MUCH TO my surprise I read last week that plans are afoot for the SRUC to open a vet school. This is apparently due to the ongoing struggle of recruitment particularly in rural areas. It has been described in the press as bold and ambitious, and to the uninitiated it may sound like a good idea. However, if you scratch beneath the surface it is not feasible and won’t even begin to fix the problem it sets out to.

There is certainly a lack of experienced vets working in rural practice. When every June comes around most practices can pull a new graduate out the hat somehow, with some practices perpetually stuck in that cycle. If it is specifically a lack of graduates that is the issue, then why not focus our efforts on the much less costly option of increasing places at our two current vet schools (Edinburgh and Glasgow). Scottish places are already limited, largely down to Scottish Government free tuition policy which effectively caps Scottish numbers as there is only so much money the Scottish Funding Council allows. A vet school that can compete on the world stage is an increasingly expensive institution to run. In order to meet this gap, existing vet schools are pushed to recruit international students who pay north of £25,000 per year to meet the funding shortfall – these students are a market that the SRUC would not be able to obtain. On the latest figures, they fill approximately 40% of total spaces at both vet schools. Although there is very limited funding for places for existing domestic vet students, we are being made to believe there are millions of pounds for more Scottish places in an entirely new vet school. Now unless I’ve missed something you can understand my reaction in that this is nothing short of madness.

Put simply, we have two vet schools that are not even close to capacity of Scottish students. We surely do not need a third.

If you don’t get your highers at your first sitting you will have a very hard time if you want to become a vet in Scotland, as tuition fees then become too expensive for a second degree/course. So perhaps more Government help for people in this boat to get into our current vet schools would be of more value, perhaps linked to SRUC gateway courses that are immune from extreme fees. If the drive is to produce an increase in farm or mixed vets, OVs or indeed small animal vets in rural locations, then the SRUC should work with the institutions we have. Strengthening on current collaborations of research and teaching is the obvious route forward. SRUC has some great facilities vet students currently make no use of. A day trip to the Royal Crichton was about the extent of it in my time as a student at Glasgow.

Now I could be wrong but looking at SRUC’s financial reports it seems the taxpayer must be footing most of the bill for this new venture. This is the same SRUC that shut Auchincruive, citing cost as the reason, closing their disease surveillance centre there as a result. It’s hardly the only example of selling their assets to keep the numbers in the black. Our current vet schools sometimes struggle hanging on to talented academics as it is. This is due to being outcompeted on salary by other institutions and private companies. Has the SRUC really got the money required to attract an entire outfit of staff required for all disciplines?

And this is onto a backdrop of the uncertainty of Brexit, and agriculture in the UK at a crossroads. It’s anyone’s guess what the outlook will be in when the first graduates’ wellies touch down on farm. Is it particularly prudent to invest in a third vet school at this time? We could much more easily integrate existing vet students with the work and research of the SRUC, as the next chapter of research in greener agriculture, and innovative production methods unfolds.

I’m currently working in New Zealand, a country which has approximately five times as many cattle as Scotland. It has one vet school. It’s essentially the country’s unofficial policy to hire UK and other international vets rather than training them domestically. And why do we come? One important factor is the vets earn more than they do at home. In the UK, with the exception of some more forward-thinking practices, I’d suggest we have slightly more archaic attitude that relies on goodwill and our altruistic Herriot-style love of the job to stay in it. I reckon that method of thinking is currently running on fumes.

Perhaps there’s a perfectly good reason there hasn’t been a been a new vet school in Scotland in 150 years and it’s that we haven’t needed one, and we still don’t.

We haven’t exhausted more sensible avenues to fix the problem before going for a plan as fanciful (the Darien scheme springs to mind) at opening what would be the UK’s fifth (yes, fifth!) new vet school since 2007. There are many and varied reasons vets leave the profession, and this plan does absolutely nothing to address those problems. In ten years’ time we would just have more new graduates turfed out onto a watered-down salary when the supply of unblooded vets exceeds demand. Given they are talented individuals they then would choose to work in other countries or other professions with a better work life balance and/or appropriate remuneration, and there will have been no return on the taxpayer’s investment.

If there are holes in your bucket you don’t turn on another tap to try and fill it.