Ill creatures great and small

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 September, 2009, 12:00am

Polytechnic University wants to improve professional standards and meet demand for training in animal health and welfare by introducing a BSc degree in veterinary nursing from September next year.

The four-year full-time course will be run jointly with the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), part of the University of London, and will combine theoretical and practical elements providing clinical skills and extensive hands-on experience.

'We found there was a niche to equip students with this sort of knowledge and skills and hope to bring about certain standards across the board in Hong Kong,' said Dr Mayur Gohel, associate dean of PolyU's faculty of health and social sciences.

'We expect the first graduates in 2014 to go straight into practice and to have good career prospects as head nurses, practice managers, assisting veterinary surgeons, or in other areas of animal welfare.'

He explained that basic entry qualifications would follow the usual university guidelines, but include a Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) in biology. Applicants should preferably have some experience working with animals and, because the medium of instruction would be English, a high level of language proficiency was important.

Holders of associate degrees, those now taking one-year foundation courses and international candidates would all receive due consideration to achieve a good mix of students in the projected initial intake of 39.

Exact course modules would largely follow the curriculum successfully developed over many years by the RVC, the largest veterinary school in Britain.

The focus in year one would be on nutrition, anatomy, physiology, aspects of animal welfare and language training.

The second year would move on to applied nursing care, clinical practice and pharmacology. Third-year students could expect to deal with operations, anaesthetics, imaging techniques and research projects.

The final year would include electives and instruction in ethics, management studies and accounting, all vital for running a clinic or practice.

Showing their commitment to the course, the RVC planned to have four professors in Hong Kong on a full-time basis. They would teach the modules focusing on veterinary sciences, with PolyU faculty members being responsible for 'human' subjects such as ultrasound, physiotherapy and laboratory sciences.

Gohel stressed that a key part of the course was the total 54 weeks of practicum. Split over the four years, this would give students the chance for placements not just in vet clinics working with small animals but also, pending agreements, with organisations such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, Ocean Park and the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

'We also anticipate some opportunity to go to the RVC with student exchanges and to research institutions to work with large animals,' Gohel said.

He said the fee for each credit was HK$2,100, meaning a full degree would cost about HK$270,000. Students would have to be self-financing and no scholarships were immediately available.

But most applicants would be eligible to apply for a non-means-tested government loan and the PolyU would work on getting the course qualified for UGC (University Grants Committee) support.

To enable flexibility, students could take up to eight years to complete all modules and electives and would be allowed to pay fees in instalments.

Professor Colin Howard, RVC vice-principal of strategic development and professor of microbiology, said: 'The strength of interest in this course has been amazing to us.

'Clearly there is a demand and enthusiasm. We have here a very strong team, but the venture will only succeed if students have the rigour and commitment to improve the welfare of animals.'

He pointed out that the RVC was now established as a legal entity in Hong Kong and, in offering a joint degree, would 'support it to the hilt'. That meant participating in community activities and, wherever possible, promoting partnerships and the long-term benefits of continuing education.

Noting that problems associated with animal welfare, disease and food production were all of global importance, Howard said that new elements would be added to reflect specialist demand in various key areas. 'The core curriculum is ours in design, but there is opportunity to shape modules for students and adjust it to Hong Kong circumstances,' he said.

As an example, this might lead to more focus on small animals and incorporating issues and concerns that most affected pet owners and the public locally. It could mean tailored training in specific aspects of microbiology, skin care, infectious diseases and diagnostic techniques.

'We have given a lot of thought to this and, as an institution, we have the ability to innovate and break new ground,' Howard said. 'We see the course as a really exciting initiative and an important first step in this region because awareness of animal welfare issues are becoming ever more prevalent.'