The Snowballing Effect: Consequences of the UCD Exam System on Veterinary Students

Snow is something we lose our minds over in Ireland once every few years. A few snowflakes, a few inches or a few feet and we become hysterical. Schools close and the country comes to a standstill, as it did in my hometown for a few days this year. Whilst some of us have gotten much too old for throwing snowballs, a certain subset of people in my university experience the mental anxiety and hysteria of what I term “The Snowballing Effect” at Christmas and summer exams. Interestingly, the subset of people that experience it all have one thing in common; Veterinary Medicine.

After just finishing my penultimate semester in UCD, I can’t help with reflect upon a platitude which relatives and neighbours would repeat when I first wrote DN300 on the top of my CAO form. “Oh, getting in is the hardest part. Doing the Leaving Cert will be the hardest exam you will ever do. Once you get in it’s going to be plain sailing”. It being Christmastime, I can only equate this to sugar coated and candy cane falsity that we tell children at this time each year. After what feels like an eternity of studying, learning, and attending lectures, I can affirm that the hard work and tough graft has not stopped for us here in the Veterinary College.

First year was ok with minimal hours per week, and Tuesdays and Fridays off and I remember thinking that life really couldn’t get any better. A relaxed timetable and so much “self-directed” learning, along with the euphoria of a country girl living in the big smoke, it felt like the pinnacle of the university experience. It was a release from the regimented school days and the best part? I was studying veterinary.

Free time, headspace, and enjoyment; the three things any veterinary student craves once they make the transition from those enjoyable and relaxed preclinical years into third year. Say these words ‘third year’ to any veterinary student to send a bone tingling chill down their spine. Two ten credit modules and two five credit modules with 8am starts and upwards of twenty-one hours of lectures a week plus four to six hours of labs. If that wasn’t enough, third year is synonymous with spending another few hours in the library following a long eight to five day of labs and lectures. One semester to learn all the hundred of parasites, bacteria and viruses that affect all our domestic species. The Leaving Cert doesn’t have anything on these exams.

In UCD, it costs €230 to repeat an exam and if you have three exams, it costs €690. In Trinity College, students can repeat exams free of charge. In DCU, the cost of repeats is capped at €190 whether you repeat one exam or seven. A couple of years ago, a potential SU presidential candidate announced as part of his manifesto that he planned to increase repeat fees for the Veterinary College, whilst reducing the cost for the rest of the college. If I had the chance, I would have asked him to attempt to learn all the families of bacteria, viruses, and parasites in one semester; he never made the connection of it being the exam system for us in Veterinary at fault, rather than lazy students.

The Snowballing Effect begins in third year. Anyone carrying a repeat exam must sit it at the next exam period; an exam failed in summer of the previous year must be sat at Christmas. In my experience, lots of people who carry a repeat exam into third year of veterinary pass it. However, the sheer expanse of the workload of the semester means that many people fail, often for the first time, in first semester of third year. I would speculate that some modules in veterinary, especially those in second semester of third year, have upwards of a 30% failure rate. There is no denying that the people are extremely intelligent, but in my opinion, it is the long hours, the gigantic ten credit modules and the intricate detail of the modules that cause such high failure rates.

The pass rate in veterinary is 50%, which is higher than clear majority of courses in UCD. Those who do not reach 50% or above in their Christmas exams of third year must wait to resit them in May, along with another two ten credit modules which further compounds the effect. People with multiple repeats are more likely to continuously fail or oftentimes, decide not to sit entire modules in the current semester, as passing a repeat is more important for progression into the next year.

Now in first semester of fourth year, we have no bigger ten credit modules, but we still have those dreaded 8am starts. The number of people not carrying repeat exams is dwindling. The number of people in my year has decreased. With successive failures, some of my classmates have been forced to take a Semester X; this is where a student can opt to repeat exams within the course of a year and sit new modules, ultimately joining the year below. This is where a 5 year course becomes a 6 year course and having to pay upwards of €230 twice per year. I estimate that each year, 10% of the year are forced to do a semester X, ultimately joining the year below. In my opinion this may be some form of an explanation for the current vet shortage being documented in the Veterinary Ireland Journal and the Farming Independent.

All these figures are having massive consequences on Veterinary Students. My classmates have been forced to repeat years, to give up the part-time work that was putting them through college, and to borrow money to pay exam repeat fees and entrance fees. There is also the mental and emotional strain of constantly feeling behind and under pressure. The intensity of the course, the hours and the workload have been mentally and emotionally draining on my friends and myself. We wake early, and we study late. We don’t shower, we don’t sleep, or we don’t exercise. You probably see us and smell us in the library all the time. Of course, not everyone is in this situation, but for anyone repeating exams or struggling, I can affirm that this is a reality.

Of course, the snowballing effect is not all that veterinary is about. We are training to be the next generation of our profession. We are equipped with great knowledge on the newest techniques, the latest diseases, and best medicines. We have the support of good lecturers, great friends, and excellent staff, including our one of a kind student advisor, Niamh Nestor and our Dean, Michael Doherty. Our faculty recognise fully the immense pressure we are under; we have coffee mornings and a relaxation room, which is the ideal place to take a nap when you have only got three hours sleep! We all remind ourselves that the exams and endless study is worth it, once we go on placement and meet real, tangible, sick animals, rather than the scenarios in the exam papers.

To end the snowballing effect of repeat exams and alleviate the stress of numbers, UCD create a special policy for the Veterinary College. Firstly, the pass rate of veterinary could be reduced.  Secondly, capping of repeat fees, not just for Veterinary students, but for all students repeating multiple exams, to alleviate financial pressure. The third suggestion that I have, which in my opinion would be most efficacious, would be out-of-semester repeats. For example, exams failed in summer repeated in August. Just by alleviating the burden of carrying a module into the consecutive year in my opinion would halve the number of people needing to repeat; I think making this one change could eliminate the dreaded snowball effect. Any one of these things would alleviate the pressure veterinary students face; give Christmas back to veterinary students, so we have time to think about having fun and throwing snowballs, instead of repeat exams and financial worry.

Shauna Farrell – Features Writer

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