sees the yearly ritual in which students hoping to go to university anxiously await and then get their A-level results; for those unlucky enough not to achieve the grades they need for the course of their choice, this may be followed by a mad dash through Clearing in an attempt to find a place elsewhere. This annual spectacle – the culmination of a convoluted process by which students must make decisions and apply to universities long before they sit their exams – is painful to watch even in normal years. However, this year the process has been more fraught and the pressures on students even greater than usual. First, as widely reported, there has been the scramble for places as prospective students try to escape the increase in tuition fees that will apply to universities in England from 2012. Secondly, with the Government's white paper on reform of higher education still out for consultation, there have been uncertainties facing the universities themselves.

In a Viewpoint article on pp 255–257 of this issue, Neil Gorman, vice-chancellor of Nottingham Trent University and a former president of the RCVS and the BSAVA, discusses the Government's proposed reforms and their likely impact on students, universities and graduates, with particular reference to the veterinary profession.

Concern about the impact of the increase in tuition fees and the prospect of increased debt among graduates has been expressed before in this journal but is by no means diminished by the passage of time. One of the main issues is that the veterinary course is two to three years longer than most other courses so debts on graduating will be that much higher. The problem is compounded by the intensive nature of the course and the requirement for students to undertake extramural studies, which makes it difficult for them to take part-time jobs or jobs in vacations. Unlike medical and dental students, veterinary students receive no contribution to their fees from the NHS. These factors, coupled with the fact that a veterinary career may be less lucrative than a career in other professions, could deter prospective students, particularly those from poorer backgrounds who, despite the availability of bursaries, are less likely to apply to university and are traditionally more reluctant to take on debt. For those who do take the course, the need to pay off their debts will affect career choices after graduating, making it more difficult to attract vets into research and other important but potentially less lucrative activities where their skills are needed. The increased debt will also add to the financial burden on graduates at a time in their lives when they might be hoping to take out a mortgage or invest in a practice business.

There is some indication that the Government recognises the problem associated with longer courses, but whether it is prepared to do anything about it remains to be seen. In a recent report, Simon Hughes, the Coalition Government's advocate for access to education, noted that ‘there are particular courses which need particular attention if we are to widen access: medicine and dentistry, veterinary science and architecture, for example, require an initial period of study much longer than three years. Because of the accumulated costs of the extra years at university for students of these subjects, and any others requiring longer initial courses, there is a particular danger that these subjects become overwhelmingly the preserve either of the children of those already working in these professions, or of those who do not have to worry about money when they are applying to university.’ He recommended that ‘education institutions recruiting for longer courses and the organisations associated with these professions should have particular programmes aimed at widening access to these courses’.

Reform of the student quota system will mean that most universities will need to compete for and attract more students with A-level grades of AAB or higher if they want to maintain the same number of students. This is unlikely to present an immediate problem for the veterinary schools in terms of student numbers because, for the time being at least, their courses are oversubscribed and most veterinary students have to achieve these grades anyway. What it will do, however, is present them with a problem in terms of widening access, which is also a requirement of the new arrangements, because, as a result of inequalities in the school system, capable students from disadvantaged backgrounds may be less likely to obtain high grades.

The BVA is finalising its response to the Government's consultation, working with the Association of Veterinary Students. The reforms will also be the subject of a debate at the BVA's annual congress later this month, where there will clearly be much to discuss.

■ The BVA Congress will be held in London from September 22 to 24. Details at www.bva.co.uk/BVA_Congress.aspx

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