When Lorcan Bannon was studying to become a vet, he was in a classroom that was choc-a-bloc with other Irish students. But he wasn’t in UCD, the sole veterinary college in Ireland – he was 2,000km away in Slovakia.
“I did four years of training and my class was full of Irish people, all of whom came back home after graduation,” says Bannon, now a vet at Highfield Veterinary Group in Naas, Co Kildare.
Bannon isn’t alone in being forced to go abroad to study. UCD has just under 100 veterinary places and this year about 1,000 students listed its veterinary medicine course as their first choice. As a result, hundreds of would-be Irish vets end up studying at universities in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Croatia, among other countries.
“The CAO currently rewards only those vet applicants who do well in exams and can accumulate points,” says Bannon.” But a new vet school – especially if it had a graduate entry programme – would allow more accessibility and also motivate those who really want to do it.”
The shortage of veterinary places is nothing new. It’s a problem identified by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission as far back as 2008, but action had been slow – until recently.
A new campaign to bring about additional veterinary medicine course places has been brewing for a while, and it has scored an early win, with the Higher Education Authority seeking, by November 18th, “expressions of interest from higher education institutions interested in building capacity in ... veterinary [medicine courses] “.
Despite extensive lobbying, the HEA’s alacrity has nonetheless taken some campaigners by surprise – albeit a welcome one – as the State moves to respond to skills gaps. The HEA is also looking at new courses in dentistry, pharmacy, medicine and nursing – and, with four new technological universities established in recent years, the process will be a real test of how flexible and imaginative the relatively new Department of Further and Higher Education can be.
Several universities are actively exploring the possibility of delivering additional veterinary medicine places. University College Cork and University of Limerick are regarded by observers as front-runners to be awarded the new course, although other universities are likely to apply including University of Galway and UCD.
UCC’s advantage may lie in the fact that it already hosts an agricultural science course and has a large rural hinterland that could attract students from farming backgrounds.
UL, meanwhile, has space on its site and is widely regarded for the success of its graduate school of medicine, which was established in 2007 and which has provided a hands-on form of education that has produced a relatively large number of graduates who went on to work in general practice. Some vets see a graduate school of veterinary medicine as a model that could potentially work.
UCD also believes it is “uniquely placed” to expand its existing veterinary course, or to create a new one. The university’s dean of veterinary medicine, Prof Michael Doherty, told colleagues it will engage with the expressions of interest process.
Some campaigners suggest that the new school should not be in Dublin, so as to ensure access to veterinary education for those in different parts of Ireland and, in particular, those from a rural background; the growing number of vets from non-rural backgrounds has, broadly speaking, led to more vets interested in pets and less interested in working with farm animals.
Ian Fleming, a vet based in Fermoy, Co Cork; James Quinn, a Clare-based vet who runs training programmes; and Liam Moriarty, managing director of MyVet.ie, are just three of those who have campaigned for the new vet school.
Quinn and Fleming say that any new veterinary medicine school may or may not be attached to a university with an existing school of agriculture – or could be located in or connected to a health science faculty.
This is because, Quinn explains, the “One Health” approach urged by the World Health Organisation – which encourages “an integrated, unifying approach to balance and optimise the health of people, animals and the environment [and] is particularly important to prevent, predict, detect and respond to global health threats such as the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Fleming says that a new course is necessary for a number of reasons.
“I qualified in 1977 – the last cohort of vets to graduate from Trinity College – and I see that vets are struggling to recruit and retain. It took me 15 months to get a replacement when I wanted to step back, and this is happening all over the country, especially in rural areas. It is causing problems for food certification and the food industry – a huge exporter – nationwide.”
Moriarty, who works with pets, says that our growing love for our pets means that people expect high standards of care, but that the hours can be antisocial and that the enthusiasm of young vets – at least two-thirds of whom are female – often, inevitably, wanes when they have young families to care for and can find very good terms and conditions, as well as more regular hours, working for the State, particularly post-Brexit.
“A new veterinary school will be a large help, wherever it goes,” Moriarty says.
Campaigners are keen that the new veterinary school will consider more than the CAO points of applicants, with a lower academic bar and, perhaps, some combination of psychometric testing, portfolio or work experience and an interview to determine a prospective student’s suitability for working with animals and their owners, bearing in mind that being a vet requires a lot of interaction with people.
“Ultimately, we need to stop a brain drain from Ireland,” says Fleming. “And, whatever happens, the new course needs to be hands-on.”
In an increasingly regulated environment, farm animals need more care and consumers of meat and dairy expect better welfare standards. Brexit has increased the need for vets to do more inspections. And the acceleration of climate breakdown means that more and more zoonotic diseases are widely expected to jump the species barrier and infect humans, as may have happened with Covid – and as is feared may happen with avian flu.
All this means that vets are more needed than ever, but recent research from Eoin Ryan, professor of veterinary medicine in UCD, shows that nearly a third of vets are planning to leave the profession – all while farms and veterinary practices across the country are crying out for more vets.
For young vets such as Lorcan Bannon, meanwhile, his dream of working with animals has finally come true – and there is plenty of work to go around.
“I grew up in a rural area and am from a farming family in Meath. One uncle trained showjumpers and another is a dairy farmer, so I was always surrounded by animals,” he says.
“I wanted to be a surgeon but I liked how general veterinary medicine could be compared to the specialisms of medicine. My undergraduate was biochemistry in UCC and I now see this gave me time to grow, mature and understand the principles of diagnostics. This prepared me well for a graduate veterinary degree, which I did in Slovakia because it would involve high fees here.
“There’s a lot of work available in Ireland and a huge shortage of vets, particularly in the large animal sector. The coming years will see more vets at the forefront of zoonotic diseases and working on the forefronts between animal and human health.”