This is what I was told when I was a 16-year-old trying to decide what I wanted to study by my careers advisor. This was baffling as I had some experience in a small animal practice and my grades up-to this point were ok. I wanted to work with animals, but I was given no options.
Common feedback from students I talk to, from lower socio-economic backgrounds and people of colour, is that they get told that they would never get into veterinary and should consider something else. The profession is 97% white with 31.4% coming from a private school education and 28.5% from selective state schools. In the 8 veterinary schools, only 5% of the population comes from an ethnic minority with a majority coming from outside the UK. Most students have a middle-class background. There have been huge strides in increasing the number of women entering the profession which is positive. But this mono-cultural profession lacks a huge amount of diversity which is perpetuated by barriers put in place.
Diversity is important for the profession as we treat and care for animals owned by people from a broad range of backgrounds. The sector is starting to understand that we need to be more representative of the country to better serve the animals we look after.
Children commonly start to form ideas about career aspirations at primary age. A big factor is role models. We don’t have many diverse role models and the common imagery of a vet is still a heterosexual white man such as James Herriot or Noel Fitzpatrick. As the child grows up, other barriers include a lack of access to animals, financial burdens in getting experience with vets and/or animals and little or no encouraging advice about becoming a vet from teachers or family. On top of this there is the issue of needing top grades as it is one of the toughest professions to get into due to its popularity.
Many of these barriers exist for the animal related industries in general. Agriculture and veterinary nursing are both 99% white. Having been a lecturer in an agricultural university, we did not have one British ethnic minority student in the whole university. Why was this? Why are children from marginalised backgrounds not pursuing any of these sectors?
Veterinary medicine is a very diverse sector. Most people assume someone working as a vet is either looking at a cat on a table or sticking their hand into a cow’s bottom. But this is wrong. As a vet, one can become specialized into surgery or behavior for example, can chose to work with many species of animals or pick one and can work for private practice, the army, government, research, academia or charity. So, the opportunities are huge, and the veterinary degree is a passport to the many options available.
The veterinary profession knows it needs to change. There are now access schemes and widening participation work being done. Although low in number, there are veterinary surgeons of colour from a range of backgrounds. Inner city farms and some charities can provide animal experiences for children from marginalised communities. The grades are set high but offers can be adjusted to factor in students’ circumstances such as school performance and home situation. Funding is an issue but there are small grants available.
It is important, as educators, that all children are given the opportunity to pursue their dream. I would love to see more people like me working in our profession. I never owned a pet, was brought up in towns and cities and am a person of colour, yet I sit now as a farm animal veterinary surgeon with over 10 years of experience. I am so lucky to be where I am, and it would be great if other children could follow me.
As someone passionate about encouraging diversity, I co-founded the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society (BVEDS) where we can support and provide mentorship to teachers and students from marginalised communities who are keen to explore veterinary medicine or agriculture as an option for a career. So please feel free to get in touch.