The dean of the province’s vet school is defending the NDP government’s decision to consolidate veterinarian education in Alberta — but the association representing the profession says it’s short sighted.
The province announced last month it will be pulling its $8 million in funding from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatoon to expand the University of Calgary’s faculty of veterinary medicine. The government says the move will save taxpayers $3.3 million a year while still producing the same number of veterinarians.
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And while the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association supports the expansion of the Calgary program, it wants the province to continue funding the school at the University of Saskatchewan — which was created by the four western Canadian provinces more than 50 years ago.
“Our concern has always been about capacity for educating veterinarian students and we believe that by moving that funding there’s effectively been a cap placed — Alberta will not be able to educate more than 50 veterinarian students per year,” said Dr. Phil Buote, deputy registrar of the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association.
“There reasonably could have been an announcement increasing funding for Calgary while keeping 20 seats in Saskatoon.”
But Alberta is already doing more than other provinces and they “need to step up,” said the dean of the University of Calgary program.
“For a province like Alberta to fund 70 seats is I think a bit unfair for Alberta taxpayers,” said Dr. Baljit Singh.
Currently, each of the four western provinces fund “seats” at the Saskatoon school. (Alberta, B.C., and Saskatchewan pay for 20 while Manitoba pays for 15 spots.) Over the next four years (as Alberta students currently in the program graduate), the province will withdraw its funding, shifting some to the Calgary program (which will go from accepting 30 students per year to 50).
“There is no reduction in capacity,” said Singh. “Alberta will still be receiving 50 graduates from veterinary medicine. Instead of coming from two colleges, they will be coming from one closer to home — I’m sure many families, and many students, will find it easier to study at home.”
While the two men use different definitions of ‘capacity’ (the actual number of vets being trained versus the ability to train more), both agree there is a shortage of veterinarians in Alberta.
His association’s website currently has job listings for 40 vets, noted Buote.
“We hear quite commonly from veterinarians from across the province that they have difficulty finding veterinarians to work in their practices,” he said.
And that’s even though Alberta has been attracting more than its share of University of Saskatchewan grads, he added.
In the last four years, 97 grads from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine have located in Alberta, said Buote. That means Alberta “would have paid for 80 but got 97 in return” during those four years, he said.
“So is Alberta doing enough to educate veterinarians? It would seem that some veterinarians that are being funded by other provinces are actually locating in Alberta,” said Buote. “Are they doing enough? It would seem that they’re not.”
His association also questions how much money the province will save, noting the University of Calgary will have to expand its lecture hall and training facilities to accommodate another 20 students.
The school will need to expand, said Singh, but there will be ongoing savings.
“If you look at Saskatoon — where I taught for 17 years and was associate dean — they have a class size of 78 to 80 and the size of their academic staff is about 82,” he said. “If you look at the UCVM, for a class size of 30, we are at 72 or 73 (staff). So we gain efficiency in the operation as the number goes from 30 to 50 to 70 (students).”
Calgary is following the pattern established by other Canadian vet schools (the others are in Ontario, Quebec, and P.E.I.) — starting with about 30 students and expanding once the program is established, said Singh.
The school (which accepted its first set of students in 2008) has also established a stellar reputation in a very short time, he said.
“It is very uncommon for any new facility of veterinary medicine to make its mark on teaching, research, and service components within a decade,” said Singh. “UCVM has put Alberta on the map of veterinary medicine excellence globally.”
Buote questioned why the provincial government would take the decision to pull its Saskatoon funding without consulting his association. (It was asked for input but only learned of the province’s decision the day of the funding announcement.)
“We would have expected that in making a decision such as this that will have such an impact on the profession that the profession would be consulted,” he said.