Veterinary school plans in flux at UK universities

Fourth planned school gets green light; Aberdeen university opts out of joint venture

July 6, 2021 (published)
By Ross Kelly

University of Central Lancashire photo
The Preston campus of the University of Central Lancashire in England is planning to open a veterinary school in fall 2023. It's one of four U.K. veterinary programs in the works.

Yet another veterinary school in the United Kingdom is in development, adding to a flurry of activity that backers believe will help address a shortfall of practitioners without causing an oversupply of new graduates.

The University of Central Lancashire in England, which has approved plans for a new school at its Preston campus, intends to welcome between 40 and 50 students in fall 2023, according to Dr. Heather Bacon, the veterinarian leading its development.

It is the latest of four U.K. veterinary programs — including one each in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — announced since the country left the European Union at the start of 2020. The split, known as Brexit, sparked concerns that EU-born veterinarians will avoid the U.K. due to more stringent immigration rules and anti-immigrant sentiment, raising demand for local talent.

At the same time, one British university confirmed that it dropped possible plans to enter the veterinary realm. The University of Aberdeen had considered teaming up with Scotland's Rural College (SRUC) on a veterinary program but opted out, so SRUC is proceeding alone, sources with knowledge of the plans told the VIN News Service.

University of Aberdeen head of communications Jennifer Phillips said the Scottish university had discussed with SRUC the potential for the university to validate and award degrees for SRUC veterinary programs but ultimately decided against it.

In brief

“While we were supportive, it would have been exceptionally difficult for us to validate degrees in a subject area where we don't currently offer degrees of our own and which would need accreditation from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons,” Phillips said, referring to the U.K.'s regulator for the profession.

SRUC already offers about 60 courses in agricultural and animal sciences, including a veterinary nursing course, on six campuses in Scotland. In a May 28 announcement about its plans to add veterinary degrees, SRUC quoted an RCVS official as saying that the regulatory group "looks forward to working with the team at SRUC as it moves towards meeting our accreditation standards ..."

SRUC's decision to press on alone, combined with other institutions' plans, could raise concerns about a potential oversupply of new graduates, especially since Brexit's precise impact on the labor market remains uncertain.

Last year, the RCVS said the U.K. veterinary profession had an 11% to 13% skills shortage, which refers to the gap between job vacancies and the number of veterinarians who can fill them. It based the calculation on a vacancy rate provided by large veterinary employers.

The U.K. has nine veterinary schools at the moment. Before 2006 — and dating back to 1949 — it had six. Then came the University of Nottingham (2006), the University of Surrey (2014) and Harper & Keele (2019). Also in 2019, Nottingham adopted a model, unique in the U.K, of enrolling two classes of veterinary students per academic year, effectively doubling its yearly cohort to 300 students.

Attempting to patch a leaky bucket

Since 2014, just before the school in Surrey opened, the number of first-year students accepted by British veterinary schools each year has leaped by about 45% — from 997 to around 1,444 in the 2020-21 academic year, according to a calculation by VIN News. The estimate is based on historical data published by the RCVS and enrollment quotas for the 2020-21 academic year published by the Veterinary Schools Council and individual schools. (Actual enrollment numbers for 2020-21, which may differ slightly from quotas, have yet to be released).

Most of the jump is attributable to the openings of Surrey and Harper & Keele and the doubled intake at Nottingham; more established schools, such as the Royal Veterinary College, have been incrementally boosting their intakes, too.

The four planned schools could add well over 100 students, and possibly more than 200, to that 1,444 per-year total:

  • SRUC's standalone effort is planning to enroll about 50 students annually starting in fall 2022 or fall 2023.
  • Wales' first veterinary school — a joint venture between Aberystwyth University and the Royal Veterinary College — will open its doors in September with an initial cohort of 25 students.
  • Northern Ireland's government this year commissioned a study on whether to set up the country's first veterinary school, potentially involving Ulster University or Queen's University Belfast. Prospective student numbers have yet to be announced.
  • The University of Central Lancashire plans an initial intake of 40 to 50 students, gradually doubling that figure as it fine-tunes its offering.

“We want to make sure we get the curriculum right from the start, so we're focusing on quality of education rather than large student numbers,” Bacon said. ”I suspect our intake would rise year-on-year to a maximum of about 100 students per year.”

Bacon believes Brexit may well be impacting the U.K.'s talent pool, noting the government in 2019 decided to add veterinarians to the country's Shortage Occupation List, making it a little easier for local practices to hire workers from overseas. "The BVA lobbied quite hard for that, and I think if there was a genuine concern about oversupply in the market, that wouldn't have happened,” she said. “Oversupply is something we need to be mindful of, but I don’t think we’re there at the moment.”

Invoking the metaphor of a "leaky bucket," Bacon said attrition from the profession is a greater concern than a rising number of new graduates. To address attrition, she said, the University of Central Lancashire will add practical training elements to its curriculum starting in the first year to better prepare graduates for the realities of day-to-day veterinary work. It also will attempt to admit students from a broad range of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds.

Like SRUC, the Lancashire school will offer a feeder course to aspiring students who don't achieve high enough marks to directly qualify for the veterinary program. The university already runs a similar feeder course for its human medicine program, which Bacon said has been successful.

Dr. James Russell, president of the British Veterinary Association, said news of the new school was "timely" because the profession is having "real problems" with veterinary recruitment and retention. "However, it is important to bear in mind that new schools won't increase the number of U.K. veterinary graduates for some years to come," he added. Veterinary medicine programs in the U.K. are five-year undergraduate degrees.

Russell said any steps to increase veterinary student numbers raise questions about whether there will be accompanying increases in funding, infrastructure, staffing and work-experience opportunities. "So we will be interested to find out more about the course and see how it develops over time,” he said.

Dr. Nick Lloyd, president of the Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons — a professional association focused on nonclinical aspects of veterinary work, such as financing and recruitment — said the U.K. is suffering from a steep shortage of practitioners due to Brexit and attrition, made worse by a surge in demand prompted by a pandemic puppy and kitten boom.

"There's a massive crisis here at the moment," said Lloyd, who also works as a locum veterinarian and reports getting plenty of work. "There's a lot of people who want to be vets who'll go to these new schools and pay the fees, but they're not staying in the profession," he said. "It seems a significant factor is a mismatch between expectations and reality."

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