On the right track: should UK veterinary schools introduce tracking to degrees?


Currently, veterinary students at schools in the UK are trained to be ‘omnicompetent’ (able to treat any species) upon qualifying as a vet. However, in some vet schools elsewhere in the world, degrees include either full or partial ‘tracking’, meaning that students focus on a particular area or species for either some or all of their degree. Two studies recently published in Veterinary Record assessed attitudes towards tracking in UK veterinary degrees among key stakeholders.

Ever since the UK’s first veterinary college was founded in 1791, the way that vets are trained has been the subject of debate and controversy. This is hardly surprising when considering the wide variety of work that vets undertake; from ensuring the health and welfare of companion animals to maintaining the safety and wellbeing of food-producing livestock, they play a key role in several industries. For the profession to work, therefore, vet schools need to produce graduates with a very wide range of skills and expertise.

Currently, in the UK, veterinary students are expected at the end of their five-year degree to be ‘omnicompetent’ and qualify with the ability to practise in any area or on any species. Most schools do, however, offer opportunities for students to focus on some areas that are of more interest to them, for example, through elective choices. Outside of the UK, some vet schools have taken a different approach, allowing students to specialise or ‘track’ at some point during their studies. In 2001, the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands introduced tracking to its six-year veterinary degree, allowing students to take specialised modules in each year except the fifth, with the final year being spent only studying their specified field. Some schools in the USA also offer tracked courses, with students deciding how they want to specialise at the beginning of the course.

There is currently debate about whether UK vet schools should follow suit. Some proponents of tracked degrees suggest that expecting students to master so many different areas is unrealistic, while supporters of the current system say that UK vet schools produce competent and well-rounded vets capable of treating any species.

To try and find out what current opinions were on this subject among key stakeholders, a team of researchers at Bristol university vet school and the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh conducted a mixed-methods study, which was recently published online as two research papers (here and here)  in Veterinary Record .

‘There is ongoing debate in this area, but little evidence regarding what stakeholders think, which is why we chose to conduct a broad-based survey,’ said Emma Crowther, one of the authors of the papers. ‘The mixed methods approach allowed us to quantify stakeholder opinion, and to understand some of the reasons behind those opinions.’

A survey was distributed to three groups – current UK veterinary students, staff at UK veterinary schools and vets currently practising in the UK. Participants were asked about their opinions on both partial tracking (where students are trained in all species, are able to focus on one area but then graduate with the ability to practice in all areas) and full tracking (students take a species-specific final examination and are qualified only to practice in their chosen species).

A total of 203 university staff, 700 students and 158 practitioners returned completed questionnaires and their responses made interesting reading.

The majority of respondents (69 per cent) either strongly disagreed or disagreed with full tracking, with 19 per cent either agreeing or strongly agreeing (the remainder had no strong opinions either way). There was much more widespread support for partial tracking, however, with 79 per cent of respondents saying that they were for the idea. Only 14 per cent disagreed or strongly disagreed with partial tracking.

‘Respondents mentioned a number of advantages and disadvantages to tracking, and often expressed opposing views,’ said Miss Crowther. ‘The comments were grouped into six major themes relating to choice, flexibility, competency and knowledge, stakeholder implications, specialisation, and ‘what is a vet?’.

The study also assessed how the career aspirations of current students matched up to the reality of the profession’s employment as it currently is in the UK. There were significant differences in aspirations for students at different stages of their degree. Significantly more final-year students wanted to go on to work in small animal practice compared with first-year students. First-year students were more likely to aspire to working in mixed practice, but by the fourth year, this proportion had decreased. The results also showed that the career aspirations of final-year students were similar to graduate employment figures.

‘Although final-year students’ career aspirations aligned well with likely employment opportunities, the data indicates that students’ aspirations in the early years were not so well matched, which would have implications if tracking were introduced early in the curriculum’, explained Susan Rhind, who also co-authored the papers.

Taking both the quantitative and qualitative data into account, the authors conclude that there is widespread support for partial tracking among key stakeholder groups in the UK.

With the debate still ongoing, it is unclear whether UK vet schools will act on these results potentially overhauling the way that vets are taught in the country and aligning veterinary education more closely with some of the other educational models around the world.

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