Mexican school joins an elite group

Hemisphere's oldest veterinary school is COE-accredited
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

The National Autonomous University of Mexico School of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Husbandry has quietly gone about its business for the past 158 years—yes, it's the oldest veterinary school in the Western Hemisphere—tucked away in the southwest corner of Mexico City.


Though it may not be widely known by Mexico's neighbor to the north, UNAM is considered, throughout Mexico and practically all of Latin America, to be the premier veterinary educational institution in its country, one that has set the bar for all others.

The school just recently met arguably the highest global standard available—it was granted full accreditation by the AVMA Council on Education in early March. This development has thrust UNAM into the global spotlight, for good and for bad.

In a nutshell

The UNAM veterinary school is only one of 44 veterinary schools and colleges in Mexico. Similar to their European and Australian counterparts, these institutions have a curriculum that lasts five to six years. Mexican students matriculate directly out of high schools called "preparatoria," which provide three years of education. The first semesters of preparatoria have a common curriculum, and the latter ones allow some degree of specialization, all of which intensely prepare students for higher education.

The most radical difference, perhaps, between U.S. and Mexican veterinary schools boils down to cost. Students from Mexico pay a minimal fee, about $120 each year, to attend the university.

Dr. Francisco J. Trigo Tavera, dean of UNAM's veterinary school, explained, "The government pays for their education. It's Mexican policy to facilitate an education for people with no resources to pursue a degree and improve their quality of life."

swine lecture
An instructor lectures about swine medicine at one of the school's farms.

Most students who attend the UNAM veterinary school come from Mexico City, but a minority come from other parts of the country or Latin America, he said.

UNAM has approximately 2,800 veterinary students at any given time, according to a 2009 report compiled by the Mexican Association of Colleges of Veterinary Medicine. For about the past eight years, the breakdown has been 65 percent women and 35 percent men.

There are no records of the number of alumni throughout the 158-year history of the veterinary school. That said, in the past decade, a mean of 500 students have entered the UNAM veterinary school each year, whereas 250 to 300 students graduate, according to the study. The disparity stems from the fact that there are relatively low standards for Mexican student admittance to UNAM, yet the veterinary school maintains a high course rigor.

The school's preclinical curriculum is divided into 10 18-week semesters. A total of 606 teaching staff—234 of whom are full-time professors—lead classes that are taught entirely in Spanish.

During the first seven semesters, students take core courses, such as physiology, pathology, and immunology, plus courses on animal nutrition, reproduction, genetics, and the economics of animal production. During the remaining three semesters, students are divided into small groups to perform clinical rotations. They choose at least seven species to study in that time and have access to seven teaching farms that belong to UNAM. These house beef and dairy cattle, sheep, goats, swine, and poultry. In addition, students rotate through the UNAM-Banfield primary care hospital and the small animal specialty hospital. Each hospital sees about 14,000 cases a year, Dr. Trigo said.

After 10 semesters, students are required to perform six months of social service. This is a symbolic gesture each student is required to make to pay back Mexican society for financing his or her education, Dr. Trigo said.

The students' 12th and final semester is spent gaining further clinical experience. The most common method is by completing a preceptorship. Students must choose a single area to focus on, such as small animal or equine, and travel to various locations working on that type of animal, Dr. Trigo said. The second most common option is completing an abbreviated research project, after which the students must write a thesis and present their findings.

In all, the process takes six years to earn a doctoral degree in veterinary medicine and animal science.

After graduation, students enter a range of fields, primarily public health, food safety regulation, or private practice, not to mention the food industry itself. Swine and poultry production draw a number of graduates, as do aquaculture and even, to an extent, honey production. Jobs in the latter sector require employees who are knowledgeable in parasitic diseases of bees and their treatment, Dr. Trigo said.

He acknowledges that a fair number of students are interested in small animal medicine, but not to the extent of students at U.S. veterinary schools and colleges.

Taking a look back

According to a presentation given by Drs. Jose M. Berruecos and Luis A. Zarco at the 2010 World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) meeting, veterinary education in Mexico started in 1853 with the creation of the National School of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine, today called the Facultad de Medicina Veterinaria y Zootecnia, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México.

Many of the founding faculty members of the first veterinary schools in other Latin American countries were veterinarians educated in Mexico. Because of this, the Mexican veterinary education curriculum greatly influenced the development of the profession in the rest of the region. Later, and in no small measure owing to geopolitical imperatives and to the influence of the AVMA, Mexico developed sophisticated systems for the organization and evaluation of veterinary education that have, in turn, had great influence on the rest of the continent, according to Drs. Berruecos and Zarco.

Then in 1994, Mexico joined the North American Free Trade Agreement. That's when the differences between the Mexican veterinary medical curricula and the curricula of the veterinary schools and colleges in the United States and Canada became readily apparent. More important, there was no mechanism in Mexico that focused on the quality of education, such as standards and criteria related to professional certification and accreditation of schools or academic programs.

Veterinary medicine was the first profession to react to this call in Mexico, through work by the Mexican Federation of Veterinary Associations, according to Drs. Berruecos and Zarco.

And so, the Council of Education for Veterinary Medicine and Zootechnics was founded March 3, 1995. It is an independent body that accredits colleges and certifies profesionals to promote quality in the teaching and practice of veterinary medicine and animal production in Mexico. The UNAM veterinary school has been accredited by CONEVET since 1998.

"We have an accrediting body, CONEVET, that has done an excellent job and has improved the college here. That was okay, but we wanted UNAM—the oldest veterinary school in the American continent—to aim for a higher goal. When you look worldwide, the highest standard is the AVMA Council on Education, with more than 100 years of experience with this process," Dr. Trigo said.

A higher standard

The school pursued COE accreditation, Dr. Trigo said, because it is considered the gold standard for veterinary education in the world.

thoracic auscultation
UNAM veterinary students practice thoracic auscultation on a cat.

"It's a matter of pride to be among this select group of veterinary colleges worldwide," Dr. Trigo said.

The administration and faculty's first undertaking after deciding in 2004 to pursue COE accreditation was to revamp the curriculum, with particular emphasis on giving students more hands-on, practical training in their last three semesters, Dr. Trigo said.

The council agreed to conduct a consultative site visit to UNAM in May 2006 and left the school with a number of recommendations for changes and a deadline of only a few years for completion, per COE policies and procedures. Some of the corrective measures made at the COE's request were the following:

  • The small animal veterinary teaching hospital was expanded and remodeled.
  • The equine veterinary teaching hospital was expanded and remodeled. The building is currently undergoing another phase of expansion and remodeling.
  • The diagnostic imaging area on the main campus was remodeled and better equipped.
  • The teaching laboratories had covers installed over the workstations. Microscopes were replaced. Showers and eyewash stations were installed, too.
  • Handicapped-accessible ramps and elevators were installed in the school's buildings.
  • Isolation facilities were built at each of the seven teaching farms.
  • The facility used by students during their rotation focusing on dairy animals was expanded.

All this work required substantial investment, and most was completed in two years. The university paid for a large portion of the work. The rest of the work was funded through income from the school's services and from donations.

The school later sent a DVD showcasing the completion of curriculum and facilities upgrades, which persuaded the COE to grant a request from the school for a comprehensive site visit. The council visited in November 2009 and again in January 2011 before deciding to grant full accreditation.

Foreign relations

When word spread in 2009 that the Mexican veterinary school was seeking COE accreditation, opposition began to form. The opposition was based, at least in part, on concerns that the school would not truly meet accreditation standards, but also reflected worries that if UNAM were to be accredited by the COE, there would be an influx of UNAM graduates who would take jobs in the United States because they would no longer be required to pass a foreign equivalence examination prior to practicing stateside.

At the "AVMA Live" town hall session during the 2010 AVMA Annual Convention, members wanted to talk about the Association's stance on the matter and what potential accreditation of UNAM would mean for U.S. practitioners.

A comment expressed at that session—one that seemed to reflect the basis of concerns held by a cadre of members—was the concern that Mexican graduates with little student debt would take low-paying jobs in the United States and further saturate the job market, particularly in the small animal sector.

By way of context, the AVMA Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates program has awarded one to two certificates annually to UNAM graduates over the past several years. Forty-seven certificates have been awarded to UNAM graduates since 1974, and 17 of these were awarded to U.S. citizens who had attended UNAM. In all, 124 certificates have been awarded to graduates of Mexican veterinary schools since 1974; 52 of these were awarded to U.S. citizens. By comparison, 820 certificates have been awarded to Indian graduates since 1974, of which five were awarded to U.S. citizens. The other foreign equivalence program, the American Association of Veterinary State Boards' Program for the Assessment of Veterinary Education Equivalence, does not disclose specific program information, such as how many students take the examination and from which schools.

Even now, with UNAM becoming accredited by the council in March, Dr. Trigo doesn't anticipate an exodus of students from Mexico.

"Certainly the door opens the possibility to graduates to go to the U.S., but I think this massive flow of graduates from here to there will never happen. To work in the United States you have to have a job offer to begin with, then meet immigration laws. And you have to pass a national board exam as well as a state board exam, meaning you have to be proficient in English," Dr. Trigo said.

"It's not simply a matter of wishing to work in the U.S. one day and doing so the next. It's a large, complicated process, so I don't think that will be an issue. I hope we can follow this in coming years and demonstrate with actual figures that this will not be true."

Dr. Marguerite Pappaioanou, executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, said she was pleased that UNAM and Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine had both received full accreditation, because that means their programs meet the high educational standards set by the COE for a quality veterinary medical education.

"The AAVMC encourages all its affiliated members to pursue COE accreditation," Dr. Pappaioanou said.

She added that all colleges of veterinary medicine that are accredited by COE are eligible to become full voting members of AAVMC on payment of dues and that AAVMC would be contacting both schools soon to invite them to join as full voting institutional members.