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Not just a matter of numbers

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WHEN, in 2012, the University of Surrey announced plans to open a new veterinary school, it ignited a debate in the profession about student numbers which continues to this day (see, for example, the letter from Bob Michell on p 357 of this issue). Surrey might have provided the spark, but, with most of the existing schools having significantly increased their intake in recent years, the debate might usefully have been started sooner. As Surrey now welcomes its first cohort of students (see p 338 of this issue), it would be churlish not to wish them, and all the other students embarking on a veterinary degree this autumn, well.

Meanwhile, arguments about the merits, or otherwise, of increasing numbers of veterinary graduates and the impact of new schools look likely to continue for some time yet. Some of these were aired at a BVA discussion forum in October last year (VR, November 2, 2013, vol 173, pp 406, 416-417). On the one hand, it is argued, increasing numbers of students and a finite number of jobs in practice will make it harder for new graduates to find jobs in the future and conspire to push salaries down. This is no small consideration at a time when graduates are emerging with much higher levels of debt than previously – debts which, at some stage, will have to be repaid. The results of the latest RCVS survey of the veterinary profession (VR, September 27, 2014, vol 175, pp 288, 289), indicating that a lower proportion of recent graduates are going straight into jobs in practice than was the case in a similar survey conducted four years ago, seem likely to add fuel to this line of argument.

On the other hand, it has been argued, there are careers other than practice to which veterinary students are well suited, and you can't have too much of a good thing. The argument here is that the profession is too narrowly focused on practice when there are plenty of other areas where veterinary skills are needed, including, for example, research and public health. The idea is that, as practice options become more limited, new graduates might be encouraged to work in areas where veterinary input is currently lacking. In a world increasingly driven by market forces, there may be little fundamentally wrong with this argument, and Veterinary Record's Careers section has included numerous articles by vets who have found themselves pursuing unexpected and highly fulfilling careers outside practice. However, it does seem important that, so far as possible, students embarking on their career know what the opportunities are from the start.

It has been suggested, too, that increasing numbers of veterinary students – and the opening of new schools – might dilute the pool of talented academics available to teach them, and that this might lead to a reduction in veterinary standards. The counter-argument here, as far as the UK is concerned, is that the RCVS exists to ensure standards, and it must see that standards (and staff:student ratios) are maintained. If a shortage of academics is likely to be a problem, then the answer is to expand and develop the academic pool – surely, that in itself would be no bad thing.

There are numerous other factors impacting on the student numbers/veterinary employment debate, not the least of which is that, like everything else, veterinary education is becoming more international. Just as more overseas students are studying in the UK, more UK students are studying abroad. Whereas previously most non-UK graduates working in the UK originated from countries outside the EU/EEA (mainly Australia and South Africa), these days EU/EEA graduates make up the majority. The UK veterinary schools must compete internationally, and an important part of this must be in being innovative and in maintaining an educational ‘edge’ in producing graduates who can readily find employment.

Also significant are the changes occurring in practice. Being a modern vet is, as a recent article in the New Statesman pointed out, ‘no longer James Heriott in wellies’ (VR, July 26, 2014, vol 175, p 78) – and, as a result of corporatisation and other developments, practice is currently changing particularly rapidly. This seems to have been reflected in the results of the recent RCVS survey, which found, among other things, that, while the proportion of veterinary surgeons currently working as full- or part-time assistants in clinical practice had remained unchanged since 2010 (at 57 per cent), the proportion working as equity partners had more than halved (from 13 to 6 per cent). The survey also recorded a fall in the proportion of respondents working in mixed and equine practices between 2010 and 2014, while, having fallen in previous surveys, the proportion working in farm animal/production animal practice seemed to have stabilised at around 4 per cent. As well as affecting future employment options, such trends, if they continue, could have implications for the availability of student EMS placements in the future, particularly if student numbers continue to increase.

With so many different forces acting on the profession (and, indeed, on society as a whole), it is important to prepare graduates for an uncertain future. The veterinary degree might be a vocational degree but, inevitably, the nature of that vocation will continue to change. In these circumstances, it is important to think of a veterinary degree as providing an education in the wider sense, not just as a specific form of practical training.

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