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Translating Words into Action: What could the future look like for BAME students and professionals?

This chat was centred around the BAME Student Support Working Group Report, published by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and Veterinary Schools Council in June 2022 which can be accessed on the RCVS website. The panel discussed some of the key issues highlighted in the report; how it’s recommendations for improving the educational experience of BAME veterinary students can be translated into action; and what else can be done to ensure that those from ethnically diverse backgrounds in the professions are valued and respected for who they are. The discussion also touched on wider EDI issues, as well as mental health.

Key discussion points:

The significance of the BAME Student Support Working Group report

In 2020, the RCVS brought together Higher Education (HE) staff and students to discuss what could be done to improve retention and support for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic veterinary students.

The BAME Student Support Working Group was formed to explore four key areas affecting BAME students: developing clear discrimination reporting structures, particularly for students on extra-mural studies (EMS) placements; developing and supporting a group of role models within the vet schools amongst both students and faculty; developing support structures for BAME students; and religious clothing and belief guidance for universities and placement hosts.

The Working Group’s report is a collective effort between UK veterinary schools, BAME student representatives, the RCVS and Vet Schools Council. Prior to its publication, the profession had no information in one place on the BAME student experience, which has previously been largely overlooked as a result of under-representation. The Working Group discussions and recommendations made in the report provide a blueprint for veterinary schools to have their own conversations on these important issues.

Experiences of students encountering discrimination whilst on EMS placements

The student perspective and experience of EMS placements has not previously been considered. Placements are not always properly vetted. Students going on placement don’t feel safe and protected and find it difficult to report discrimination issues. The experience can be very intimidating, and the report identifies a number of factors that can deter students from making a complaint. Access to effective reporting processes and tools that enable students to report incidents easily and anonymously already exist in some institutions and this is something that all Higher Education institutions should offer. Many institutions do have reporting systems in place which can be suitably adapted and improved.

The problem remains that the onus is on the person making the report to press the issue and often nothing can be done by the institution. This may make people less inclined to speak up the next time there is an incident. Although there are legal barriers to action, the way complaints are handled needs to improve and institutions should also take steps to ensure that these issues don’t happen in the first place. There needs to be a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination. 

There is also a need for better support for student complainants. They need reassurance that their complaint is being taken seriously, and steps should be taken to ensure their mental health is protected. There is currently a lack of training for staff members in this area. Feeling ignored about your mental health is difficult. If someone was practicing poorly, we would immediately take action to do something about it. However, when someone faces discrimination and it affects their mental health, this often is not taken seriously. It is important that someone who has faced discrimination is able to go to the organisation and report what has happened to them and receive support. The problem will remain until this situation is properly addressed.

The role of students in promoting inclusion and culture change

Students are becoming increasingly aware, outspoken and proactive but they need the support of staff.  Collaboration with staff ensures student groups are encouraged and supported and receive help with securing funding, making connections and promotion of their work. Although students are becoming more vocal and prepared to call out discrimination, the onus should not be on the student population. Institutions need to work with and support students but should also be proactive in addressing issues and promoting good practice.

The importance of BAME role models

As one panellist commented ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. Role models are hugely important. By seeing role models, we feel we can achieve what they have achieved – if we share similar characteristics such as cultural values or socio-economic background etc., role models are more relatable which is very motivating. For BAME veterinary professionals, seeing BAME staff in senior level roles is inspiring. For students and prospective students, it is so important to see someone from a similar background make it in the profession. It can be very isolating being a vet student and not seeing anyone who is like you. We need to see more visible role models, but attitudes also need to change. Stereotypes and societal expectations mean people often don’t see themselves in vet school. Veterinary is not seen as an obvious career choice for young BAME people, so having a personal connection with someone like you in the profession or seeing BAME role models is very motivating.

Initiatives such as the RCVS ‘Leadership Stories’ which has just launched featuring two Black veterinary professionals, are helping to promote role models. Further leadership role models will be added to the RCVS profile on the Black History Month official website.

RCVS figures are very stark with only around 3% of vets coming from BAME backgrounds. As well as visible role models, we need mentoring to empower us and encouragement to have discussions around progression and development. We also need reverse mentoring so that people in the profession can understand the challenges that we face.

Challenges facing BAME veterinary students and professionals in the UK veterinary industry

Many of the issues identified in the report are common to students and professionals. There is a notable difference for new vets coming into the profession straight from a student environment where there is more information and opportunities to participation in EDI. This contrasts with the workplace where lack of time, resources and attitudes have can act as barriers. For example, there is little information on reporting processes, support available and EDI education and training opportunities etc. Far less is documented in the way of policies, practices, and guidance compared to the university environment. This is an added pressure for BAME vets. Some corporates are only just starting to form EDI groups and provide training, but this is positive progress. Change will take time, but small steps are beginning to make a difference.

Both students and professionals can face a lack of understanding by peers who have never had to consider their ethnic identity. Studying for a veterinary degree can be a culture shock if you come from a diverse part of the country. The majority of the time you don’t see people like you, and this can feel very isolating.

We also need to remember intersectionality exists and that people who are BAME are more likely to have disabilities, so intersectionality is also important to consider. 

Taking action and creating change

Action involves reflective discussions about racism and discrimination. We need to foster an environment where people can have difficult and uncomfortable conversations. We are now far more comfortable talking about mental health and challenging people’s attitudes towards it. We need to be able to talk about discrimination in the same way.

There are many examples of good practice within universities and the wider profession. At Glasgow University training that is specific to the veterinary environment has been developed by vet school staff. This is wide-ranging and covers EDI, unconscious bias, the Equality Act, allyship, micro-aggressions and anti-racism training. This is open to both staff and students and gives students the opportunity to write their own scenarios based on experience.

Student groups are also helping to promote diversity and inclusion, for example by organising cultural activities. At Bristol University, students organised a very successful Diwali event which is being repeated again this year. These events help students feel more included and valued and are a great way of bringing different communities together. Animal Aspirations now has a Bristol vet school student group. The group has planned a programme of workshops with schools to talk to prospective veterinary students. Scenario-based Active Allyship training, for example, provided by the affinity groups (the British Veterinary Ethnicity & Diversity Society (BVEDS)the British Veterinary LGBT+ SocietyBritish Veterinary Chronic Illness Support (BVCIS),) is equipping people to deal with discrimination in the veterinary profession. It is crucial that discrimination is openly challenged when we see it and training and education can help with this. EDI should also be mainstreamed at conferences.

There is so much good work taking place, but it is important to keep the momentum going. Individuals can make a difference by attending events in person and on-line and educating themselves. Taking time to listen to the experiences of BAME individuals will broaden your understanding and perspective and support your own development as a person.

Final messages from panellists

  • Take racism seriously. Understand that it exists and is common.
  • Be accountable. This is everyone’s responsibility.
  • Do what you can, take time to read, be proactive.
  • Encourage people to get involved even if it doesn’t affect them directly. Everyone must make an effort if the situation is to change. 

Want to learn more?

The Chair of this Campfire chat Dr Tshidi Gardiner, and panellist Dr Olivia Anderson-Nathan will also be attending London Vet Show to provide allyship training on Thursday 17 November 2022 in the Community area.

Find out more and book via the London Vet Show website.

Further support:

If you’re currently struggling with your mental health, Vetlife is there for you 24/7 and can be reached on: 0303 040 2551. Or if you prefer, you can send them a confidential email.

The Samaritans also provide 24/7 support and can be reached on 116 123 or send a confidential email to