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Managing expectations

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AN article by former veterinary student turned journalist India Ross published in the New Statesman earlier this month is of interest, not least because it brings into a more public arena a debate that has been going on within the veterinary profession for some time. Called ‘It's no longer James Herriot in wellies: the harsh reality of becoming a modern vet’, it pulls together various strands in the debate about supply and demand and future employment prospects for vets, arguing that ‘The demand for places at the UK's seven vet schools vastly exceeds supply, and universities are expanding to take advantage of the fees on offer. And yet, the veterinary profession they will enter has changed beyond recognition.’1

It would be hard to disagree with the first and last parts of that statement, although the second part, perhaps, is more controversial, as the universities might argue that they are increasing the number of places to meet the continuing high demand from applicants. Certainly, demand for veterinary places remains strong, as evidenced by the fact that, despite the increase in university tuition fees in 2012, courses continue to be heavily oversubscribed, and also by the fact that a number of UK students are studying veterinary medicine abroad.

Equally, there can be no argument that the practice of veterinary medicine hasn't changed significantly since the era described by James Herriot; indeed, it is worrying to think that this image of the profession still lingers and that the New Statesman must feel that some people (including, presumably, would-be applicants to veterinary school) might be surprised to learn that life is no longer like that. Human medicine has also changed beyond recognition over the past half century, but no one these days still thinks of the medical profession in terms of the once equally popular television series Dr Finlay's Casebook. Like the medical profession, the veterinary profession continues to evolve, and it is currently changing particularly rapidly. Those applying to veterinary school need to do so with their eyes open and, in this respect, the article may be right to suggest that the public's perception of the profession is in need of updating.

The article also draws attention to the disparity between veterinary and medical (and also dental) salaries, by no means a minor consideration for would-be students who may ultimately have to repay significant debts incurred at university.

In many respects, the article reflects concerns highlighted in a discussion forum held by the BVA in November last year, to consider the impact of new veterinary schools and increasing numbers of new graduates on future employment. This had been prompted partly by the announcement by the University of Surrey of its plans for a new veterinary school, and partly by reports of the situation in the USA suggesting that the output of American veterinary colleges was already exceeding demand, exerting a downward pressure on new graduates' salaries (VR, November 2, 2013, vol 173, pp 406, 416-417).

While demand for places at veterinary school is relatively easy to assess, demand for graduates is harder to quantify. Although veterinary medicine is no longer on the Home Office's official ‘shortage occupation’ list, the RCVS suggested, on the basis of a survey undertaken last year, that the employment situation in the UK was ‘not as gloomy as predicted’, with almost all of the new veterinary graduates of the previous five years finding a job within six months of starting to look for work, despite increasing numbers of new graduates. At the same time, the survey indicated that the proportion of new graduates initially taking temporary or unpaid posts had increased over the five years, while a separate survey undertaken by the British Equine Veterinary Association in 2013 indicated that there could be up to five times as many graduates wanting to work in equine practice as there were jobs available (VR, July 13, 2013, vol 173, pp 31-32).

Among the many points made during the discussion forum was that the RCVS has no mandate to control student or graduate numbers, although it does have a role in setting, upholding and advancing standards. It was also pointed out that, with non-UK graduates accounting for 740 of 1547 new vets registered by the RCVS in 2012/13, and with most UK graduates managing to find work, the number of home-produced graduates still fell short of the number of jobs available.

It would be difficult to argue that future employment will not be affected by increasing numbers of veterinary graduates. It is also likely to be affected by changes in the nature and structure of practice. As the market changes, it becomes increasingly necessary to think beyond the traditional confines of practice and look to other areas where veterinary skills might usefully be applied, to the benefit of society and, it might be argued, also to the profession itself. There is no shortage of areas where veterinary skills are needed – for example, in research, public health, policy, government, academia, industry and international development – as numerous Vet Record Careers and other articles in Veterinary Record have indicated. In this respect, it can be argued that a veterinary degree offers more career opportunities than many other degrees, although it is obviously important that prospective students have a clear idea of just what the opportunities are. This will require sound careers advice before students enter vet school so that their expectations are realistic and their aspirations can be met. In the meantime, the veterinary schools must continue to help students to develop the skills they will need to succeed in a world beyond that described in the books by James Herriot.

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