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October 4, 2012

How much is a veterinary education worth?

Everyone can remember that ‘back to school’ feeling marking the end of summer. For the students from England that are due to pay up to £9,000 per year in tuition fees for the first time this autumn, there is perhaps more to worry about than just exams though. With the average debt for a student starting university in England in 2012 estimated to potentially top £59,000,1 it is no wonder that UCAS, the university admissions board, has seen a drop in applications. There are even claims of some universities having to launch advertising campaigns, just to fill places.

A weird twist in the tale is that vet schools seem to have escaped the slump in applications being experienced by almost all of the other faculties in their respective universities. That is despite all five English vet schools now charging the maximum £9,000 per year that they can by law. This means that students starting vet school this year can expect to graduate with a debt of £45,000 for tuition fees alone. Add to that maintenance loans to cover living costs and many vet students are facing entering their working life with the equivalent of a mortgage to repay.

Actually purchasing property and achieving other common financial life goals will be out of the question for many young vets. The average full remuneration package for a newly graduated vet entering into practice is worth £30,965,3. This figure is calculated to include provision of a car (if applicable), housing (if provided) and CPD allowance, so the average basic starting salary is actually much lower. There also seems to be a relatively small rise in salary as vets gain experience, with assistant vets anecdotally rarely achieving salaries above £45,000. When this earnings ceiling is compared to similarly qualified and experienced professionals, a huge gap is apparent. Doctors in the UK can look forward to earning a basic salary of up to £80,000 a year, rising to over £100,000 after specialisation. These figures do not include extra financial incentives that come with working above 40 hours a week – something that the majority of practising vets do for no extra pay.4

So why is this financial millstone not putting off prospective vet students? The prestige and high quality education associated with veterinary schools in the UK is no doubt greatly valued – perhaps students think it is still worth the newly inflated prices? Or perhaps the lure of a traditionally over-subscribed and challenging course coupled with a desperate desire to enter the veterinary industry is strong enough to push thoughts of finance from the minds of applicants entirely? Maybe the hard work and effort already put in by this years’ applicants, just to get to the point of application, would seem futile if they hadn’t followed through?

Whatever the reasons, only time will tell if the trend will continue as students become more savvy about the long term financial impacts and cost-benefit analysis associated with going to university. Maybe veterinary medicine has enough history, prestige and respect to be able to weather the storm? If so, then that is surely a fantastic sign of the quality of our vet schools and something to be proud of as a profession.

But what will happen to the veterinary profession as these future vets face financial hardship? It would be understandable if vets started demanding salaries more in line with those achieved by doctors. This will have an inevitable knock on effect on the price of veterinary services for clients, as practice owners struggle to balance the books. If the public are unprepared to pay more for their veterinary care, this could have a huge negative impact on the health of our nation’s pet population. The alternative is that practice owners will have to start being more innovative in their business models to earn extra revenue – certainly no bad thing but something that many business owners would argue they are already doing just to stand still. Perhaps more veterinary graduates will value themselves above what is offered by practice and move into other branches of the veterinary industry?

Despite the fee rises having no immediate obvious effect on applications to vet schools, it is hard to believe that the repercussions aren’t going to be felt in the years to come, whatever form they may take. The whole structure of the veterinary industry workforce could shift with possible unrest as vets battle to find a solution to their mounting financial worries. It will be interesting to see how a profession with such tradition and a history of what can sometimes only be described as financial martyrdom, will respond.


  1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-14488312 – Aug 2012
  2. http://www.ucas.ac.uk/about_us/media_enquiries/media_releases/2012/20120709 – Aug 2012
  3. SPVS oral correspondence
  4. http://www.nhscareers.nhs.uk/explore-by-career/doctors/pay-for-doctors/ – Aug 2012