It’s no longer James Herriot in wellies: the harsh reality of becoming a modern vet

The demand for places at the UK’s seven existing vet schools vastly exceeds supply, and universities are expanding to take advantage of the fees on offer. And yet, the veterinary profession they will enter has changed beyond recognition.

Being a vet is now more about managing herds than caring for individual animals. Photo: Getty
Being a vet is now more about managing herds than caring for individual animals. Photo: Getty

Jonathan Parsons, 23, is slumped in a high-backed wheelie chair in an attic room of a suburban house on the outskirts of Cambridge. It’s 9pm. He sits in the glare of innumerable Apple monitors, squinting through LEDs at the text that emanates from a broad screen in an otherwise dark room. Aside from the frat-boy physique that gives away considerable stints in the university gym, all the evidence in the room points to a sedentary day. The surrounding surfaces groan under the distributed mass of academic paraphernalia; textbooks, binders and assorted wads of paper are spread over several desks. A brightly-coloured diagram of a dog-shaped circulatory system is tacked to the wall behind him.

Jonny is an old friend and classmate from my brief cameo as a Cambridge veterinary student, before the course and I “consciously uncoupled” and I changed tack and went into journalism. Now in his fifth and penultimate year, he is on the brink of one of its most infamous exam seasons. He closes his book with an “alright, mate,” swings round in his chair, and asks me what I want to know.

One of around four hundred students at the vet school, Jonny and his classmates constitute a tiny and largely-overlooked slice of a large and historic academic pie. They are grouped – physically and in the minds of the wider population – together with their medical equivalents, and at least for the first half of the course, lecture resources are shared (up until the point at which a human being can no longer usefully substitute for a cow).

The courses are comparably arduous. Exams arrive frequently and without mercy, featuring, for example, negatively-marked multiple choice questions (where an incorrect answer leads to the docking of a point earned elsewhere), and pass marks that can exceed sixty per cent (traditionally the 2.1 threshold). They are concertinaed into periods known in the business as “weeks of death”. Beyond term time, students are required to undertake “extra-mural studies” – work experience on farms and at veterinary practices – which amount, effectively, to an extra year of the course.

And the strain is tangible. A survey by the British Veterinary Association (BVA) in 2012 found that 32.7 per cent of veterinary students have experienced depression; this is compared with a rate of 12 per cent in the wider UK population. Nearly 10 per cent have suffered from eating disorders.

Despite its length, though, and its widely-understood difficulty, more teenagers are applying to vet school every year. Between 2007 and 2012, the total number of UK applications increased by a third, and in 2012 a total of 9,000 students applied for 1,000 places at UK veterinary schools.

But while graduate conditions are wintry, and the financial burdens of vet school are soaring (students entering the course from 2012 onwards can expect to repay £70,000 in student loans, compared to £35,000 for 2012 graduates), demand has been sufficient to prompt the opening of new schools at Surrey (where classes are due to begin this autumn), Aberystwyth and Ulster Universities. Together, the schools will increase the total vet student population of the UK by almost half.

Now, in his fifth year, Jonny is in the process of memorising the material of the two previous years for his final exams. He gestures me to the uppermost page of the current wad of notes under scrutiny: “Serum proteins in dogs – albumin and globulin.” The total lecture count to be taken on board, he reports, is 250.

I flick on the recording function of my iPhone. “So, why do you want to be a vet?”

 

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The vet student bubble is a small instance of a broader trend. Since the rise in university fees of 2012, institutions are incentivised to move as many students as possible through their doors.

An excellent and expansive article by Stefan Collini in the London Review of Books last year detailed the sprawling effects of the fee hike and the almost imperceptible creep of the higher education sector towards privatisation.

Very few universities in the United Kingdom are nominally “private” – although there are of course well-publicised exceptions such as A C Grayling’s New College of the Humanities – but withdrawal of public funding by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) from a large number of institutions based on the conclusions of the Browne Review in 2010, coupled with the resultant loss of its powers to effectively cap student numbers, has left universities adrift in an increasingly laissez-faire marketplace.

The demand for places at the seven existing UK vet schools vastly exceeds supply. In a privatised university sector, it makes good economic sense for a university without a vet school to invest in one, since the schools are, on paper, a stable and worthy investment. They serve the dual purpose of easing the bottleneck of school leavers desperate to work with animals, while securing a steady income for the university in the form of a course that is almost twice as long as most and has a markedly low drop-out rate.

Due to material requirements and extensive facilities, veterinary medicine is an enormously expensive course to operate. The Surrey Vet School, which opens this autumn, is built on an investment of £40m by the university itself, while the HEFCE provided only £4.9m of public funding. The fees for students, it goes almost without saying, are set at the maximal £9,000 per year.

The university market, though, does not correct for what becomes of its graduates. The new schools are widely perceived to be adding volume to a pool of graduates that is already saturating the job market, and as a result are likely to drive down the already-low salaries of the entire cohort of newly qualified vets. And where new vets are unable to find jobs, they are already finding themselves diverted into tangential and less popular areas such as veterinary public health and policy, research and academia, which in no way resemble the bucolic job they had in mind when they left school and invested in further education.

Not only are the new schools channelling unwitting teenagers into a hostile marketplace, they are yet to gain accreditation with the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, since an application cannot be made until the first batch of students completes the entire five-year course. This means that the first new students to pass through the course will be doing so with no guarantee of a veterinary qualification at the end of it. While a niche development in the context of UK higher education, the new schools remain extraordinarily controversial within the veterinary community.

Vets across the globe are struggling. A report from the Australian Veterinarian Network in 2013 found that an average graduate vet was earning, per hour, the same as a McDonald’s burger flipper. 30 per cent of veterinary graduates from the University of Melbourne, consistently ranked as the top university in the country, were unable to find work in 2012. The New York Times reported a similar story: it found that the ratio of debt to income for a new vet was roughly twice that of a junior doctor.

Over here, the number of graduates whose first job is only a temporary position has almost doubled since 2008. The majority of them will stick it out for less than three months. 53 per cent of those leaving their first job said they had not received enough professional support, while only 33 per cent of all respondents felt that their first position met all of their needs in terms of salary, location and type of work.

The average salary of a GP in the UK is £81,000. For a senior vet, the median salary after one or two decades of practice is £45-50,000. A driver on the London Underground earns the same amount. The suicide rate among veterinary surgeons, meanwhile, is well documented; at four times the national average, it is twice that of doctors.

I spoke to Lord Trees, a Professor of Veterinary Parasitology and the Editor-in-Chief of the Veterinary Record, about the new schools. He told me he “takes a positive view”. On the topic of graduates, he asserted that: “A potentially good side-effect of what’s happening is that it may prompt veterinary graduates to [take] the broader opportunities that there are for people with their sorts of skills and experience and training, and to contribute to society in a wider context.”

He argues further that given the mobility of vets within the European Union, very little can be done to suppress the number in the profession in the UK. Around six hundred vets each year are coming from overseas, primarily from Europe, to register with the RCVS and practise in the country.

The view on the ground, though, among staff and students, is quite different. According to Dr David Bainbridge, Cambridge University’s Veterinary Anatomist and an admissions tutor at St Catharine’s college: “There is little downward pressure on the number of veterinary graduates in the UK. My sense is that in the last few years the increasing number has meant that new grads are finding it harder to find the job they want. Vets are relatively poorly paid compared to other professions, especially considering the high academic entry requirements and the lengthy debt-laden training involved.”

Hannah Chase, President of the Cambridge University Association of Veterinary Students, shares the concern that students are increasingly unable to realise the lifestyle they had in mind on arriving at vet school: “[Students] won’t get the jobs they wanted when they were seventeen. While lots of qualified vets enjoy their jobs, many – even those who have reached the top of their field – are telling their kids to do medicine instead.”

 

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The effect of privatisation is to reclassify students as consumers. Aside from the moral queasiness this idea evokes, it is one that is not successfully borne out in real life. A seventeen year-old is not a model agent in an economic system, acting rationally and armed with full information. He or she is – speaking from personal experience – largely unaware of the real later-life consequences of any major career decision and highly susceptible to influence or persuasion; that is to say, to marketing.

Of course this was also the case before the fee rise, but the principle stands that a young person should not be subject to additional coercion onto courses that may be unsuitable for them. And yet this is precisely what is required of a university that relies on loan-backed fees to fund itself. Its primary concern is with remaining financially afloat, and it must get kids through its doors one way or another, regardless, if necessary, of whether the investment is justified for the student.

The new course at the University of Surrey, for example, is marketed under a series of taglines. Its “theme” is referred to as “One Health – One Medicine”, while its website encourages potential students to share information about the school on Facebook and Twitter. Years of study are assigned names in the curriculum including “Discovering the Normal” (year one) and “Practice, Practice, Practice” (year five). The structure of its clinical course is advertised as a “distributed model”. What this refers to, in reality, is a horizontally-integrated teaching setup, where rather than learning in a purpose-built teaching hospital, as is the case at traditional vet schools, students will study the practical aspects of the job in local commercial practices, where resources are limited and customers expect procedures to be performed by qualified vets.

No student can enter any university course with a guarantee that it will meet all of their expectations. Some vocations, however, suffer an information gap – a discrepancy between the imagined lifestyle ahead and the reality of graduate life. Vet medicine is perhaps the most extreme example in our universities, a career which must be embarked upon at an unusually young age and one which is widely misunderstood by the public.

To stand any chance of securing a place, students are required to decide upon their life’s vocation at around the age of fifteen. Before making an application two years later, they must have narrowed their academic focus exclusively to science and undertaken a spread of work experience placements which often stretch over long periods, helping out at practices and kennels on weekends. Some teenagers attend week-long summer courses at UK universities, designed to give tips on strategy in the application process.

The brightest students can be the most susceptible to poor career choices. Most vet students excelled at school, typically scoring among the best marks in their year groups. Not only does this mean that they can fail to grasp just how demanding veterinary medicine can be, but they are inclined to actively seek out courses on the basis of difficulty. “When you go to careers counselling at school,” says Jonny Parsons, “The teacher says, ‘You have to be very clever to do that.’ And your response is always going to be: ‘Right, well that’s what I’m going to do.’ So many kids want to be vets because you can’t convince them it’s as hard as it is.”

According to the Cambridge vets, the motivation to choose the profession lies in a fundamental misunderstanding of the job – and one that is not confined to animal-loving teens. A gap exists between the imagined lifestyle – complete with cows, fields and charmingly muddy wellies – and the reality of what the career will actually entail. Vets were formerly professionals in demand, but as farms tighten their books and families find themselves short on disposable income, James Herriots are scarce. The job calls more frequently for managerial work, ensuring the productivity of large herds, than for the care of individual animals.

Speaking to the class of 2009 I found countless instances of disillusionment and regret. From a straw poll of fifth years during the post-exam festivities of May Week, fifteen per cent told me that given the chance again, they would not have studied veterinary. One student remarked: “It seems to me now that vets work ridiculously long hours under very stressful conditions without much to show for it. We have no time or energy to do the things we love in life, we get paid very poorly considering the amount of training we have and get little to no respect from our peers.”

Higher education has always been a marketplace to an extent. Universities have long sought to grip the teenager’s imagination on the basis of arguably unreliable rankings and reputations. But the aim was to attract the best, those who would succeed on the course and go on to do great things, the old alma mater asking little in return but some reflected glory and a bump up the league tables. It was an arrangement of great mutual benefit. Today’s universities require money, above all else, from their students, and they are becoming increasingly astute at securing it. They are free to advertise implausible futures – and what they have for sale, the young consumer will buy.