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Education of future Lao veterinarians at the National University of Lao in Nabong – a student perspective

Mason White, BVSc V student, The University of Sydney

 

During my final rotation of my fifth year of the Bachelor of Veterinary Science Degree, I was privileged to get the opportunity to travel to the National University of Laos’ Nabong campus with Professor Peter Windsor, Associate Professor Russell Bush and Dr Sonevilay Nampanya. The purpose of the visit was to participate in a workshop with educators of veterinary students at the Faculty of Agricultural Science, which aimed to review and propose improvements to the current veterinary curriculum. The experience provided great insight into education in Laos’, highlighted several of the many challenges associated with establishing and maintaining a veterinary course in a developing country.

The National University of Laos (NUOL) currently runs two veterinary degrees through the Faculty of Agricultural Science: Bachelor of Veterinary Science (BVSc), a 5-year undergraduate degree in its third-last year of operation, currently being phased out and replaced by the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM), a 6-year undergraduate program introduced in 2015, and due to produce its first graduates in 2020. With both programs combined there are 287 Lao students currently studying to be veterinarians, of which approximately 23-25 graduate each year. Having only produced its first veterinary graduates in 2013, the degree at NUOL is still very much in its infancy.

 mason-white

Photo: (from left) A/Prof Russell Bush, Mr Mason White, Dr Corissa Miller, Prof Peter Windsor & Dr Sonevilay Nampanya enjoying Lao BBQ!

Approximately 75% of Laos’ rural population live on less than USD 2 per day, receiving 50% of their household cash income from livestock production. Improving the quality of livestock farming, through veterinary assistance, represents a means of alleviating poverty and raising the standard of living for many Lao people. As such, the faculty’s goal is to produce capable veterinarians with a particular focus on the medicine and production of food producing livestock, in line with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s aim to have 900 qualified veterinarians within Laos by 2020. However, as a young degree newly established in a developing country, NUOL faces a number of challenges in producing a sufficient number of capable veterinarians in keeping with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry’s goal.

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Photo: University of Sydney students vs National University of Lao students in volleyball!

Despite the government’s desire to increase the number of veterinarians in the country, only a handful (6-7) of government positions are made available for veterinarians each year. Whilst the course is tailored towards producing large animal veterinarians, remaining employment opportunities tend to draw graduates away from rural farming areas and into cities to work for non-government organisations or with small animals in private practice. Veterinarians in Laos appear to be in high demand – according to Dr. Vannaphone Putthana of NUOL, they are unable to produce a sufficient number of graduates to satisfy the number of potential employers contacting the university. Nonetheless, should the Ministry desire to produce veterinarians for the betterment of livestock farming in Laos, it appears that a greater number of employment opportunities must be afforded to graduates to keep them within the industry.

Another challenge that the university faces is obtaining sufficient teaching materials and facilities with the current government funding. When compared to the equipment that students at The University of Sydney are so lucky to have access to, the facilities at NUOL are relatively rudimentary. Whilst the laboratory has a variety of tools available to students, including several microscopes, textbooks and anatomical models, supplying disposable items – microscope slides, veterinary injectable drugs, blood analysis cassettes needed for day-to-day teaching and student learning – may represent an ongoing cost that cannot be maintained.

On a similar note, the current level of government funding afforded to NUOL enables the addition of one staff member only once every year or more. As a result, the veterinary department of the Faculty of Agriculture appears drastically understaffed. Whilst any given unit of study at the university could be taught by 4 or more academics in Australia, a single academic staff member at NUOL is solely responsible for teaching up to 4 units of study. When I participated in a practical class, the sole lecturer was responsible for teaching Histology, Parasitology, Pathology and Entomology. With such a large and broad workload, the help of support staff would be invaluable in ensuring that all educational material is created and delivered in a precise and comprehensive manner, but at this stage cannot be afforded.

Given these circumstances, electronic and digital learning resources have the potential to provide a relatively convenient, accurate and comprehensive source of learning material for academics and students alike. However, one of the greatest challenges faced by staff and students of the veterinary degree at NUOL is achieving a suitable proficiency in English. With limited veterinary literature published in Lao, there is a major reliance upon resources in the English language, and to a lesser extent Thai. During the workshop I attended, Prof. Windsor demonstrated the use of the Online Library of Images for Veterinary Education and Research (OLIVER) – an invaluable database maintained by The University of Sydney, to which educators at NUOL had been granted access. Whilst a multitude of information was accessible, feedback from Lao educators was that there was a great deal of difficulty understanding the English terminology, rendering the tool less accessible. The University of Sydney has also donated many English textbooks in the past, to assist the education of students at NUOL. During my visit I was shown two full book-cases completely filled with veterinary textbooks that were available to students, yet remained unopened in their original wrapping. This not only limits the opportunities for students to learn, but also limits foreign job opportunities – feedback received by NUOL from the Asian Veterinary Network about two graduates was that whilst their practical skills appeared adequate for the job, their ability to communicate in English was not.

Whilst meeting the standards of the OIE Model Veterinary Curriculum is a great challenge for a limited staff with few resources, there is abundant enthusiasm of the mainly young staff and great appreciation for any help provided. With the ongoing Australian Centre of International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) funded research projects in Laos, The University of Sydney will continue to provide support to work with NUOL towards meeting these objectives.

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Photo: University of Sydney students receiving a tour of NUOL

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