Straight A's not necessary to enter new UK veterinary school

Manual dexterity, communication skills among the competencies to be considered

December 3, 2019 (published)
By Ross Kelly

Harper & Keele Veterinary School photo
Dr. Matthew Jones heads Britain's newest veterinary school, opening in 2020.

For prospective students sweating over admissions interviews at Britain's ninth and newest veterinary school, top marks won't necessarily hold them in good stead.

And, should they win entry into Harper & Keele Veterinary School, they won't be exposed to exciting and sophisticated coursework all of the time. The curriculum intentionally includes some relatively mundane elements, too, in a bid to manage expectations as graduates enter the workforce.

Such designs are attributable to the school being realistic about factors driving a skills shortage in the United Kingdom's veterinary sector — and what academia can do to help plug the gap, according to its founding head, Dr. Matthew Jones.

"Just throwing loads more graduates into the profession is not the answer," Jones told the VIN News Service. "We need to be mindful of retention issues, as well ... and that a range of competencies are suited to a successful career in veterinary medicine."

The U.K. veterinary sector is grappling with a skills deficit triggered, at least in part, by the country's vote in 2016 to leave the European Union. Non-U.K. EU nationals comprise almost a quarter of veterinarians in the workforce, and more than 90% in sectors such as the meat industry. In the wake of the vote, some have been retreating across the English Channel.

At the same time, the arrival of a new veterinary school has sparked concerns that a glut of practitioners eventually could weigh on pay and working conditions, particularly if there is seen to be any deterioration in professional standards. Harper & Keele is going live even as the University of Nottingham roughly doubles its annual veterinary student intake to 300.

The new school plus Nottingham's expansion will boost by about 20% the U.K.'s 2020 veterinary school population, bringing it to more than 1,300.

The overall workforce situation is complex, not the least because how and when the U.K. formally leaves the EU remains uncertain.

Industry leaders and recent graduates have told VIN News that veterinarians are leaving the profession for a variety of reasons, including relatively low pay, unusual hours that can intrude on personal lives and, particularly in the agricultural sector, physically challenging and sometimes dangerous work.

Enter the new college, which is a joint venture between Keele University and Harper Adams University, located about 20 miles apart in the communities of Staffordshire and Shropshire, respectively, about 165 miles northwest of London in England's rural heartland.

Jones told VIN News that the school plans to admit 72 students in its first year of 2020, rising to 110 in each year thereafter. Interviews of applicants commenced in November and will run through March. Enrollments will be split equally between Keele University and Harper Adams University, although all students will study together at both schools during their five-year program.

Harper Adams University, in particular, has a history of working with farming and food sectors, and already does teaching and research in agriculture and animal sciences. The new combined school will aim to produce "omni-competent" veterinarians, although Jones said it will aim to appeal particularly to those students eyeing food-sector work.

"The reputations of the other programs hopefully will sign-post us as a place for production-animal students to come — and we'll provide every opportunity we can in the curriculum for them to track in that direction," he said.

Applicants vying for places will be judged on a host of competencies, he said, including manual dexterity, comfort with large animals, communication and problem-solving skills. A particular focus will be applied to understanding how well they handle ambiguity in addition to their academic achievements.

In Britain, high school students studying so-called A-level subjects, such as biology, chemistry, English literature, math and philosophy, are awarded pass marks of either A*, A, B, C, D or E in descending order, with A* marking particularly exceptional performance.

AAA marks — obtaining at least an A in three subjects, usually including biology and chemistry — are commonly set as a minimum entry requirement by British veterinary schools. The exceptions are the University of Nottingham and the University of Surrey, which have minimum entry requirements of AAB. Students must score a minimum A grade for biology and chemistry and a minimum B grade for a third subject.

Some schools with minimum AAA requirements, such as the University of Bristol, have second-tier "contextual" admissions programs that allocate a limited number of spots to students from diverse backgrounds who may not necessarily have the highest grades.

At the other end of the spectrum are the University of Cambridge and the University of Glasgow, where minimum entry requirements are set at A*AA.

At Harper & Keele, the minimum requirement will be one A grade in biology or chemistry; and preferably A, but no lower than B (dependent on other criteria), in two other subjects.

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"You can't reduce those academic entry criteria to such an extent that the students won't survive the course," Jones said. "But I challenge anyone to show me that A*A*A* marks are the strongest predictor of retention in the profession and career satisfaction."

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, Britain's chief regulator for the profession, has no role in setting the grade entry requirements for individual veterinary schools. But in accreditation evaluations, it does consider whether students will be prepared for safe practice on "day one" after they graduate.

"We welcome any attempts to widen access to a broader range of prospective veterinary students," an RCVS spokesman told VIN News. "We look forward to working with the joint veterinary school from Harper Adams and Keele universities over the coming years as part of the veterinary degree accreditation process to ensure that the curriculum meets our stringent standards."

When it comes to the course's structure, Jones has adopted part of the model applied at the University of Surrey, where he served as director of clinical education and, later, as director of veterinary partnerships and animal resources before arriving at Harper & Keele. Students will spend their entire fifth year in clinical rotations that expose them to the daily realities of authentic veterinary work.

"My personal experience is that the traditional model of clinical education has exposed us to an incredible range of complicated, high-level, interesting referral-type caseloads," Jones said. "But that doesn't necessarily prepare many students for what they meet when they get into their real jobs, which is 85% first-opinion — so very routine stuff."

He said the school would still aim to prepare students for a diverse range of career pathways. Its "T-shaped graduates," as he calls them, will have their roots in primary care clinical work "but possess the ability to adapt and evolve."

The full course structure is posted online.

Next door to the Keele campus, British veterinary corporation CVS Group will open a new small animal referral practice that will include a clinical skills center and serve as a private-placement provider for students in clinical training.

It is not unusual for veterinary schools in the U.K. to have private practices on-site. The University of Nottingham, for instance, hosts a clinic owned by Scarsdale Vets. The attraction for companies to ally with schools may be increasing as unfilled vacancies put upward pressure on employment costs.

Harper & Keele Veterinary School also is in "advanced negotiations" with other veterinary practices in the area about forming potential student-placement partnerships, Jones said. He recalled being approached recently by a practice in Norfolk — some 150 miles away — because it was struggling to find fresh talent.

The school ultimately could have more than one on-site practice. "I would never rule out another building going up on one of the campuses," Jones said, "but there are no concrete plans for that at this stage."

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