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SUPPLY and demand for new veterinary graduates has been exercising minds in the profession of late. This has been prompted partly by the University of Surrey's announcement last year of plans to open a new veterinary school, potentially adding to the output of the existing schools, which has itself increased in recent years, and partly by reports of the situation in the USA, where it has been suggested that the output of veterinary colleges may already be exceeding demand (VR, March 23, 2013, vol 172, p 300; May 4, 2013, vol 172, p 460). In July, the RCVS published a summary of the results of a survey examining the employment experiences of UK veterinary graduates over the past five years, suggesting that job prospects for new graduates were ‘not as gloomy’ as some were predicting (VR, July 13, 2013, vol 173, pp 31-32); the full results of that survey were made available last week.1 Meanwhile, the BVA held a discussion forum last week to consider the impact of new veterinary schools on future employment, and to try to establish what lies ahead for current and future graduates.
Predicting employment trends and attempting to match supply and demand is notoriously difficult; indeed, as one speaker remarked during the discussion forum, the only thing that can be said with certainty is that any such forecasts are likely to turn out to be wrong. However, the forum, which considered the issues from a variety of perspectives, was certainly topical, as evidenced by news that the University of Ulster is planning to open a veterinary school in Northern Ireland (see pp 416-417 of this issue).
Among many points made during the forum, and one reiterated by the RCVS in a press statement last week, is that the RCVS has no mandate to control student or graduate numbers, nor is it in a position to manage the veterinary workforce in the context of the free market and movement of workers within the EU. Rather, the Royal College says, its role is in ‘setting, upholding and advancing the standards that any new UK veterinary degrees would need to meet in order to be approved by the Privy Council’.
Although vets are no longer on the UK's official ‘shortage occupation’ list, non-UK graduates still account for a significant proportion of vets on the RCVS Register, accounting for 740 of 1547 new registrations in 2012/13; given that most new graduates soon find jobs, this suggests that, for the time being at least, the number of home-produced graduates still falls short of the number of jobs available. However, it was acknowledged during the forum that some areas of work were more popular than others, with equine practice, in particular, appearing to be oversubscribed (see VR, July 13, 2013, vol 173, p 31). Veterinary education and movement of veterinarians were, it was suggested, increasingly international, and the issues could not just be viewed locally. At the same time, concern was expressed that, although their graduates were legally entitled to work in the UK, a number of European veterinary schools had not been assessed under the European Association of Establishments for Veterinary Education's voluntary evaluation scheme.
As a number of speakers pointed out, it would be difficult to argue against expansion simply on the basis of diminished job prospects for new graduates; while this was clearly a concern, particularly for current undergraduates, many of whom were accumulating higher levels of debt than previously, to do so would smack of protectionism. Of possibly greater concern was the effect on educational standards as an increasing number of veterinary schools vied for a limited pool of suitably qualified staff. This is clearly an issue and, interestingly, this year's ‘RCVS Facts’, which includes a number of statistics about the profession, indicates that there are fewer vets working in universities and colleges this year than was the case last year – 834 at the end of March 2013 compared with 979 in 2012.2 A solution, it was argued, might be to improve the career paths and kudos associated with veterinary teaching.
Extramural studies (EMS) was considered to be an essential component of veterinary education in the UK and, it was suggested, could prove to be a limiting factor if student numbers continued to increase. Figures presented at the meeting indicated that, in theory at least, there should be more than enough placements available in practices to accommodate students. However, provision appeared to be ‘lumpy’, with variations in the quality and availability of EMS in different subjects and geographical areas at different times. The flexibility provided by EMS was appreciated, but it was felt that the system would benefit from being better structured and coordinated nationally.
It would be hard to argue that increasing numbers of graduates will not affect future employment. However, it was pointed out, the effects need not necessarily be negative. A veterinary education is much more than a technical training and there are many areas beyond the traditionally popular areas of practice where veterinary expertise is needed and can be usefully applied. Employment prospects for veterinary graduates are still better than for graduates in many other fields, although it is clearly important that prospective students are kept informed of developments so that, if the situation changes, they embark on a course with realistic expectations. Good careers advice will obviously have an important part to play in all this.
It was clear from the discussion forum that many factors could potentially affect future employment prospects of new graduates, and that this is not just a matter of numbers. The future has always been hard to predict and an important goal for the veterinary schools must be to continue to ensure that their students emerge with the skills they will need to succeed in a world that is changing rapidly.
1. www.rcvs.org.uk/publications/rcvs-survey-of-recent-graduates-ies-2013/ Accessed October 29, 1023
2. www.rcvs.org.uk/publications/rcvs-facts-2013/ Accessed October 29, 2013
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