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RVC Hawkshead Campus 320
The photo of the Royal Veterinary College
On the Hawkshead campus of the Royal Veterinary College north of London, students spend the last three years of their five-year undergraduate studies with veterinary students and trained specialists. Almost half of RVC students came from outside the UK and the EU last year.
Due to a controversial admission restriction, some of the UK’s largest veterinary schools are vulnerable to potential student shortages that are claimed to worsen a workforce gap that is estimated to leave more than 10% of vacancies vacant.
The COVID-19 crisis was already threatening to put pressure on enrollment by keeping international students away.
As part of its response to the pandemic, the UK Conservative government has temporarily limited the admission of domestic students to universities in England. For new students from the UK and the European Union, growth in the 2020-21 school year will be limited to no more than 5% above the school’s admission expectations prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. (Veterinary training in the UK is typically five years.)
An example of how the cap works: A university that was expecting 1,000 new local students in the fall could not enroll more than 1,050 students to offset a decline in international enrollments. For universities that exceed the upper limit, the state funds are reduced.
Separately, the UK government has announced that the number of students it can accept from England at universities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be 6.5% higher than last year.
The caps were put in place to prevent high-ranking universities, potentially losing foreign students due to the COVID-19 crisis, from devouring locals to fill the gap. Without the caps, it was feared that less prestigious universities would run out of local students to draw on to get them out of business.
The British Veterinary Association, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the Veterinary Schools Council have written to UK University Secretary Michelle Donelan, requesting that all veterinary programs, excluding skills shortages, be exempted from the cap.
In their joint letter, they also expressed concern that universities may be tempted to cut admissions to their veterinary schools in order to increase the number of more profitable courses that do not require costly investments in clinical teaching facilities. The Veterinary Schools Council (VCS) does not yet know how its member universities will proceed on this front. “We have not yet received confirmation, although we are sure that your response is imminent,” said VSC spokeswoman Lucy Chislett.
The UK government has announced that it will allow an additional 5,000 admissions for subjects related to human health care and an additional 5,000 for subjects of “strategic importance”. On June 1, the government confirmed that veterinary medicine is one of the subjects which include architecture, life sciences, chemistry, engineering and social work, among others. But it cautioned, “These locations are not guaranteed and no vendor or institution should rely on them to get additional spots in their planning process.”
To what extent UK universities will be harmed by COVID-19 travel restrictions is also uncertain. International travel into the country is currently allowed, although governments around the world have either banned or discouraged international travel to prevent the spread of the highly contagious disease and airlines have dramatically cut international routes.
Most international students attend three schools
Historical admissions data suggest that three of the UK’s nine veterinary schools host the majority of international students: the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow. The RVC told VIN News that its admission target for the 2020-21 academic year is “similar to last year’s target”. Last year, the RVC, which is part of the University of London, wanted to fill 270 places, including 125 students outside the UK and the EU, or 46% of the total.
“Our signs so far are that we remain a popular destination,” said an RVC spokesman. “However, we won’t know the impact of the pandemic until students enroll.” The RVC stated that it has no intention of increasing or decreasing its intake target. “We do not plan to reduce our student numbers, nor do we expect that we have to,” said the spokesman.
Many students who have already completed the RVC’s veterinary program packed their bags and left. “Our locations have been closed to students since March. The majority of our students – at home and abroad – returned home …” said the spokesman. When or if repatriated students would return to the UK is unclear.
Although the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow are only subject to the ceiling for students from England, the amount of government funding available per domestic student in Scotland is limited by the Scottish Funding Council. That means if the schools there take in more Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish or EU students than planned, they won’t get a lot of extra money from the government, which by default creates a cap.
Last year, of the 133 students the University of Glasgow wanted to enroll, 60 were non-UK, non-EU students, or 45% of the total, according to the VSC. A university spokeswoman said the stipulated admission of students for the upcoming academic year is 135. However, she said it was impossible to make accurate predictions for this year’s admission, partly due to uncertainty about foreign admissions. “We’re not sure how travel restrictions and supplier concerns will affect our international recruitment,” she said.
A University of Edinburgh spokesman declined to comment on the potential impact the pandemic could have on the approval target. He referred VIN News to the university’s website, which stated the school is considering 125 places for its veterinary medicine foundation course this year, including 35 with a “graduate or international fee.”
The RVC, University of Edinburgh, and University of Glasgow are all accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association. A fourth UK school, the University of Bristol, received AVMA accreditation in October to attract US students. A Bristol University spokesman declined to comment on the article.
The UK’s five remaining Veterinary Schools typically accept few to zero students from outside the UK and the EU. Cambridge University spokesman Paul Seagrove said it is targeting 75 enrollments this year for his veterinary course, which is the same as last year. Foreign students, he said, “often make up 5-10% of our veterinarian cohort, and we have no evidence yet that our 2020 intake will vary widely.”
The University of Nottingham, which last year doubled its annual enrollment of veterinary students to 300, said it had already put up its offerings and would be accepting “roughly the same number of students” as last year. “The school accepts very few international students and has no specific destination for them,” said spokeswoman Emma Thorne.
Thorne added that the number of students at the University of Nottingham could potentially be a bit higher this year if more applicants than expected achieve high entry-level (A) grades. Summer exams for UK students have been canceled this year due to the pandemic, leading the government to urge schools to consider other records of achievement when awarding admissions grades, such as previous exam results. Universities are preparing for several potential outcomes, including more students than usual who meet the minimum grade requirements.
Latest school is pushing opening plans
The UK’s ninth and newest veterinary school, Harper & Keele, may also accept a few more students than the originally planned 75, which will be the first cohort ever. Harper & Keele has not yet received accreditation from professional bodies, including the RCVS, as it is just getting started.
“In terms of numbers, there is a feeling across the industry that the A-Level approach is likely to have more than the usual percentage of students getting their offer grades and so veterinary schools must expect the potential to increase intake to offer honor where they can, “Headmaster Matt Jones told VIN News.
Harper & Keele already planned to increase their cohort from 75 in the first year to 110 in the second year. “We have all of our planning based on our maximum cohort size of 110, so we are very relaxed when it comes to accepting higher numbers of students,” said Jones.
The University of Surrey is targeting 150 students this year, like last year, a spokesman said. Liverpool University officials did not respond to requests for comment.
How everything is developing is being closely monitored by the BVA and the RCVS, who have long warned of an escalating skills crisis in the profession, partly due to the UK’s impending exit from the EU in a process known as Brexit. The UK officially left the EU on January 31, but continues to comply with EU rules and trade until a transition period ends on December 31.
Both organizations claim the profession is already experiencing a skills shortage of around 11-13%, indicating the gap between vacancies and the number of veterinarians they can fill.
An RCVS spokesman Luke Bishop said the 11-13% estimate “is based on the vacancy rate given to us by some of the UK’s largest veterinary employers.” He added, “Although this is an estimate, it is methodologically sound and we will update the data soon based on the current vacancy rates.”
More than 60% of veterinarians registered in the UK in recent years have graduated overseas, with the vast majority of those being from the EU, as the three veterinary organizations noted in their joint letter. “We expect much greater difficulties in recruiting from EU member states once the Brexit transition period ends in early 2021,” they said.
The potential for skilled labor shortages was recognized by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration, which, despite its general stance against immigration, recently put veterinarians back on the country’s lost job list, making it easier for local practices to recruit foreigners.
This story was modified to reflect that Jasmine De Vivo, a PR contractor for the Royal Veterinary College, passed on comments from a college spokesperson.