First veterinary school in Wales to open next fall

Art, psychology could be part of curriculum at Aberystwyth University

November 5, 2020 (published)
By Ross Kelly

Aberystwyth University photo by Keith Morris
Aberystwyth University, on the western coast of Wales, is starting a joint veterinary program next fall with the Royal Veterinary College in England.

In the course of earning their degrees, most veterinary students get a heavy dose of anatomy instruction and clinical skills training. At a new school in Wales, a dash of art photography could be added to the mix.

That's the hope of Dr. Darrell Abernethy, head of the Aberystwyth University School of Veterinary Science, which will become Wales' first veterinary college when it opens next September.

The program is a joint effort of Aberystwyth University and the Royal Veterinary College in England. Students will spend the first two years of the five-year degree at Aberystwyth, located on the western coast of Wales. They will move to the RVC's Hawkshead campus, north of London, for the final three years. (Unlike in the United States, veterinary medicine in the U.K. is an undergraduate program.)

The cost for students attending the joint program will be identical to those attending RVC all five years: £9,250 (US$11,960) per year. (The price reflects a standard government subsidy.)

Abernethy told the VIN News Service that the school is planning to skew its curriculum toward food-animal medicine in a bid to support the Welsh agricultural sector. And he'd like to add unique elements, including offering students an opportunity to take on nontraditional subjects as part of their veterinary medicine degree.

"I'm very passionate that our students get exposure to other disciplines and other ways of thinking," Abernethy said. "Because our vet school is right in the middle of this multidisciplinary campus in Aberystwyth, it gives us a wonderful opportunity to make the most of that."

The establishment of a veterinary school in Wales — one of the four nations of the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland and Northern Ireland — has been discussed by politicians and local media for more than a century. The school is coming to fruition now, amid fears that the U.K.'s exit from the European Union will cause an exodus of locally born practitioners, particularly in the food animal sector.

Wales, which accounts for less than 5% of the U.K. population of 66.8 million, has a mountainous terrain and lower-quality soil compared with the rest of Britain, so its agriculture sector is more heavily focused on livestock production than crop production. Wales has, for instance, around 29% of Britain's sheep, according to a report published in 2016. 

The veterinary program, announced in February, is on track to fill a first-year cohort of 25 students. Abernethy said the school received more than 130 applications by the Oct. 15 deadline, exceeding its target minimum of 100 applicants.

The response wasn't bad, he added, considering the publicity challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic that took hold early this year. "We had hoped to have a lot more contact sessions with schools, open days and that sort of thing," he said. "But COVID wrecked that."

Aberystwyth University photo
Dr. Darrell Abernethy, head of the new Aberystwyth University School of Veterinary Science, wants to expose students to diverse ways of thinking.

Born in Zambia, Abernethy worked for decades in Northern Ireland in the field of public health. He is enthusiastic about offering instruction to students in One Health — the understanding that the health of humans, other animals and the environment are interconnected. Abernethy has long believed in the concept and its application to issues such as combating antimicrobial drug resistance. Now the pandemic has made the relevance of a One Health approach clearer still, he said, given that the virus that causes COVID-19 has a zoonotic origin.

"One Health really implies that you need to work together," Abernethy said. "I'd like to bring that right down to undergraduate education, so I'm very keen that our students get exposed to not only a diversity of students, but also to a diversity of professions."

While plans for the curriculum are not yet firm, Abernethy envisions second-year students being offered a small, nontraditional module with a choice of six subjects. They could include art photography, psychology or Welsh culture, he said. To be sure, the course also will strongly track elements of the RVC's curriculum, as students must seamlessly integrate into the RVC course for years three to five of their degree.

As mandated by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the profession's regulatory body, the program must equip students to handle small, large and exotic animals. Abernethy hopes a slightly stronger emphasis on food animals over companion animals will attract Welsh students keen to work with livestock. No specific quota, though, has been placed on local intake.

"We can't preferentially select Welsh students, and we wouldn't want to — we want diversity," Abernethy said. "But obviously, because our vision is Welsh-focused, we're hoping to attract Welsh students."

Abernethy also would like to enroll at least two international students each year. The Aberystwyth-RVC program will have to apply for accreditation with relevant organizations outside of the U.K., including the American Veterinary Medical Association, even though the RVC has accreditation in the U.S. and many other countries. "[Accreditation] is something we will be actively exploring," Abernethy said.

The new school is joining an education sector grappling with functioning in a pandemic that has not only forced many students to work remotely, but kept some potential international applicants in their home countries due to travel curbs. The U.K. government, fearing that smaller institutions would be left short of domestic students, recently put a cap on how many domestic students its larger universities could take to counter a shortfall in international enrollments.

For new schools, coming up with development funding also has proven a challenge. Harper & Keele Veterinary School in England, which opened this fall, recently lost corporate consolidator CVS Group as a construction partner. CVS intended to build a new £5 million (US$6.5 million) veterinary hospital at the school's Keele campus but pulled out, citing uncertainty caused by COVID-19.

"This decision was not taken lightly," CVS spokesperson Carla Whelan said. "CVS has remained in dialogue with Keele University, and hopes to continue to collaborate and support the development of their veterinary school."

Harper & Keele, a joint effort of Harper Adams University and Keele University, is pressing on with the construction of a new veterinary school building. 

In Wales, early development work has just begun on Aberystwyth University's new veterinary education center, estimated to cost £1 million (US$1.3 million), funded partly by alumni donations.

Asked whether the school is anticipated to grow, Abernethy said he doesn't see class sizes changing much anytime soon. "We might like to increase the class size some time in the future, in order to make it more economically viable," he said, "but that will only be in close consultation with the RVC."

As for the Welsh campus potentially hosting an entire five-year degree in its own right, he said that's unlikely.

"There's no doubt that building a veterinary hospital and creating a full-scale vet school in this part of Wales is almost certainly not economically viable," he said, citing the expense, Wales' relatively small population, and the risk of hurting smaller practices in the area by drawing away their clients.

Instead, Abernethy said, the school will consider different models of education, such as establishing itself as a hub for livestock production and linking up with other universities with a small-animal focus to divvy up the teaching on small and large animals.

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