Plans for Scotland's third veterinary school underway

Program at Scotland's Rural College may open soon with 50 students

June 4, 2021 (published)
By Ross Kelly

Photo courtesy of Scotland's Rural College
SRUC Barony Campus in Dumfries, southwest Scotland, is home to the Scottish Agriculture College and is one of six campuses of Scotland's Rural College. Veterinary nursing and assistant courses are taught there.

Scotland soon could be home to a third veterinary school, as the profession attempts to plug labor shortages in remote areas by graduating more practitioners.

The Aberdeen-based school will have an initial intake of around 50 students and could open as early as the fall of 2022, according to Dr. Caroline Argo, the veterinary scientist and faculty dean who's developing the program at Scotland's Rural College. However, Argo says an opening in the fall of 2023 is more likely.

"Whether we actually take 50 or a smaller cohort for year one is something that is still to be decided, but 50 for a full-scale cohort is about right," she told the VIN News Service. "If we were to go much beyond that, it would be a different economic map."

The college, otherwise known as SRUC, announced last week plans for the new veterinary school, which will be the first to open in Scotland in more than 150 years and the first outside a major city. The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh was founded in 1839, and the University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine opened some 25 years later.

Argo said the college also will offer a two-year feeder course, which she hopes will provide a pathway into veterinary medicine for people in the Scottish Highlands and other rural areas, if they fail to make it directly into the program.

Plans for the new school come as the U.K. contends with a shortfall of practitioners caused by its recent separation from the European Union, a transition known as Brexit. EU nationals comprise a large chunk of the U.K.'s veterinary workforce, and more than 90% of practitioners are in its meat sector, according to the British Veterinary Association. Some EU nationals are leaving the country, owing to anti-immigrant sentiment and tougher immigration requirements due to Brexit. 

In brief

Still, the arrival of a new veterinary school could stoke contrasting concerns about a potential oversupply of practitioners. Two new veterinary programs have opened in the U.K. since 2014, and more are on the horizon. Some longstanding programs are boosting their class sizes, too. For instance, plans are under way for Wales' first veterinary school, a joint venture between Aberystwyth University and the Royal Veterinary College in London. The program is expected to welcome 25 students in September.

Harper & Keele Veterinary School in England became the U.K.'s ninth and newest veterinary program when it opened this year with an inaugural class of 75 students. And the University of Nottingham School of Veterinary Medicine and Science nearly doubled its class size in 2019 by adopting a dual-intake system. The program, also in England, admits two cohorts of 150 students each academic year. 

In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the government has commissioned an investigation into whether to set up its first veterinary school. Conversations already have been held with Ulster University and Queen's University Belfast. The review is expected to wrap up by the end of the year.

As for Scotland, a working group has been established to advance plans for SRUC's new school. The group is chaired by Pete Downes, a former vice-chancellor of the University of Dundee and includes Dr. Sheila Voas, Scotland's chief veterinary officer, and Dr. Kate Richards, junior vice president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the U.K.'s regulatory body for the profession. "The RCVS looks forward to working with the team at SRUC as it moves towards meeting our accreditation standards, so that its future graduates can join the U.K. veterinary profession," RCVS director of education Linda Prescott-Clements said in a media statement

SRUC offers around 60 courses in agricultural and animal sciences, including a veterinary nursing course, on six campuses in Scotland. It had considered offering a bachelor of veterinary medicine, a minimum educational requirement of veterinarians in the U.K., through a partnership with another university but now plans to offer the program in its own capacity. 

Argo confirmed that the veterinary degree will have a companion animal component, in line with RCVS accreditation requirements. At the same time, she said, the program will offer a "rigorous understanding" of food animal health and welfare, in line with its aim to assist Scotland's agriculture sector. The need for practitioners in remote areas of Scotland existed even before Brexit, Argo said, because few residents in rural regions go to veterinary school or they relocate to urban areas after graduating. 

SRUC veterinary students can't be forced to work in large animal medicine post-graduation, but Argo hopes they'll want to, owing to the program's focus on Scottish applicants with rural backgrounds and a genuine interest in agriculture, who would appreciate an opportunity to study closer to home. "We've been adding vet schools and increasing numbers in vet schools for the last 20 years, and we're still not meeting — not just Scotland's but the U.K.'s — basic needs in production-animal medicine," Argo said.

Like some other U.K. veterinary programs, SRUC plans to emphasize practical veterinary training that involves large animals. Apart from their academic achievements, aspiring veterinarians could be selected for the program based on their knowledge of farm animals and engagement with their local communities. 

The two-year feeder course may open sooner, perhaps next year, and will be run out of three SRUC campuses, each taking around 30 to 40 students annually. Not all graduates of the feeder system will make it into the veterinary program but will be qualified for other vocations, such as veterinary technicians, consultancy or work in meat hygiene.

"We have no idea at this stage how many students going through the feeder program will make the grade," Argo said. "They will still have to go through the standard RCVS interview program for acceptance onto the veterinary program. So there are a few hurdles there for them to jump."

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