University of Limerick is being tipped to become the site of a new veterinary medicine school to cater for demand from students.
Currently, UCD is the only third-level institution to offer veterinary training, with demand far outstripping places every year.
Last year, there were 581 applications for 85 first-year undergraduate places, meaning many Irish students travel abroad to study as far away as Poland and Hungary.
The Government is now looking to expand the number of places available, with many calling for a Munster-based veterinary school. It is hoped a new school could be opened as early as 2024.
Given the level of demand, the Government is now considering establishing courses in more than one location, which could see UL begin to offer places, followed by the Atlantic Technological University in the north west.
Higher Education institutions were asked to make submissions and it is understood a number have been shortlisted including UL, and there is the option of adding extra capacity to train vets on the UCD campus.
The Tralee campus of Munster Technological University as well as ATU are also under consideration.
Higher Education Minister Simon Harris and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) recently appointed an expert advisory panel to review opportunities for new programmes in veterinary medicine, along with expanded programmes in dentistry, pharmacy, medicine and nursing.
As part of the process, the HEA received 39 expressions of interest across the five disciplines.
Of these, 20 have proposed the delivery of new courses, and 19 proposed to expand on existing courses in the selected disciplines.
This expert panel will now review and assess the applications from higher education institutions and make recommendations by March on where a new veterinary course should be located. The HEA will rank each of the applicants and it will be up to Mr Harris and Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue to make the final decision.
Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard has been advocating for a second school of veterinary medicine for some time. He said: "We know the interest is there based on the numbers who apply through CAO every year.
"The current situation where there are only about 80 places available to study veterinary medicine in UCD every year has resulted in many Irish students going abroad to study.
Such is the chronic shortage of vets, particularly in rural areas, that veterinary practitioners had come together to campaign for a new school in Munster to help address the issue.
The Veterinary Work Group has been calling on the Government to urgently address the “worrying” recruitment and retention crisis in the profession.
Mr Harris said planning for current and future public sector skills needs is a priority for his department.
"I have committed to substantial increases in training places across healthcare professions and in veterinary. This needs to be done in a sustainable and managed way, to the highest standards and the process under way will allow for this to happen."
"I look forward to receiving the recommendations from the HEA and to working across Government to deliver these opportunities for students and the healthcare system.”