Linda Evans and Emma Preston kindly spoke to me from The Donkey Sanctuary about their careers in veterinary medicine, their work with donkeys and working equids, and access to this field for the UK’s young people.
Who is working in veterinary science?
If you ask the UK’s six-year-olds what they want to be when they grow up, a decent number might say their goals include putting plasters on dogs and living with lions in the Serengeti. But when they are older, only a tiny proportion of them will seriously aspire to study veterinary medicine, and even fewer will enter the industry.
This does not mean, however, that entry to veterinary science courses is easy. In fact, on its veterinary science information page, UCAS warns that ‘entry to veterinary medicine courses is highly competitive and the selection process rigorous as a result.’ This year, nearly eighteen thousand people applied to veterinary undergraduate courses, an increase of almost three thousand individuals since last year.
So who is it that is being drawn to study veterinary medicine and who is making it through to work in the profession today?
When Vet Times examined the demographic makeup of UK vets in 2020, they found that only 3% are from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds, compared to 30% of working-age British adults. A 2019 reportby the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons found that privately educated people, particularly women, are over-represented in the profession.
London is the home of the UK’s largest and oldest centre of veterinary science, the Royal Veterinary College, as well as 219 vet practices. Despite this, access to animals and their habitats is not equitably distributed and parts of London are much more concrete jungle-esque than others. There are a lot of young people in London who have a harder time accessing opportunities in this industry.
Even in the UK’s most diverse city, containing the highest numbers of eighteen-year-olds hoping to go to university, we still have a problem with who can study veterinary medicine.
Barriers to participation
Prospective students can be scared off by the cost of qualifying to be a vet. As veterinary science is a five-year course, students are taking on two extra years of debt – almost £20,000 before considering the cost of living.
A lot of work is also required before even starting the UCAS application. Work experience is essential and often hard to get. Veterinary practices have to engage with difficult health and safety protocols when they invite school students into their spaces and many are unwilling to do this. Private schools and schools with more financial resources have more time to give to help people access work experience.
Farms and riding stables are more likely to accept school students, but few live near enough to access these opportunities. In London, there are four riding stables around Kingston and none in Lewisham.
Once a student has managed to get the necessary work experience, they may be put off by daunting A level grade profiles quotes on university website. Emma tells me prospective students often do not realise that a strong interview can lower A-level offers by a handful of grades. Many teachers are not aware of this and they tell students they will never be able to become vets when it is not necessarily true.
A lot of people think being a vet means loving animals, Linda tells me. That is certainly true, but more than anything, vets need to interact with people. Vets are parts of communities, teaching people how to build rewarding relationships with animals. Whether that involves the donkeys driving a Zimbabwean village’s economy, a British farm’s pigs or a pensioner’s beloved cat, a good vet must reach the owner as much as the animal.
This social consciousness is integral to all Linda and Emma’s work. In the Donkey Sanctuary’s global work, the mission is not only to champion donkeys’ needs; but also to understand donkeys’ place in their communities, why people rely on them and the cost of the donkey suffering ill health. We can provide best support by understanding the limitations or resources in a community and working with that community to improve the health and welfare of donkeys.
Emma tells me this is one of the hardest parts of the job and one of the best. Through education of professionals and producing resources we can have a wider reaching impact and affect the lives of more animals, who in turn have a direct impact on the lives of humans. When you help a community to get a donkey back on its feet, , you are also helping everyone that relies on its labour, keeping a family’s budget in the black and ensuring that children are able to attend school. Good veterinary care, based on communication and empathy for animals and owners, helps entire communities.
Young people who don’t know vets socially or don’t have access to high quality careers counselling might not know when a career in veterinary medicine could be perfect for them. Empathetic young scientists with a knack for communicating could convert that into a rewarding, secure lifelong career.
When I ask Linda and Emma about their favourite parts of their work, they have long lists: the excitement of bringing a healthy foal into the world; benefiting entire communities; protecting animals from disease and ill health; helping a child and puppy form a lifechanging relationship. Linda and Emma, and many other vets like them, are excited to go to work every day. I am sure people from all walks of life envy that level of job satisfaction.
Where do we go from here?
Certainly, more financial support for veterinary medicine students would help. But if we think bigger and earlier in the student lifecycle, could vet practices, farm attractions and zoos work together to provide more young people with opportunities to learn about caring for animals and have the chance of falling in love with the profession?
Flexible work experience programmes could help young people access these opportunities without needing intensive help from their schools. We could shape programmes around the scheduling needs of people who might have work or caring responsibilities, allowing them to build up hours of experience over evenings or weekends, rather than undertaking weeks at a time of unpaid work. We could also advertise opportunities somewhere central that doesn’t rely on individuals having personal contacts to industry professionals.
We can be inspired by author Michael Morpurgo’s Farms for City Children. This programme lets urban primary schools spend a week working and learning on a Devon farm. Could something like this be viable closer to London? Could it be expanded to older students and create another opportunity to close the work experience gap?
We need conversation between universities, schools and financial backers, and the vets, farmers and stable owners who are the among the only ones who can provide vital work experience. This conversation needs to include teachers and careers advisors, giving them the right information about access to veterinary medicine. Universities and industry collaborating on veterinary outreach and work experience can make a huge difference. Together, we can open this rewarding career up to all the capital’s young people.