Anyone considering applying to study veterinary was handed some potentially very good news recently as the University of Surrey announced that it was establishing the UK’s newest vet school, with the first cohort of undergraduates due to enter in 2014. This came as quite the bolt out of the blue for most members of the veterinary profession, with only six years having passed since the establishment of Nottingham Vet School. On the face of it another vet school may well seem like an excellent step for the profession, but is it? Do we really need another vet school? What effect will it have on the training of new vets? How will it affect the veterinary job market in a few years time, if at all? These are but a few of the questions that have been raised since the news and we will explore some of the initial thoughts here.
How will Surrey be different?
“One Health – One Medicine”
According to the University of Surrey website, and recent press-releases, the focus of the new vet school will be on the closer integration between advancements in both human and veterinary medicine and science, a theme championed by pioneering Surrey orthopaedic and neurology veterinary surgeon, Noel Fitzpatrick, who is apparently very heavily involved in the planning and establishment of the new school. Students will have the opportunity to work across faculties, learning about the work of not only veterinarians but also exploring advancements in such areas as human prosthetic developments and material science.
Another key focus, according to the PR, is going to be on livestock medicine. Westpoint, a large farm animal veterinary company with operations across the country, are also key players in the coming about of the new school in Guildford, and will be instrumental in delivering much of the farm animal teaching. The model for the school appears to be somewhat similar to that developed by Nottingham, with the importance of close links with local practices, from small animal first opinion and specialist, to equine, farm and research, with such institutions as the BBSRC Pirbright Institute representing key partners.
Is establishing another vet school necessary?
Although no-one is suggesting that the founding principles of the new school are sound there is some debate as to whether ploughing resources into a new vet school is the way to further such ties between human and veterinary disciplines. Many argue that it makes far more sense to invest in the UK’s existing vet schools, working to expand on their long and proven record of research and development in the field of veterinary, and building stronger links with faculties and departments that have a direct impact on human healthcare developments, including medical schools, of which every current UK vet school has within their parent universities. Are we not, by creating another focus of veterinary attention, simply threatening to dilute the efforts of researchers at the existing schools, with the long-term result being a greater number of vet schools but with no really outstanding centres for innovation? The other question to ask is what exactly the new school sees itself doing that is going to be so different to the training offered by the other established vet schools, and whether a markedly different course, if that is the plan, is going to ultimately benefit graduates and the profession. If the curriculum is going to be very similar to that offered at existing schools then the question remains “do we need more vets qualifying from the UK each year?” If, however, the emphasis of the new course is to be on very specialist, cutting-edge aspects of veterinary medicine then are we not in danger of qualifying a large number of vets who might be able to discuss the pros and cons of artificial elbows in dogs, for example, but have a superficial to poor grounding in basic, day one veterinary skills. There has already, in my opinion, been evidence of some veterinary graduates leaving university with pretty rudimentary surgical skills, owing, quite simply, to a lack of opportunities to hone such vital skills. I don’t see how this will be helped by the addition of another 100 or so new students each year.
Is there enough work for more vets?
With no reliable source of across-the-board employment data for the veterinary profession the answer to this question is one that is most likely to be debated based on unofficial observations and personal opinions. It is my view that until very recently graduates from the UK’s vet schools have enjoyed the benefit of entering a labour market in which there were more jobs available than vets, with the result being a negligibly low unemployment rate amongst UK vets and thus employment readily available to a swathe of eager and equally skilled vets from outside of the country, especially from places such as Australia and South Africa. This, however, is apparently changing, with reports of veterinary graduates finding it significantly harder to secure their first jobs after leaving university and many joining the ranks of graduates in other subjects in having to undertake unpaid experience, or significantly lower paid nursing and animal technician duties, in order to keep their skills and participation within the profession current. This, it could be argued, creates further issues by increasing the level of competition for entry-level nursing and animal care assistant positions. I can honestly say right now that if anyone told me that after five years at university, with an accrued debt of many thousands of pounds, that I would have difficulties securing a job as a vet at the end of it, I would have seriously considered other career options. One of the questions that I get asked by students considering a veterinary career, and predominantly it appears by males, is how hard it is to find a job after qualifying. Job security and availability is clearly an area of concern to young people and any profession in which supply starts to exceed demand is potentially going to see a long-term tail off in applicants. Physiotherapy is one example of a profession where there are significantly more practitioners qualifying each year than there are posts for them to fill, with the result being disillusioned professionals just starting their careers – not a good welcome to any profession. I hasten to add, however, that there is no concrete evidence for this yet being the case with veterinary, although I would welcome the publication of employment data for veterinary graduates, as this will help us to monitor any trends. A cursory glance at the job pages of the Veterinary Times each week does indeed suggest that there are a good number of veterinary positions available. However, a closer read does reveal that many of the positions specifically request experienced applicants, not necessarily new graduates. Of course, the changing demographic of the veterinary profession, with more vets choosing part-time work to fit around family commitments or just to enjoy a better work-life balance, may well open up more employment opportunities. These are certainly interesting times that we are living and practicing in and it will be fascinating to see how the profession continues to evolve.
What will happen to salaries?
This is another concern amongst many vets, with a number arguing that swelling the supply of vets available will surely lead to salary deflation or, at best, a real reluctance on the part of employers to raise assistants’ salaries during their employment as they will be in a much better position to be able to employ new vets in the event that existing vets leave. The business of salaries is a murky one already, with little readily available reliable data on salaries for vets, and most practices having vets on different salaries, sometimes markedly so, when they are, effectively, doing the same job. My experience so far has been that unless I specifically asked for a fair salary review each year, with at least one example of feeling that I had to move on to another practice in order to raise my salary to a realistic amount for my level of experience, then I would still be on the salary I started out on, which compared to professionals in areas such as medicine, law, accountancy and dentistry would have been lamentable. The fact that vets are, by comparison, underpaid for the complex, difficult work that they do is one that is not generally recognised, with the vast majority of the public assuming that we are all paid fortunes. Although it is not a certainty that the earning potential of vets in the future will be adversely affected by an increase in supply of skilled vets, it is worth considering and recognising the fact that with more applicants per job, the upward pressure on salaries will be much less.
Interesting Time for Veterinary Education
How things have changed over the course of the past few decades, from the huge swing in the demographic of the profession to the changes in how veterinary services are delivered, levels of specialism and the establishment of not just one but now two new vet schools, it feels as though we are entering a very interesting phase as veterinarians and I for one look on with deep interest. The new vet school is happening – that is a fact – and the first twenty-five students are due to be enrolled in September 2014. What isn’t confirmed is whether the course will be accredited by the RCVS, although based on Nottingham’s experience I would say that it is a technicality and there is no reason not to think that the new vets graduating from Guildford in 2019 will be awarded MRCVS status. The question of what the profession they will enter will look like, however, does remain an interesting one. Exciting times indeed.