What does it take to embark on a career in veterinary science? Harvey McGavin examines the nature of the beast
Veterinary science has some of the toughest entrance requirements of any degree course, and demand for places far exceeds supply. Veterinary school admissions have doubled in the past five years, but only six universities - Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool and London - run veterinary science degrees, with 400 graduates a year.
Selection criteria vary but all applicants need chemistry A-level, and usually two others from biology, physics and mathematics. Anything less than straight As can rule out would-be vets. In Scotland, five Highers (three at A grade) are the norm. Applicants need some experience of working with animals.
Courses last five years (six at Cambridge) and effectively run year-round. When other students are on holiday, veterinary science undergraduates are "seeing practice" - gaining experience with a working vet.
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, the vets' governing body, has just commissioned a survey which shows the profession's changing composition. In 1996, two out of three new students were women, reversing decades of male domination.
In 1997, the United Kingdom had 17,781 registered vets. But a shortage remains, possibly due, in part, to the increased number of women vets, who are more likely than men to be taking a career break to start a family. Another trend has been the influx of European Union and Commonwealth practitioners.
More than three out of four newly qualified vets go into private practice. Basic salaries start at about Pounds 15,000, but the nature of the job varies widely, from small, inner-city clinics to rural practices specialising in a single species. In the Newmarket area, for example, several practices deal only with horses.
The Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food is the single biggest employer of vets, and the main animal welfare charities employ several hundred vets between them. Opportunities also exist in the commercial world, developing medicines and vaccines, and in academic research. Veterinary science plays a central part in issues such as BSE, food safety, quarantine laws, live transport of animals, hunting and genetics.
According to RCVS education officer Pam Wignall, the popularity of television series such as Animal Hospital, Vet School and Pet Rescue has led to an increase in enquiries from schoolchildren. She says: "Veterinary schools look at academic qualifications, but they don't want somebody who is narrow and blinkered and has done nothing else with their lives."
She admits the reality of practice can disappoint high-flying graduates. "They think veterinary science will extend them, then they find it mundane."
But the RCVS's main concern is funding. Veterinary schools have suffered cutbacks and, according to Ms Wignall, operate "on a shoestring". Veterinary students will be badly affected by the Government's fee-paying proposals, given the length of courses and the necessity of extra-mural study when other undergraduates can supplement their income with holiday jobs. The RCVS is lobbying for an exemption similar to that granted to medical students.
The RCVS is holding a careers day in London next July for secondary pupils interested in becoming vets. Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons 0171 222 2001British Veterinary Association 0171 636 6541