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Building in progress

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CHANGE continues in and around the veterinary profession and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has been developing various initiatives in response. Over the past 12 months, a number of these have started to come to fruition. They include the Practice Standards Scheme; development of a system of modular certificates; and plans for a postgraduate development phase for new graduates, which will become mandatory next year. In the meantime, the College has continued to refine its proposals for a new Veterinary Surgeons Act, to the extent that it now feels that they can be promoted to government.

An overview of progress on these initiatives, and how they interrelate, is provided by the RCVS annual report for 2006, which has just been published and explains how the College continues to plan for an uncertain future. As the RCVS President, Mrs Lynne Hill, puts it in her introduction, ‘The College must continue to challenge the profession to decide on the future it wants. The foundations have been laid but the style of the house to be built is not yet known.’ She calls on all members of the profession, particularly the younger ones, to ‘get involved’. This, she says, ‘is the only way to ensure that the future they hoped for turns into the present they always wanted’.

Work continues, but full implementation of the College’s strategy will need planning permission in the form of a new Veterinary Surgeons Act. At this stage, it is not clear when the Government will find time for Parliament to consider the matter or, if new legislation is enacted, what kind of building restrictions might be applied.

In an introductory review, the RCVS Registrar, Miss Jane Hern, draws attention to the results of the 2006 veterinary employment survey and to a proposal submitted under the Government’s ‘Gateways to the Professions’ project (see VR, February 4, 2006, vol 158, p 141), which aims to address problems in recruitment and attract a broader socioeconomic mix of applicants into the professions. The College has submitted a bid for funding under this project in conjunction with the veterinary schools. If the bid is successful, it intends to investigate what might be preventing students from different backgrounds from applying to veterinary school. The results will be used to help develop better careers information, highlighting the range of career options available to someone with a veterinary qualification.

The initiative is certainly timely. As well as highlighting the need to encourage a broader range of applicants, the annual report notes that application rates for places at the UK veterinary schools are falling. In 2004, there were 1·8 applications per place at veterinary school, compared with 2·1 in 2003.

The annual report itself does much to emphasise veterinary career opportunities. As well as noting the variety of options in practice, it draws attention to the opportunities available in research, industry, education, government service, public health, food standards and the armed forces. In doing so, it also points to areas of potential concern. For example, discussing large animal practice, it notes that ‘Just 4 per cent of those responding to our 2006 [employment] survey work in farm-only practices. But with these veterinary surgeons potentially acting as gatekeepers for zoonotic disease, this remains a critical area of practice.’

Similarly, the report highlights the importance of teaching and research, noting, in particular, that ‘clinical research is vital for the advancement of veterinary medicine – both within universities and in commercial practice’. There was a fall in the number of veterinary surgeons employed in universities in the UK and Ireland between 2005 and 2006 (although the numbers are still higher than they were a few years ago) and the report emphasises the opportunities that exist in this sector. Meanwhile, it is worrying that the number of veterinary surgeons working in research institutes continues to fall: 17 were employed in UK research institutes in 2006, compared with 24 in 2005 and more than 40 ten years ago.

Other statistics in the report show how the number of veterinary surgeons emerging from the UK veterinary schools is set to rise. Slightly fewer students obtained a veterinary degree in 2005 than 2004 (566 compared with 588) but, with 739 students being admitted to a veterinary course in 2005/06, and the new school at the University of Nottingham admitting its first group of students this autumn, the number graduating can only increase in the years ahead. In total, the RCVS registered 1384 new members in 2005/06, an increase of 15 per cent on the previous year and the second highest number ever registered after the record number in 2001 for the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. There was a notable increase in the number of new registrants from European countries in 2005/06, including countries that have recently joined the EU.

The RCVS annual report serves to emphasise that the veterinary profession is changing, and that its future shape is indeed unclear. To get a better view, the College is holding a oneday seminar next week – ‘Postcards from the future’ – at which invited participants will attempt to form a picture of what the profession might look like in 2020. Also looking forward, this year’s BVA Congress, to be held in London on September 29 and 30, will be examining the demographic and other challenges affecting the profession and opportunities they present. Both events should be of interest. There is a need to keep a handle on developments, and ensure that the house being built is sound.

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