Australia, New Zealand veterinary schools near 'crisis'

One of eight schools faces 'real prospect' of closure, report says

July 25, 2023 (published)
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The University of Melbourne recently closed its teaching hospital and leased it to Greencross, an Australian corporate consolidator that is now running the hospital as a private operator. The move came amid funding pressures that a new report says are being felt by all veterinary schools in Australia and New Zealand.

At least one of the eight veterinary schools in Australia and New Zealand is in a "precarious" financial position and may close, according to an alarming assessment of the sector based on input from each of the schools' leaders and dozens of other stakeholders.

Which school is at risk of closure isn't identified in the 86-page review, which also maintains that all eight schools are at a "tipping point" because they don't receive enough income to cover their costs.

The report was commissioned by Veterinary Schools of Australia and New Zealand (VSANZ), which represents the heads of the countries' veterinary schools. It was prepared by a panel of three eminent veterinarians — Drs. Helen Scott-Orr, Grant Guilford and Susan Rhind — whose conclusions were based on 69 written submissions and interviews with 63 individuals encompassing school heads, veterinarians, students, government representatives and leaders of professional bodies such as the Australian Veterinary Association.

The relatively high cost of training veterinary students, the report states, means schools rely on cross-subsidization from other faculties at their respective universities, fueling "on-campus resentment" of veterinary programs.

"At least one veterinary school is in a comparatively precarious position given the reduced ability of the university to continue cross-subsidization since the Covid-19 pandemic, with a real prospect that the school may be closed," the report states. Precisely who provided the panel with the information to support that conclusion was not disclosed.

The report makes 25 recommendations, including that the Australian and New Zealand governments "move quickly" to increase funding to the sector.

More reliant on subsidies than their counterparts in the United States, veterinary schools in Australia and New Zealand are funded via a combination of government grants and tuition. For instance, domestic students in Australia who receive government subsidies have their out-of-pocket fees capped at a maximum of AU$11,800 (US$7,985) per year. Funding from grants and domestic student fees covers "only around two-thirds of the average estimated total delivery cost per student," for veterinary programs, the report maintains.

In brief

Moreover, income derived from full-fee-paying international students recently took a hit from border closures prompted by the pandemic. Australia and New Zealand closed their international borders in March 2020 and didn't fully reopen them until February 2022 and July 2022, respectively.

New Zealand has one veterinary school only, at Massey University, which told the VIN News Service that it was not the especially vulnerable school mentioned in the report.

Australia's seven schools are located at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland, the University of Adelaide, Murdoch University, James Cook University and Charles Sturt University.

When contacted by VIN News, three of the seven — the University of Melbourne, Murdoch University and James Cook University — said explicitly that their veterinary school was not the one mentioned in the report. “We recognise the pressures on vet schools across Australasia and welcome the recommendations of the report," Dr Henry Annandale, the dean of Murdoch University's school, said in an email. "This is a sobering message, but also offers an opportunity for focus and innovation to explore new opportunities."

The University of Sydney's Deputy Vice-Chancellor Joanne Wright said in a press release that the university was committed to "continuing our 113-year tradition of educating the next generation of veterinary practitioners." The head of the University of Queensland’s veterinary school, Dr. Nigel Perkins, said in an email that he was unaware of any plans to close the school, and that university leadership there "continues to provide very strong messages of support" for its ongoing operation.

The University of Adelaide said via a spokeperson that its school looks forward to continuing to educate future veterinary professionals "as South Australia's only veterinary school." Charles Sturt University's veterinary school "is not closing," graduates around 65 students a year and has "no plans to diminish this figure," a university spokesperson said.

Following big change at hospital, caseload is recovering 

Another sign that Australasia’s veterinary education sector is under strain appeared in December, when the University of Melbourne decided to shut its teaching hospital, located in the suburb of Werribee, citing financial pressures. The hospital has since been leased to the Australian corporate consolidator Greencross Pet Wellness Company, which is offering students clinical training as part of a so-called distributed model of education that sees schools partner with privately run hospitals to provide students with practical experience.

Possessing a teaching hospital isn't mandatory to gain accreditation from official bodies such as the American Veterinary Medical Association Council on Education. Still, the University of Melbourne's veterinary school appears to be the first in the world to close a teaching hospital and switch to a distributed model, sparking concern from some students and staff that the school's standards are slipping.

The teaching hospital was closed by the university on Dec. 24 and reopened on Jan. 16 under the control of Greencross, which has been gradually rebuilding its caseload since then.

The hospital's per-month caseload almost doubled from around 800 in February to more than 1,500 in June, according to its clinical director, Dr. Liam Donaldson. "It's a big caseload, and it's exciting as well because a high caseload is exactly what the students need when they get out into clinical practice," Donaldson said in a telephone interview.

An emergency and critical care service was running at the hospital on a 24/7 basis by early June. The restart of the service, which the university had ended in 2021, has been a big contributor to the improved caseload, Donaldson said. "The ECC feeds into so much, especially our referral departments, and it's been good to foster relationships with our referring vets again."

Before working for Greencross, Donaldson did his residency at the hospital in Werribee between 2016 and 2019, so his employment there marks a return to his old stomping ground. The hospital, he said, has hired "the vast majority" of staff made redundant by the University of Melbourne who chose to reapply for a job at Greencross. In December, the university said the restructure involved around 80 redundancies.

Altogether, Donaldson said, the hospital now has about 100 veterinarians and veterinary nurses on staff, including around 90 Greencross employees and 12 full-time-equivalent embedded academics from the University of Melbourne, with the addition of another seven pending, to support student learning.

A key test of how well the university has managed the restructure will begin on July 28, when delegates from the AVMA's COE are due to arrive in person to perform an onsite verification visit that will last until Aug. 4.

The University of Melbourne's veterinary school already has fallen short of some AVMA accreditation requirements. In September 2021, the American association said the school was on "continued probationary accreditation," with minor deficiencies in physical facilities, clinical resources and faculty and a major deficiency in its curriculum. The accreditor did not elaborate on the deficiencies.

For his part, Donaldson said he’s looking forward to the COE's visit, as well as pending visits from other accrediting bodies, such as the Australian Veterinary Boards Council and Britain's Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. "The embedded model and the distributed model with Greencross and the University of Melbourne is working exceptionally well," he said. "We're very optimistic about them coming through and seeing how busy it is, and the experience that the students are receiving at the moment."

Rethink of accreditation standards, support for students urged

Among the other 25 recommendations made by the VSANZ-commissioned report is a call for accrediting bodies to assess "the necessity and cost effectiveness" of their accreditation requirements, amid concerns that meeting them can be "onerous and expensive" to achieve.

Positing that the "Australasian veterinary profession and its education system are approaching a crisis," some of the report's other recommendations aim to improve practitioners' mental health and job retention. They include advising veterinary schools to widen their admissions process to select students on a broader range of factors than solely academic achievement, urging for the creation of mandatory graduate-mentoring programs, and offering student-debt relief to practitioners in under-served rural communities.

This story has been updated to include responses from all eight veterinary schools.

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