English public schools may still regard team sport as an imperative element of a rounded education, but my own abiding memory of PE at my 1980s comprehensive school was the unedifying fear of being caught wearing a vest under my rugby shirt (absolutely forbidden even when the field was frozen solid). And even if I had been school team-quality, there were none to play for. They were mothballed during the teaching unions’ endless scrums with the Department for Education, which saw their members refusing to supervise any activities outside standard school hours.
So by the time I got to university, it never even crossed my mind to try out for a sports team. For me, Wednesday afternoons were a toss-up between the library and the pub, and early mornings were for sleeping rather than rowing through freezing blackness. According to Lincoln Allison, the conclusion that I am therefore, in a sense, uneducated cannot be avoided. In a feature this week, the emeritus reader in politics at the University of Warwick argues that although universities have long ceased to be breeding grounds of sports stars, it remains true that “for a university not to offer the experience of teamwork, of winning and losing, of the shams of ‘triumph and disaster’ would be to lessen what it has to offer by a huge margin”.
That is no doubt true. But it still leaves the question of how much universities should spend on sport – and who exactly should benefit. In the US, of course, universities spend huge amounts, but, in many cases, the majority is swallowed up by the nationally famous teams they run in sports such as American football and basketball; the coaches of such teams are often the most highly paid public employees in their entire state.
No doubt the experience of supporting “their” team boosts collegiate loyalty, paving the way for the university to claw back some of the expense via donations from future alumni. But it is hard to see how it gives the student body as a whole a meaningful or unique experience of “teamwork”.
As Allison says, if this latter is universities’ aspiration, shouldn’t they concentrate on “broadly based intramural participation”? And what, for that matter, is the rationale for excluding staff and the general public? Perhaps part of the answer is that sports facilities have more to do with universities’ student recruitment strategies than with their staff benefits package or outreach efforts. And the success of sports-mad universities such as Loughborough and Bath in Times Higher Education’s latest latest UK Student Experience Survey, published last week, reveals that sport can indeed be a big draw.
If I were 18 again, though, I might well be drawn to a university that made a point of redirecting the “sports” part of my dizzying £9,000 fees into buying more of the reading-list books that I could never get hold of – or perhaps even lowering the cost of those cocktails in the union bar that I could never afford. Such a ploy would fly in the face of the government’s nascent efforts to make us eat less sugar and burn off more of what we do eat, but for those universities grasping for a USP, it might just be worth considering.