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‘Don’t exploit new graduates,’ says BVA

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By Georgina Mills

Practices should not exploit final-year students or new graduates by offering them unpaid or voluntary roles, the BVA and the Association of Veterinary Students (AVS) have warned.

In a joint statement published on 19 May, the associations said practices doing this were undervaluing individuals with skills and knowledge that had been built up throughout their degree.

In response to the financial pressures caused by Covid-19 and increasing concerns around veterinary employment prospects, the BVA has been made aware of practices offering unpaid or voluntary veterinary work to final-year students and new graduates.

While such offers may be attractive to newly qualified vets wishing to hone their skills before starting paid work, the BVA and the AVS are concerned that such arrangements devalue both the individuals, who have completed their studies and are therefore fully qualified vets, and the veterinary profession itself.

They also say offering unpaid roles exacerbates the problems surrounding lack of access to the profession for those who cannot afford to work for free and contradicts efforts to widen participation in the veterinary sector.

In addition, there are governance issues associated with individuals undertaking veterinary roles before they are registered with the RCVS, and there are concerns around individuals undertaking voluntary roles without indemnity insurance.

The Veterinary Defence Society has advised that the Veterinary Surgeons (Practice by Students) (Amendment) Regulations 1993 allow vet students who are attending university to carry out acts of veterinary surgery under the direction and supervision of a veterinary surgeon. After graduating as a vet, individuals are no longer classified as students and therefore must either revert to only doing work that could be delegated to a lay member of staff, or register with the RCVS to describe themselves as vets and undertake veterinary work.

As many final-year students have not yet had their graduation, where they would usually sign the register, they are in between these two phases.

BVA president Daniella Dos Santos said: ‘We make a plea to the profession not to exploit final-year students and new graduates at this difficult time. These individuals are professionals and they deserve to be paid professional new graduate salaries, as we all were. There is a problem to be solved with regard to safe working, particularly in large animal and equine practice, but underpaying and undervaluing people is not the solution.’

She said the BVA has been working with others to champion diversity in vet schools and the wider profession. ‘If we only provide opportunities for those who can afford to work for free, we will be taking an enormous step backwards.’

A student’s view

Hannah Fitzsimmonds is in her final year of studies at Bristol and has many friends who are considering doing unpaid clinical work this summer.

‘In between exams finishing and job start dates, we had a lot of fun events and things to look forward to,’ she said. ‘But now a lot of that has been cancelled [because of Covid-19], people don’t want to wait around for months, and a lot of people are worried about skill fade, and would rather get out and try to do things.’

She said a lot of students feel they’ve missed out on the final few months of studies and clinical experience, and are being tempted to volunteer in practices to continue their learning and perhaps make themselves more employable when job opportunities do come up.

We’re so used to volunteering our time for free as students

Because students were so used to volunteering their time for extramural studies, she said the step did not feel wrong. ‘I think the mindset is “oh we can volunteer and we’ll still be classed as final-year students and we’ll be able to help out and keep our skills going”, while not realising that we’re not students anymore and we shouldn’t.’

AVS president Izzie Arthur added: ‘We know that final-year students are worried about job prospects and that these offers will be attractive, but we are deeply concerned that it devalues the skills and knowledge that have been built up throughout the degree.’

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