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THE closing date for applications to study veterinary medicine at a UK university next year was only last Saturday, so it is still too early to assess the immediate impact of the Government's proposed reforms of higher education in England on the numbers of students applying. Nevertheless, it is hard not to be concerned about the likely effects of the reforms on the intake of students in future years and, indeed, on the way the profession might develop in the future. Some of these were highlighted in the BVA's response to the Government's consultation on the reforms, as set out in its White Paper, ‘Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System’, which was published in June. As well as discussing university funding – including the increase in tuition fees that will apply from 2012 – the White Paper focuses on ‘improving the student experience’ and ‘increasing social mobility’. These are both admirable aims. However, as the BVA points out in its response, which was prepared in conjunction with the Association of Veterinary Students, the impact of the proposals on specialised subject areas such as veterinary medicine and science ‘may not be entirely positive’.
Not least among the concerns is the impact of the increase in tuition fees and the prospect of higher debts on graduation on the efforts being made to widen access to the profession. The veterinary course is two to three years longer than most university courses and the debts on graduation will be proportionately higher. The course is intensive, and also includes a compulsory extramural studies element, which makes it difficult for students to supplement their income by working part time or in vacations. These factors, coupled with the fact that a veterinary career is potentially less lucrative than those in other professions (including medicine, where more support is available for clinical training) could deter potential applicants. They are particularly likely to deter students from poorer backgrounds who, despite the availability of bursaries, are traditionally more reluctant to take on debt.
For those who do take the course, the need to pay off their debts will inevitably affect career choices on graduation. This could be particularly damaging in terms of the efforts being made to tempt more vets into research, with graduates being reluctant to undertake a further three years' study for a PhD. It could also affect future provision of farm/production animal veterinary services, with companion animal medicine being seen as more attractive financially. Whatever the area of practice, the increased burden of debt can be expected to affect both the personal and professional development of graduates, with implications for society and the profession itself. For example, how willing or able might a graduate be to take out a mortgage or invest in a practice business if they are already saddled with significant debt? And how easy will it be for the veterinary schools to inspire future veterinary researchers if they are unable to find enough veterinary-qualified research students, some of whom might ultimately form part of their staff?
The proposals in the White Paper leave the veterinary schools with some difficult circles to square. The veterinary course is expensive to run and all of the schools will be charging the maximum fees allowed by the Government. However, given the cost of the course to students, they could have difficulties meeting the widening participation requirements that are a condition for charging the higher fees. The White Paper gives universities the option of increasing their quota of students by competing for applicants with A-level grades of AAB or higher. This could be an attractive option for the veterinary schools because, for the time being at least, the veterinary course is oversubscribed and most students have to achieve these grades anyway. However, if any of the schools do decide to increase the number of students, there could be difficulties in ensuring that the quality of teaching is maintained. The proposals place great emphasis on student choice and on tailoring courses to meet students' requirements. This in itself may be no bad thing, but it does rather depend on students being well informed at an early stage of their careers and, with decisions having to be made long before they go to university, presents an educational challenge in itself. There is a danger from the proposals that courses could become more vocational in nature which, taken to extremes and without due emphasis on science and research, could prove highly damaging in the longer term.
The Government is also promoting university engagement with business which, in the case of the veterinary profession, must include veterinary practices and mean veterinary business in its widest sense. Its proposed reforms present challenges not just for students and veterinary schools but for the profession as a whole, which will clearly be affected by the changes and needs to be involved in finding solutions.