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Is it time to incentivise public health work?

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By Josh Loeb

Vet students should be offered financial incentives to become public health vets and ‘serve the country’ by fulfilling vital work in slaughterhouses.

That is the view of Stephen May, a senior veterinary educationalist and former RCVS president.

Speaking at a panel discussion at last week’s British Equine Veterinary Association congress, May said he had already urged the government to establish mechanisms whereby veterinary graduates who go to work in the UK’s food production industry could have their fees repaid in recognition of this.

He drew a comparison with graduate inflow programmes for army engineers, whereby university tuition fees are repaid in recognition of their decision to work in jobs essential to the nation.

This approach could also be used to broaden the range of applicants to vet school, he said.

‘One of the things I’ve encouraged the government to consider is…in terms of widening participation, actually encouraging perhaps a broader range of applicants to come in, some of whom might have their fees repaid subsequently, based on time spent in state veterinary services or abattoirs or whatever it might be – so serving the country in that way,’ he said.

‘It’s in the same way that scholarships are offered by engineering companies with the army to recruit people [into the military]. We could do that sort of thing. So it might be that we could use market forces to broaden the numbers coming in to work in different sectors. It seems to me we’ve never tried that.’

May also told the meeting that universities should enable UK vet students to focus more on food production and public health work in order to bolster the number of British-qualified vets in abattoirs.

He made his comments after a member of the audience, Jonathan Lee, an equine vet based in Essex, said there should be a ‘separate, shorter, non-clinical degree course’ available specifically for would-be abattoir vets to ease the UK’s reliance on overseas-qualified vets.

Is there an opportunity to perhaps have a veterinary inspection degree for slaughter-houses?

Lee said: ‘Is there an opportunity to perhaps have a veterinary inspection degree for slaughterhouses? It could be done over three years. It could be for those who can’t quite get the A-levels for a veterinary degree and would be almost like a paraveterinary course.’

May replied that it was ‘great to hear’ Lee’s suggestion, adding: ‘I don’t think we’d get away with shorter courses. But whole veterinary degrees which are much more focused and specialised around food quality, food production, sustainability and all that side of things – some countries already do that.’

He cited ‘parallel degree programmes’ in the Czech Republic, where students are ‘tracked’ down ‘the food side or the more clinical side’.

‘Tracking’ is used in academia to divert students down different educational routes based on their career interests. It could enable those who decided early on to pursue a career in veterinary public health to focus more on that.

‘I think that’s coming,’ May told delegates. ‘I think there’s still the issue of whether your standard entrant to vet school will want to do that.

While May said he was not in favour of shortening veterinary degrees, he said, ‘you could certainly change the content and use tracking a lot more.

‘I wouldn’t like to see total specialised degrees because I think there’s huge value in a comparative medical course, but I think you can still do a “core” and produce a tracked vet.’

Earlier in the panel discussion, which was focused on Brexit, May said that he had thought, ever since he graduated in 1980, that the UK does not train enough vets.

‘I’ve always felt we don’t train enough vets in this country,’ he said. ‘We register an equal number of vets each year from outside this country as we do from inside this country.’

This ‘deficit’ was larger than in any other EU country, May added. While having international vets working in the UK had ‘benefited us’, May said it had also left the UK ‘exposed’ to any disruption to that supply of labour from overseas.

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