Monday, October 13, 2014

Veterinary student fees, and are vets superheroes?

Helpful or unhelpful metaphor: vets as superheroes.
The Australian VeterinaryAssociation is one of a number of organisations lobbying against proposed university fee deregulation, as this is set to hit students even harder.

The AVA has just submitted its response to the Higher Education Research Reform Amendment Bill (2014), which you can read in full here.

According to the summary, the impact on veterinarians will be severe because:
  • Veterinary qualifications require 5-7 years of university training.
  • Veterinary courses are expensive to deliver with significant laboratory, technological, clinical and live animal inputs.
  • Veterinarians have lower earning potential than other similar professions with a starting salary of $47,330 and average total income of $77 ,000 (201-12 tax return data). Veterinary remuneration compares unfavourably with graduates of similarly-priced courses – for example average total income for medical GPs in 201-12 was $149,000 and for dentists was $147,000.
  • Veterinary schools are already underfunded and this was acknowledged in the report of the Review of the Demand-Driven Funding System.
  • Veterinary students are predominantly females (around 80-90%) who often reduce their employment while looking after children. The new arrangement will severely disadvantage these women.
  • As the course requires a large amount of face-to-face class time and clinical placements, veterinary students find it extremely difficult to maintain any reasonable casual employment to help fund their education.
The AVA is calling for a moratorium on fee increases to Commonwealth supported places for veterinary students.

Given all of this talk about the veterinary workforce, I was surprised to note that the American Veterinary Medical Association has released this online comic book to highlight the joys of being a veterinarian. 

As loyal SAT readers will know, some of us love superheroes. Wonder Woman and the Phantom are important fashion icons. But the admiration goes so far. I wouldn't take their career advice. So is this portrayal of vets perpetuating some problematic ideals?

For example, none of the superhero vets had to charge for their services, present complicated options to clients, discuss bizarre test results or negotiate consent, nor did they deal with any workplace stress, and the outcomes were all fantastic. They were available the moment their clients called, got definitive diagnostics rapidly, had recently developed drugs immediately at their disposal, accessed any resources they needed etc. There were no post mortems or deaths.

It seems to me there is a major gulf between what people THINK being a vet is going to be like and what it IS like, and selling the superhero fiction is – I would argue – a tad irresponsible (This “fantasy” element is alluded to in one of my favourite tee-shirts of all time - check it here).

Don’t get me wrong, I love being a vet – but not for the reasons portrayed in the comic. It’s a bit like what shows such as CSI have done to misrepresent forensics: suggesting that every crime can be solved rapidly with you-beaut forensics by glamourous detectives. And when we are talking about a profession with a) a massive rate of attrition and b) a very high suicide rate, we need to take these gaps between reality and perception pretty seriously. 

I think the AVMA are trying to point out the diverse, important and life-saving roles of veterinarians - none of which I would deny. I'm just not sure the superhero metaphor is helpful in this case.

(And on a lighter note, I would qualify that this post was written by someone who spent a substantial proportion of this year dressed as a superhero for a fundraising exercise, and I can say categorically that being dressing like a superhero and being a vet should never be combined. Those things don’t protect you from paws and claws. Walking around in one of those suits is also breathtakingly awkward. You want to be feeling fairly confident when everyone else is in jeans and tee-shirts and you're rocking a colourful leotard).

You can view and order copies of the comic here.