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Standing still in education is not an option
  1. Adele Waters

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Next year the UK will open its ninth vet school.

But Harper and Keele Veterinary School will be unique in that it will be the first to be set up and run jointly – a collaboration between two independent higher education institutions with a genuine 50:50 split in effort and reward.

When it opens its doors next autumn, it will have a small cohort of students but, from year two, it will be training up to 110 per year.

Last week, progress on the school was shared with vets, academics, politicians and interested supporters at a reception at the House of Lords.

We were told a great deal of work has been done by the team behind the enterprise since their first kick-off meeting in November 2016. Their job has effectively been equivalent to setting up an entirely new university since the processes and policies for each academic institution are separate and distinct.

Now there is a new head of school in place – vet Matthew Jones – but, under his leadership there is a huge amount to achieve in the next 13 months – a new facility to build from scratch, for starters.

And there is certainly a long way to go before the school is accredited by the RCVS. Surrey’s vet school – set up five years ago – is still waiting, even after its first cohort graduated last month.

Why does the UK need a ninth vet school?

So, you might ask, why does the UK need a ninth vet school? There are three good reasons.

First, demand for vets in the UK has hugely expanded over the past 30 to 40 years and it has not been possible to satisfy that demand without recourse to recruiting vets from the EU.

With the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU still uncertain, it may not be so easy for the UK to bring in vets from other countries in Europe in the future and this could certainly be a problem for some key industries, for example, in food production.

Second, as Lord Trees told the reception, the UK must strengthen its veterinary research capability. Given the plethora of national and international challenges that face humankind that also have a veterinary dimension – including food security, climate change, greenhouse gases, biodiversity threats, pet travel – the addition of a new university will unquestionably support that endeavour.

And third, with UK trade taking particular prominence in Brexit discussions, the promise of a new vet school is timely. The years ahead of us are likely to see a focus on building and enhancing the UK’s reputation for creating world-class food products and vets will be crucial to that.

So what is Harper and Keele likely to bring to the mix? What will be its USP?

According to Peter Mills, deputy vice-chancellor at Harper Adams University, the new school promises students another choice – something ‘slightly different to other vets schools out there’.

Based on Harper’s strength in agriculture, agriculture engineering and, in particular, agri-tech, it’s a fair assumption to think that the new school is likely to have a particular draw to vets wanting to pursue careers in farm animal practice and in food production.

Vet students, says Mills, will be trained alongside agriculture, engineering and business students.

The school will seek to innovate, too, initially in education but then increasingly in veterinary research. It sees opportunities in conducting research with practices and corporates alike, as well as with Keele’s medical school in the field of One Health.

With both universities consistently ranking at the top of the league tables for student satisfaction and performing strongly in graduate employability ratings, it will perhaps come as no surprise that Harper and Keele is promising to focus on creating ‘work-ready’ vets. From day one, the curriculum will be informed by practice. Importantly too, the school will have a commitment to social mobility – it will reach out to welcome students who would not traditionally have considered veterinary careers.

For all the challenges that lie ahead for Harper and Keele, the promise of more home-grown vets and more choice is to be welcomed. After all, when it comes to education, standing still is not an option.

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