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Playing fair

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THREE years ago, in a report called ‘Unleashing aspiration’, former Labour minister Alan Milburn bemoaned elitism in the professions, arguing that this meant that bright young people from middle class as well as lower income backgrounds were being shut out from professional jobs, to the detriment of the professions and society as a whole (VR, August 8, 2009, vol 165, p 155). A few years earlier, in a report called ‘Gateways to the professions’, Sir Alan Langlands, then vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee, also examined recruitment into the professions, and made a number of recommendations for widening their socioeconomic base (VR, February 4, 2006, vol 158, p 141).

So what has happened since? Not enough, according to Mr Milburn, who has since been appointed as Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility and Child Poverty by the Coalition Government and who, in a follow-up report published last month,* assesses progress to date.

A key concern of the 2009 report was that Britain's professions were becoming more exclusive. Research had found, for example, that professionals typically grew up in families with incomes well above average, and that fewer people from average income families in the generation born in 1970 were getting into the professions than in the generation born in 1958. It had also found that more than half of the professional occupations like law and finance were dominated by people from independent schools, which only 7 per cent of the population attended. It identified a series of practical barriers that prevented fair access to a professional career, and made a number of recommendations aimed at making the process ‘more genuinely meritocratic’.

In his follow-up report, Mr Milburn suggests that, across the professions as a whole, ‘the glass ceiling has been scratched but not broken’ and that, despite some pockets of progress, the professions have done too little to catch up. The judiciary, he suggests, remains ‘solidly elitist’, while journalism is becoming more so. Meanwhile, 57 per cent of students successfully applying to medical school in 2011/12 came from the top three socioeconomic groups and only 7 per cent from the lowest three, with 22 per cent of medical and dental students having been educated in private schools. Overall, he concludes, ‘the evidence collected for this report suggests that there is only, at best, limited progress being made in prising open the professions. That is not about to change at anytime soon. Data collected for this report indicates that the next generation of our country's lawyers, doctors and journalists are likely to be a mirror image of previous generations.’

As in 2009 there is no mention of the veterinary profession in Mr Milburn's report, which rather begs the question why not. Nevertheless, it is worth considering the extent to which some of its messages might apply. Certainly, the veterinary profession has devoted much effort to this area since Sir Alan Langlands highlighted some of the issues affecting veterinary recruitment in his ‘Gateways’ report in 2005. This has resulted in various initiatives aimed at widening participation, including research into students' decisions about whether to study veterinary medicine (VR, June 30, 2007, vol 160, p 885), provision of careers information aimed at 14- to 16-year-olds emphasising the diverse range of opportunities presented by a veterinary degree (www.walksoflife.org.uk) and development of the VetNet Lifelong Learning Network to help students on vocational courses get into veterinary higher education. These and other initiatives were summarised in an article in Veterinary Record earlier this year (VR, January 7, 2012, vol 170, p 9). Such initiatives inevitably take time to show an effect, and the extent to which they will change the prevailing demographic trend remains to be seen.

Also pertinent in this context is the introduction of higher tuition fees for students embarking on a veterinary degree this autumn. Interestingly, unlike the situation for many other university courses, applications to veterinary school this year are higher than last year, despite the fact that the veterinary course is longer and more intensive than most other courses, so the debts on graduating can be expected to be greater. This is encouraging and may reflect the fact that a veterinary degree is seen as offering good prospects for future employment. However, it will be interesting to see what impact the higher fees and new student loan arrangements will have on the socioeconomic mix of the profession in the future.

There is more than just ‘being fair’ in making a professional career potentially available to all, although fairness is a reasonable goal in its own right. As Mr Milburn points out in his report, the professions are going through turbulent times. For their own development, they will need to make best use of all the diverse talent that society can offer.

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