Mature students
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I can’t help thinking that efforts to improve “social mobility” and help people from all backgrounds to get into “the professions” are looking at people from disadvantaged backgrounds only, and not looking at the whole picture.

This means they miss out on a group who really would enrich and diversify our profession: the mature student.

Before I go on, I’ll say I often start writing these blogs with an idea in mind, but not the end conclusion; I just see where it takes me. I try to take a less-considered viewpoint and expand on it, and very few points, opinions or arguments are “personal” to me. Please do pitch in with points that occur to you in the comments section.

I went to vet school from school, and then in to my first job – a fairly standard way of doing things in the veterinary profession. That said, back in those days we had the benefit of local authority funding the fees, some got living expenses grants and student loans were “top-ups” of the ever-reducing grants.

Mature students joining the degree course (either from another degree or from later on in their lives) were completely self-funded and generally either had to do so from savings or from “coming in to some money” in some way, because the level of holiday experience and study required during the course made holding down a regular job almost impossible.

And there we have it: money. Everyone needs a steady income to live on and to pay the universities for the teaching, exam fees, etc. Unfortunately, mature students have less help available to them in the form of advice and funding, and often have to pay higher fees (the “ELQ [equivalent or lower qualifications] rule” on fees funding) than first-timers.

Not only that, but mature students often have life to contend with as well; a mortgage and kids, often young. Partner and family may or may not be present and able to help but, from what I can find, other help is limited to professional development loans, which are limited in all sorts of ways, like the amounts available and length of deferment of starting repayments which make them suitable for, say, an MBA, but not a five-year bachelors degree.

My focus in consideration has been on those with a qualification already because the veterinary undergraduate degree is perhaps unique in its breadth and scope. To stand a chance of getting through it all you need to be capable of learning a lot of information quickly, and the high bars currently set to entry are there for a reason.

Piles of paper
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I remember that each year, before professional exams, I collected all the notes I needed to revise, and the thickness of my notes was measured in feet, not inches. It would bring a brief period of panic, because the course covers an astonishing number of sciences: statistics and epidemiology through to genetics and surgery, as well as basic business studies and psychology too these days.

So there needs to be a way of helping mature graduates fund their way through vet school, and support their families, until after they graduate.

I am a mature student now, studying for further qualifications, and it is hard doing that while trying to hold down a job and look after a family. A person and a family needs a constant income whether studying or not. I am mid-way through a masters degree in law, and I am about to start studying for the CertAVP.

In looking for places to do these I have been surprised at how different the universities have been in their uptake of the opportunities and challenges; Liverpool University, for my chosen path through the CertAVP is the obvious choice – distance-learning and assessment, with optional attendance sessions. Crucially the CertAVP doesn’t really have a time limit on it (it’s just “within ten years”).

On the other hand it’s been very disappointing to see how little my alma mater, Glasgow – the place where I cut my veterinary and computer-aided-learning and IT teeth – seems to offer those post-graduation. I would have loved to return and catch up with the place, people, and the ethos I left behind.

The masters in law is a hybrid taught course with both didactic and self-directed learning elements to it. There are intensive weekend sessions starting at 6pm on a Friday, a long Saturday 9am-7pm, and ending at 1pm on Sunday. You have contact details for your tutor, and assessment is by writing essays (5,000 words apiece, usually expanding and deepening on lectures during the weekend). The timing and arrangement is built around “busy professionals with a life” and the course has been running for more than 25 years.

Veterinary medicine shouldn’t just be open to academically gifted teenagers and the well-funded. If we are going to have universities seeing veterinary medicine as a means to plug their funding gaps, I can’t help thinking there could actually be a need to take a completely different view – that of the home/distance-studying and mature student bracket. In these cases people are less a product of their secondary education or hothousing and more a product of later life. It would mean that if people didn’t “blossom” at the right time for their GCSEs and A-Levels, there is another chance.

In my head, such a vet school would not look dissimilar to a traditional vet school. There would be teachers (a good mix of practitioners and academics doing the teaching and research), but there would be students there all the time, not just during term time. Most of the theory would be done via distance-learning with some contact tutor groups available, but the practical sessions would be done in intensive weekend-long or week-long sessions… so, in the first year you would have a week of knot-tying and sheep judo with horse handling and milking practice, then be able to go home, or back to accommodation. These sessions would be offered at multiple times through the year so students could arrange work and life around them. Don’t forget child-minding and crèche facilities are all-important too!

I just think that veterinary medicine shouldn’t just be open to academically gifted teenagers and the well-funded. People develop at different rates and in different ways.

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