The Alberta government recently announced that it will be discontinuing its annual $8 million-dollar subsidy to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. It was part of a 54-year-old agreement that guaranteed 20 positions annually for Alberta students. The other western provinces had a similar subsidy deal for their students. Alberta government media spin-doctors contorted the announcement into a subsidy transfer to the University of Calgary (UC) Veterinary program to increase spaces because students wanted to study closer to home. Really, how much closer to home is a student from Grande Prairie or Lloydminster who goes to either Saskatoon or Calgary. That political fudge by the government was to hide the fact that they were actually reducing support for Alberta veterinary student placements from $8 million per year to $4.7 million per year. That’s the amount the government will give to the UC to incrementally increase seats for students to replace the discontinued subsidized seats at the WCVM starting in 2020. That’s in addition to the usual millions provided to the UC for its existing vet program which began in 2005. An historical note – the vet program was created with an original Alberta government grant of $16 million which ballooned to over $80 million by the time it actually opened. It’s quite a price for a program that essentially grinds out pet vets. But there is more to the story of course.
To be fair every certified university veterinary program in North America grinds out mostly pet vets mainly because that’s where the demand is for veterinarians. Governments don’t usually trumpet that reality, they like to promote the illusion that vet program graduates mainly go into large-animal practices, food inspection and research. But that’s not where the real money is for veterinarians, besides it’s a lot more pleasant to deal with lap dogs, gerbils and cats than ornery and messy livestock at 40 below. The UC vet program saw its genesis in the BSE crisis of 2003 when for reasons lost in the mists of time, the Alberta government decided that the province needed its own veterinary program separate from its support for Alberta seats at the WCVM. Politics then set in related to which university would get the new program. Logic would have placed the vet program at the University of Alberta (UA) which already had a large and sophisticated animal science program as part of its agriculture faculty. All the necessary animal and laboratory infrastructure was already in place or could easily be expanded. But no, the politicians of the day decided that the new vet college would go to the UC, which had absolutely no livestock, no related laboratory facilities nor any connection to animal agriculture – go figure. That of course required the construction of millions of taxpayer dollars worth of new infrastructure, much of which would have already been available at the UA. To placate ruffled political feathers, the UA got a brand-new animal-related research facility called the Prion Institute – which also cost millions, but that’s the price of political harmony in Alberta.
Now considering the millions involved in supporting the UC vet program the common-sense approach should have been to phase out the $8 million annual subsidy to the WCVM immediately. But no, the subsidy continued until the recent announcement – that amounts to a whopping $96 million since 2005 when the UC program began. Add into that the over $100 million spent on capital expenditures and operating costs since that time at the UC, the Alberta taxpayer has shelled out close to $200 million to produce mostly a few hundred pet vets. But I guess there is no price on keeping Fluffy the Cat healthy. Having said that the UC vet program does graduate large-animal vets and researchers. Its vet program is innovative, advanced and under inspired leadership it has quickly become a leading internationally recognized veterinary medicine facility.
Finally, one is bemused by the Alberta government’s statement that the change will not only save the Alberta taxpayer $3 million annually but increase student capacity. To do that they will have to increase capital expenditure to expand the facility and infrastructure. If the past is any indication that will cost many extra millions. Perhaps the government could close the Prion Institute at the UA and transfer the savings to expanding the UC vet facilities. But with the NDP government’s political base in Edmonton and the UA in the Premier’s riding I suspect that might not happen.