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Rising debt

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EVERY three years since 1996, the BVA in conjunction with the Association of Veterinary Students (AVS) has carried out a survey of students at the UK veterinary schools. The survey covers a range of issues, including student background, levels of debt, and satisfaction with the course. As the number of veterinary students continues to rise, and with universities to introduce variable tuition (‘top-up’) fees from the beginning of the next academic year, the results of the latest survey are of particular interest.

The findings are based on a questionnaire distributed among veterinary students at all stages of the course during the 2004/05 academic year. More than 1600 students completed and returned the questionnaire, representing half the total number of veterinary students at the time.

A key finding is that levels of debt are rising. This is not unexpected, and there is every likelihood that they will rise further still. In assessing debt levels, it is important to distinguish between first-degree students, for whom the higher education funding councils contribute to the cost of the course, and second-degree and overseas students, who must pay the full fees. Average levels of debt among first-degree students in their fifth year at the six British veterinary schools amounted to more than £17,000 in 2005, compared with £8000 in 2002 and £7000 in 1999. This figure was expected to rise to more than £19,000 by the time the students graduated. The introduction of tuition fees for students entering universities in England and Wales from 1998 onwards has clearly contributed to the increase, and this is reflected in the finging that average debts among first-degree students at the two schools in Scotland were significantly lower than those of their counterparts in England.

For second-degree and overseas students, who together accounted for about 15 per cent of the students participating in the survey, debts were significantly higher. Amounts differed between veterinary schools, but across the six UK schools they averaged £68,000 for fifth-year students in 2004/05, and were expected to rise to £71,000 on graduation. In 2002, the figures were £37,000 and £39,000, respectively.

A worrying finding in comparing the results of the 1999 and 2005 surveys is that the proportion of final-year students who considered themselves to be in serious financial difficulties has almost doubled, rising from 20 per cent to 38 per cent in just six years.

The introduction of variable tuition fees in England and Wales in 2005/06 will add to the cost to students of a veterinary degree, and can be expected to push up debts even further. Unlike existing tuition fees, top-up fees will not have to be paid ‘up front’, but they will still have to be paid back at some stage, and might be seen as storing up problems for the future.

In England, the introduction of top-up fees might go some way to alleviating the financial pressures on veterinary schools, helping to reduce the gap between the funding available to the schools and the costs of providing a veterinary education. However, the fact that they are not being introduced in Scotland will add to the pressures on the Scottish schools, unless alternative means are found of making up the shortfall. In any event, the prospect of substantial debt is bound to affect the choices made by those considering seeking a place at veterinary school, particularly if they come from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds – and the reality of those debts will inevitably affect the expectations of new graduates. Whether those expectations can necessarily be met remains to be seen, but, as discussed at this year’s BVA Congress, higher debts among new graduates will have consequences for the whole profession (VR, October 8, 2005, vol 157, pp 429-430).

A quarter of the students responding to the 2005 BVA/AVS survey said that the introduction of top-up fees of £3000 a year would have affected their decision to enter veterinary school, and a similar proportion said their existing debts would affect their choice of job on graduation. While, for existing students, the issue of top-up fees is theoretical, both findings must be of concern. A course leading to a veterinary degree takes longer than most other courses, lasting five years (six in the case of Cambridge) rather than the more usual three, so the introduction of annual top-up fees will have a disproportionate effect on overall levels of debt. In addition, veterinary students have less opportunity to supplement their income than other students because of the intensive nature of the course and requirements for extramural study. The Government has recognised potential difficulties in the human field, and intends to meet the cost of tuition fees for medical and dental students in the clinical years of their course. However, it has made clear that it will be making no such provision in the veterinary field, and the profession will be left to fend for itself.

One of the more encouraging findings from the survey was that, overall, students’ satisfaction with the course has risen over the past three years. Seventy-five per cent indicated that they were ‘well’ or ‘very well’ satisfied with the course in 2005, compared with 69 per cent in 2002; only 2·5 per cent rated the way subjects had been covered as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. With students contributing more to the cost of their course, value for money will become more important in the years ahead. For the time being, this is being provided. However, the increasing complexity of veterinary educational funding, and changing demographics in the profession, undoubtedly present challenges for the future.

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