An east Derry MLA has called for a Northern Ireland vet school to be located at the Ulster University campus in Coleraine.

Claire Sugden said the vet school, and the proposed location of Coleraine, would ensure that the future needs of the Northern Irish agricultural industry are met and will also reduce the “brain-drain” to Great Britain for veterinary courses.

“It has been my belief for some time that a vet school would be best situated at the Coleraine campus of the University of Ulster, with its more rural setting and with courses it has lost to other campuses not having been adequately replaced,” she said.

Last year, a Northern Ireland Strategic Investment Board (SIB) report found that a veterinary school is needed in Northern Ireland, as the country is too reliant on UK, Ireland and EU-trained vets.

The issue with Northern Ireland students moving to Great Britain for their veterinary studies is that they do not return to the region’s workforce when they obtain their degrees, with a return rate of 34%, the report found.

It also found that the lack of a Northern Irish vet school is contributing to veterinary sector issues, and Sugden said that a locally provided course would address the current shortage of vets in the six counties and enable lower income students to avail of a more “affordable course”.

Sugden said that there needs to be a move away from reliance on people who have trained elsewhere to fill Northern Irish veterinary vacancies.

“Our biggest economic sector – agriculture – is reliant on there being enough vets to do checks and assessments of livestock,” she said.

“A growing trend of small pet ownership, such as dogs and cats has also put more pressure on the vets we have currently.”

Veterinary students

According to the east Derry MLA, it has been known for years that Northern Ireland needs veterinary courses of its own.

“Students from Northern Ireland who want to become vets must either travel to another part of the UK – where at least one course exists in each of England, Scotland and Wales – Dublin or Europe,” she said.

“Often, these students do not come back to work in Northern Ireland, perpetuating the brain-drain that has existed for generations.

“These courses, however, as identified in the report, predominantly attract students from higher socio-economic backgrounds, and graduates from these courses have less interest in working in mixed farm practices – exactly the kind of positions that are needed in Northern Ireland to support our biggest industry of agriculture.”

Sugden said a Northern Ireland-based course would enable local students to study more cheaply and would potentially attract those with a farming background or a specific interest in the industry to Northern Ireland.

The SIB report was unable to calculate the future demand for services because of the lack of a “workforce strategy” in Northern Ireland’s veterinary sector.

However, Sugden said that it seems likely that demand for veterinary services will only increase due to “companion pet ownership having boomed in recent years, and increased testing for export meat products”.

“With new restrictions on EU workers – where a quarter of our current vets were trained – likely to only get more strict in the wake of Brexit, we cannot simply hope that enough vets move to, or move back to, Northern Ireland,” she said.

“With a Northern Ireland-based course – at the ideal location in Coleraine – students would be able to study close to home in a field they are both interested in and which the industry here requires.”