UK officials unveil major effort to study veterinary workforce

University of Surrey opens UK's eighth veterinary school

December 1, 2014 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Forty-eight aspiring veterinarians are earning a bachelor of veterinary medicine and science at the University of Surrey in England. Students kicked off the school’s inaugural class in early October.

It’s the eighth veterinary medical program to open in the United Kingdom, comprised of Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The concentration of schools in a country smaller than California has prompted some in the UK to wonder whether the regional marketplace can absorb the increased number of new veterinarians.

Such concerns, which first reared with the 2006 opening of the University of Nottingham’s veterinary school, have triggered a major study of the UK’s changing educational landscape, conducted by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) and Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS).

It was announced this month during the BVA Congress in London.

Key issues include how an increase in graduates will impact the veterinary job market, workforce conditions and salaries, BVA President John Blackwell said.

“Several hundred graduates per year are currently coming to work in the UK from other parts of Europe to gain employment alongside veterinary surgeons graduating from the UK schools; however there still seems to be a balance with supply and demand within the profession in the short to medium term,” he said. “However, the long-term consequences of increased numbers of veterinary graduates emanating from within the UK are unclear.”

On “the more positive side,” he added, is the possibility of new job opportunities for veterinarians and the impact more graduates might have on the wider scientific community.

The project, dubbed VetFutures, aims to establish "where the provision of veterinary services is currently heading, whether this is in the best interest of the profession, animal owners and the public at large, and what might be done to shape an optimal future for the veterinary team, keeping animal health and welfare at its heart,” BVA officials said in a press release.

Phase one will involve evidence-gathering by independent researchers via focus groups, phone interviews and other means to uncover what issues are impacting the profession’s future. Project officials will be publishing results as they go, the goal being to develop an action plan.

“By taking control of its destiny, the veterinary profession will remain sustainable and relevant, while maintaining animal health and welfare at its heart,” the VetFutures website says. “… We are also looking at the issues facing the profession overseas, and how other regulated professions are shaping their futures.”

Nowhere has the battle about the influx of new schools and increased numbers of graduates raged greater than in the United States, where much of the profession has been in turmoil over the issue since 2008. While some veterinarians in private practice report feeling squeezed by competition and a downturn in clients, the American Veterinary Medical Association warns that efforts to curb new graduate numbers would run afoul of U.S. antitrust laws.

AVMA officials have long discredited predictions that a glut of practitioners is on the horizon but stated in a 2013 study that “excess capacity” exists in the profession. Translation: Veterinarians aren’t jobless, but they’re not as busy as they could be. 

Meanwhile, the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges has calculated that by 2017, 4,460 new graduates will enter the U.S. workforce, compared with 3,231 new graduates reported in 2012. The uptick in new graduate numbers partly is due to the fact that the AAVMC now counts graduates from Ross University and St. George's University, two Caribbean programs where American students are heavily represented. The 4,460 figure also includes U.S. students studying abroad, a demographic the AAVMC recently started tracking. 

(Absent from AAVMC figures are numbers of Americans graduating from non-accredited veterinary programs such as the one at St. Matthew's University, also in the Caribbean.)

America's changing academic landscape, too, is reflected in the AAVMC's 2017 projection. Many long-established veterinary colleges have increased class sizes to accept more students. At the same time, two new veterinary colleges have opened: Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee, and Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona. This year, both programs welcomed their inaugural classes.

That brings the number of U.S. veterinary colleges to 30. The AAVMC anticipates that 3,310 students will graduate from these domestic programs in 2017, up 34 percent during the past decade.

The BVA and RCVS did not say how many students graduate each year from UK veterinary schools. The BVA reported that in 2012, 9,000 students applied for roughly 1,000 seats offered by UK veterinary programs.

Last October, then-BVA President Dr. Robin Hargreaves spoke to the tug-of-war between prospective veterinary students and a profession seeking to steer clear of oversupply issues.

“On one hand, our members welcome the ability for (prospective students) to attend a nearby university,” Hargreaves said during a speech in Northern Ireland, addressing rumors that more veterinary schools are on the horizon. “On the other hand, we recognize the impact that a glut of veterinary graduates could have in saturating the market. 

“Figures from the RCVS reveal that we don’t currently experience an oversupply of vets in the UK, but we are moving rapidly in one direction with the prospect of new veterinary schools and the expanding intake at some of the existing schools,” he added.

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