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UNAM appeals failed bid for U.S. accreditation

April 22, 2010
By: Jennifer Fiala
For The VIN News Service


Officials with the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City wants the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) to take a second look at the institution’s veterinary medical program following a recent decision to deny it U.S. accreditation.

The petition for review, received by AVMA officials in writing, marks the latest move by UNAM officials in a five-year quest to earn recognition by the AVMA’s Council on Education (COE) — a volunteer body charged by the U.S. Department of Education with making accreditation decisions for veterinary education in the United States.

Details of the COE decision, handed down during a meeting in late February, have not been released in keeping with the group’s policy that such findings must remain confidential. Events in the appeals process are conducted in private as well.

But the filing of an appeal, required within 30 days of receipt of a COE decision, is public record. According to COE policy, a final ruling on UNAM can be expected within the next six months — October, at the latest.

UNAM veterinary school Dean Francisco Trigo did not return repeated requests from the VIN News Service to weigh in on the COE vote. However, Trigo, a veterinarian, has publicly expressed his belief that UNAM’s program is on par with its U.S. counterparts, making reference to a 15,000-square-foot teaching hospital sponsored by Banfield, the Pet Hospital as well as the millions of dollars that UNAM has spent to bring its facilities, curriculum and staff in line with the COE’s 11 accreditation standards.

In a 2008 interview with the VIN News Service, Trigo characterized the COE’s prospective recognition of UNAM as historic — a distinction that could open doors for the 350-plus students who graduate from the veterinary medical program annually.

“For our students, this could mean training and jobs in the United States. We could be the first non English-speaking program recognized by AVMA,” Trigo stated.

The COE’s stamp of approval allows students of foreign programs to circumvent costly and time-consuming U.S. foreign graduate equivalency exams and sit for the same state and national boards posed to graduates of American veterinary medical programs. To date, the COE accredits nine foreign veterinary schools worldwide, including programs in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain and Ireland. Most have received the council’s nod during the past decade, as part of the AVMA’s self-imposed charge to become the “premier” global accrediting authority. UNAM is the first of an estimated 30 veterinary programs in Mexico to seek U.S. accreditation.

Earning that status has not been easy for UNAM, plagued by widespread criticism that the veterinary program is substandard compared with U.S. veterinary education. Opened in the 1950s, the veterinary program admits students out of high school without an entrance exam. At any one time, there might be more than 2,000 students studying to be veterinarians at UNAM, yet only 65 percent graduate.

By contrast, the number of seats at U.S. veterinary medical institutions, where a bachelor’s degree is a usual prerequisite for attending any of the 28 four-year DVM programs, range from 56 to 142 per class. This year, 2,567 veterinarians are anticipated to graduate from programs in the United States.

Those who doubt UNAM’s ability to train practitioners with skills akin to those of U.S. veterinarians criticize everything from the program’s acceptance of high-school graduates — a practice of many other foreign but COE-accredited programs — to the impact of Mexico’s culture, which reportedly is more focused on animal use and husbandry than that of America, a country fixated on pets.
 
A prime example of the cultural divide: Non-veterinarians legally provide veterinary healthcare in Mexico, whereby lay practice is largely prohibited and punishable by law in the United States.

Others in the United States fear that the COE’s accreditation of UNAM could send a flood of Mexican practitioners migrating north, taking jobs from American graduates that are already saddled by low starting salaries and high educational debt. While the price tag for earning a DVM in the United States can reach upwards of $200,0000, tuition at UNAM, the country’s largest university with 270,000-plus students enrolled annually, is heavily subsidized by the state and amounts to roughly $100 per semester, regardless of a student’s ability to pay.

As a means for earning a return on that investment, UNAM veterinary graduates are required to spend six months working in a government job, providing for the needs of the country's citizenry.

Speculation also exists that the real engine behind the UNAM’s accreditation quest is Banfield, The Pet Hospital, which has long looked to Mexico to one day provide the manpower needed to supply its ever-growing number of clinics, most nestled inside the 750-plus PetSmart stores that now dot Canada and the United States. 

Dr. Brian Speer, an avian practitioner who founded the Oakley, Calif.-based Medical Center for Birds, recently lectured at UNAM and came away with a positive opinion of how the program functions, stating that the faculty and students are “passionate to raise care standards.”

Still, he hesitates to suggest that the program is ready for U.S. accreditation: “My limited impression is that the facilities and focus and the enthusiasm of the instructors that I met is similar to that of U.S. schools. But there’s work to be done there. The thing that caught my eye was the humongous Banfield sign and the corporate over and undertones.

"Of course, that also is occurring at U.S. schools,” Speer notes. 

Banfield representatives including corporate spokeswoman Kathy Baumgardner have repeatedly declined to discuss UNAM’s bid for accreditation with the VIN News Service. Dean Trigo has previously disregarded any notion that UNAM students would set out for America in droves, stating that area job prospects are proliferating and students are tied to their families and communities. Rather, UNAM officials seek COE accreditation to earn what they deem to be the "gold standard."
 
Debate on what UNAM’s accreditation could mean for U.S. practitioners, especially new graduates, is not likely to come up during the appeal process, as COE policy notes that subject matter must not deviate from the council's findings. Within the next month, UNAM is expected to submit documentation to the AVMA supporting its petition for review along with a $10,000 deposit to pay for expenses tied to its hearing to defend its program. 

The hearing panel, appointed by the AVMA’s Executive Board, is comprised of five members, none of whom are COE members or AVMA staff. All parties will meet near AVMA headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill., no later than 120 calendar days following AVMA’s receipt of the petition for review. That's early April, in this case.

With AVMA and its accrediting arm, the COE, mum on the topic, it’s unclear whether the hearing panel has been appointed or a date for the meeting has been set. Both sides — the COE and UNAM — can call witnesses and submit documentation or other materials that are relevant to the case, and legal counsel is advised but not required.

The hearing panel may either affirm the COE’s decision or recommend that the council reconsider the case. That report will be considered at the COE’s next regular meeting. The COE gathers biannually at AVMA headquarters for spring and fall sessions. 

According to the policies and procedures that govern the COE, much of what happens concerning the appeal, or review process, is confidential, unless the program in question wants to release the information. With its members required to sign a string of legal and declaratory documents — confidentiality agreement, statement on integrity and conflict of interest statement — it is not expected that the COE will reveal any indication as to why UNAM was denied accreditation. 

The topic of accrediting UNAM has incited hundreds of comments from practitioners on the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) message boards, where some of the more recent posts concern the lack of transparency of COE processes.

One concerned VIN member writes: “I still don't understand why the accreditation process is secret. Nothing carries substance like those things done in the light of day instead of the cover of night.”






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