Second chance - aspiring vets flocking overseas to live the dream

Missing out on the points for UCD is certainly not the end of the road - with more new Irish vets qualifying abroad than at home this year, Andrew Hamilton speaks to three young vets about the pros and cons of studying overseas, and finds out if there is any discrimination against those who took the foreign route

Roundabout route: Vets Mary O'Connor and Paddy Thompson at Blackwater Veterinary Clinic in Mallow, Co Cork. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Roundabout route: Vets Mary O'Connor and Paddy Thompson at Blackwater Veterinary Clinic in Mallow, Co Cork. Photo: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

The majority of vets who have registered to work in Ireland this year completed their training outside the country.

Of the 197 new practitioners to have joined the Veterinary Council of Ireland (VCI) register in 2019, only 71 were graduates of UCD, with 118 from other EU countries and eight from outside the EU.

Of these 118 EU entrants, 35 came from Budapest, with 13 from Warsaw and 15 from the UK.

This trend has been steadily increasing, with overseas institutes offering full-length courses through English.

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Demand for the 82 CAO places available at UCD each year remains high, with entry points increasing from 555 points in 2018 to 567 in 2019 - making it one of the most difficult courses to get into.

Any graduate wishing to practise in Ireland must apply to the VCI, and the council's Niamh Muldoon stresses that there is no prejudice against those who have studied abroad, saying: "All EU-graduated veterinary practitioners are treated the same way."

The VCI checks "the course details undertaken and syllabus" and takes steps to ensure "English language competency".

'I'd guess I was saving €25,000 or €30,000 a year studying in Warsaw rather than Dublin'

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Paddy Thompson was up a ladder in a nursing home, paintbrush in hand, when he first heard about the Warsaw University of Life Sciences.

Having missed out on qualification for veterinary medicine in UCD, the Limerick man did a degree in zoology in UCC. He was never quite able to shake the urge to become a vet.

The only information available about studying in Eastern Europe came through word of mouth.

"I was doing a summer job, painting in a nursing home, and I met a girl who was studying veterinary in Slovakia," he said. "Through her I got talking to a few people who were studying in Warsaw and I decided that I would give it a gamble.

"It was a bit daunting in the beginning. I was only after doing a primary degree and was being funded by my parents. I applied to Budapest as well as Warsaw, and when I looked into it, Poland was such a cheaper country to live in."

Paddy was in his early 20s when he went to Poland but many Irish teenagers are going abroad to study.

"I was more mature. I don't think I could have studied in Warsaw as an 18-year-old. I wasn't mentally mature enough for it," he says.

"I remember arriving on a train at 5.30am, not knowing anybody. It was daunting.

"There was five or six [Irish] in the year ahead of me. Once I got chatting to them and recognised my own I got more comfortable.

"We formed a family away from home. We set up a GAA club and the year revolved around playing tournaments across Europe. "

One of the biggest attractions of the European colleges is the cost of living.

"I'd guess I was saving €25,000 or €30,000 a year studying in Warsaw," says Paddy. "You are sacrificing the comforts of home and being able to go home on the weekend but it was worth it.

"It is crazy how many Irish people are studying veterinary abroad now, and it all started by word of mouth. It just took a few people who were willing to take a chance and it grew from there. There was five or six in my year in Warsaw and it seems to be growing all the time."

Paddy grew up on a farm in Limerick with a mixture of suckler cattle, horses and sheep. He now works at the Blackwater Veterinary Clinic in Mallow, with "a very mixed practice".

Mary O'Connor: Studied in Budapest

Growing up on a dairy farm in Kilnamartyra in West Cork, Mary O'Connor felt the call of the land from a young age. She studied hard through her teenage years, hoping to do veterinary in UCD.

Growing up on a dairy farm in Kilnamartyra in West Cork, Mary O'Connor felt the call of the land from a young age. She studied hard through her teenage years, hoping to do veterinary in UCD.

But it was not to be. So Mary took a different path. She spent five years studying and working in nursing before she reignited her hopes of becoming a vet. She decided to go east.

"It was always in the back of my mind to do veterinary," she says. "I was always massively interested in animals. I love science and I love medicine so it was a great fit for me. I loved nursing too, even though I don't do it any more.

"At that time there was really no information about going to the European colleges but I knew someone who had gone to Budapest, so I decided to try there.

"There are 30 or 40 Irish students starting in Budapest each year. I'd say about 70pc already have a degree.

"In my class there was someone with a law degree, a zoologist and an engineer. I thought I would be unusual, going back for a second degree, but most people were in the same boat, and we all had wanted to do veterinary from a very young age.

"About 30pc of the Irish students were coming directly from the Leaving Cert. The Leaving Certs in our class were amazing. They were 18 or 19-year-olds and they were head and shoulders ahead of the rest of us.

"There is a brilliant Irish community over there, a brilliant international community. The biggest community over there are Irish and the Scandinavians. A lot of my friends were Swedish and Norwegian."

One of the main attractions of studying in Eastern Europe is the cost. While the courses are fee-paying, accommodation, travel and food are so much cheaper than in Dublin.

"It was much more accessible and more affordable for me to go to Budapest," says Mary. "Rent could be €200 to €300 a month for a massive apartment and bills wouldn't come to much more than €50 or €60 a month. So it's a massive difference. It's not just the college fees, it's transport, food, it's everything.

"Even with that I had my parents to support me. There is no way I would have been able to support myself over there without them."

Mary qualified in 2017 and had no difficulty finding work in Ireland.

"I think I was treated the same as anyone else looking for a job in Ireland. People were very open about it. Maybe long ago it wouldn't have been the same but everyone seems happy with the qualification," she says.

"There was absolutely no prejudice against it at all. They know that there are a lot of Irish vets training in places outside Ireland.

"It was a very positive experience, I've no regrets at all about doing it over there. That said, it was a very tough course but it would have been tough if I'd done it in Antartica or if I'd done it in UCD.

"We did work very hard but when I came home I was able to switch off completely."

Mary now works in the Blackwater Veterinary Clinic in Mallow.

"I work with five other vets and three of us studied abroad," she says.

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