Veterinary education faces a sustainability crisis: VSANZ report

17 July 2023
New report urges cooperation within higher education to find solutions
Veterinary Schools of Australia and New Zealand (VSANZ) has released 'Rethinking Veterinary Education', a landmark report calling for an overhaul in how future veterinarians are educated.
Generic animal and vet photo.

Veterinary education has the highest gap of any discipline between what it costs universities to deliver and what they receive from the Commonwealth and fees to meet those costs.

The University of Sydney welcomes the ‘Rethinking Veterinary Education’ report released today by Veterinary Schools of Australia and New Zealand.

The report is the result of close cooperation between the Deans of veterinary science schools and faculties in Australasia. The last significant report into veterinary education was more than 20 years ago.

The report recognises the crisis facing the veterinary profession, particularly in terms of funding models for veterinary education; sustainability in domestic and agricultural practice; and retention in both urban and rural areas.

It also highlights the vital role that veterinary experts will play in managing the impacts of climate change, improving biosecurity and disease prevention.

Professor Jacqueline Norris, Head of School for the Sydney School of Veterinary Science, said: “Veterinary education has the highest gap of any discipline between what it costs universities to deliver their programs and what they receive from the Commonwealth and capped domestic student fees to meet those costs.

“At the University of Sydney, on average over the past four years, the annual funding gap per full-time Commonwealth-supported veterinary student has been 36 percent, or almost $20,000 each. We know that many other universities face similar funding shortfalls in sustaining high-quality veterinary science programs in the national interest.”

Professor Jacqueline Norris.

Professor Jacqueline Norris.

Professor Norris said: “The funding shortfall facing universities with veterinary science programs – and the financial pressures on vet practitioners after graduation – mean that without structural change, there will be increasing sustainability pressures for the veterinary industry, impacting domestic pets and agricultural industries.”

The eight universities across Australia and New Zealand that supply graduates for the veterinary profession have a special role to play in suggesting solutions and addressing these matters. Professor Norris said the report is a good signal that the higher education institutions are working together to push for the type of change needed: in accreditation, admissions criteria, structural adjustment and load sharing; and in funding changes.

The report highlights the economic and mental-health pressures on veterinary practitioners after graduation and suggests measures to support the profession to become a more sustainable career option.

It also notes the evidence that suggests risk of death by suicide is increased in the veterinary profession compared to the general population.

Recommendations include new and broader pathways for entry to the profession; paid apprenticeships while studying; mandatory mentoring; and the exploration of debt relief models for people working in remote and rural Australia.

Critically, the report highlights the diverse role that vets play in the Australian economy, in our communities, and in our public health sector as ‘disease spotters’ at the frontline of Australia’s biosecurity, in food production and for animal welfare.

Professor Norris said: “Veterinary practitioners play a vital role in our communities – but it is beyond the stereotype of James Herriot from the TV series All Creatures Great and Small. We are focused on producing highly skilled graduates that can deal with the pressures of veterinary life and be major contributors to Australia’s communities, economy and public health wellbeing.”

Veterinary scientists can play a critical role in preventing zoonotic disease.

Veterinary scientists can play a critical role training animal handlers on the ground to help prevent zoonotic diseases like swine flu.

She said that with accelerating climate change, the role of vets will become more important, not just as practitioners dealing with disease pressures on livestock and domestic pets, but as leaders in climate change research, as well.

“Anyone with a pet knows that your local vet can provide critical advice and support at times when our animals are unwell. But our expertise goes much further, such as disease prevention and early identification of disease. This is as important for human and animal health,” Professor Norris said.

“Our researchers are working with government and public health officials in Australia and South East Asia to train animal handlers on the ground to spot the emergence of zoonotic diseases such as swine or avian influenza, coronaviruses, rabies, foot and mouth disease, or African swine fever.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Education) Professor Joanne Wright said: “As a University, we are committed to supporting positive change in the education of our wonderful veterinary science students. As one of just seven universities in Australia that maintains a School of Veterinary Science, we welcome this report and reaffirm our commitment to continuing our 113-year tradition of educating the next generation of veterinary practitioners.

Professor Joanne Wright.

Professor Joanne Wright.

“However, this must be done positively in collaboration with the Commonwealth to help us address the structural financial burdens on providers of veterinary education.

“Unfortunately, changes to higher education funding introduced by the former government discourage both universities and the Commonwealth from prioritising new student places for veterinary science courses - even though the profession faces growing workforce shortages and was added to the skilled migration priority list in 2021.

“We are hopeful that the Accord Panel will have something to say on this issue when its interim report is released.”

Some recommendations of the report include:

  • Establishing a strategic change fund allowing for resource sharing of specialisations between the Veterinary Schools
  • Increasing Commonwealth support to address the gap between costs and funding, the biggest in the higher education sector
  • Improved professional support for veterinary practices to attract and retain graduates in the profession
  • Extending mentoring schemes
  • Broadening student input criteria
  • Debt relief for vets working in rural and regional Australia through a bonding scheme

Related articles