I listened with interest to last week’s Times Higher Education podcast on the subject of universities providing more opportunities to talented sportspeople. As I am the recently appointed director of sport at Loughborough University, you will not be surprised to hear me endorse the pleas of Steve Cram and Bill Tancred for the sector to maximise the opportunities we give athletes to secure university places (“Give chariots of fire clear path to university track”, News, 14 March).
Sport at Loughborough has been a cornerstone of our campus culture for more than 60 years. It is often described as “part of our DNA” and, as referenced in the podcast, we have come to be seen as a centre of excellence over that time.
Although high-class facilities and sports scholarships have undoubtedly helped to attract elite athletes, such investment is not the only reason why Loughborough has become their destination of choice. Our philosophy of supporting student-athletes by working in partnership with academic colleagues to develop flexible assessment and study policies is key, as is our mentoring service. When required we will stretch degrees over four or five years to allow study commitments to be balanced with international duty and extended training camps.
Furthermore, we have found that sport complements academic success and vice versa. Research on juggling the demands of elite sport and academic study from our Centre for Olympic Studies and Research has shown that the two careers can actively support each other, with the intellectual stimulation of study providing relief from, and contrast to, the rigours of training and competition.
The research also shows that combining athletic and student careers refines and develops transferable skills such as leadership, communication, planning and goal-setting. It is these skills that contribute to Loughborough graduates finding high-quality work, with our employability figures comparing favourably with the national average.
Higher education plays a significant role in the UK’s successful high- performance sporting system - a system now viewed with envy by many of our traditional rivals. Our triumph at London 2012 was in part a reflection of the highly trained graduate workforce of professional coaches, scientists and medical support staff that helped to develop our 213 Olympic and Paralympic medallists. We continue to build this expertise: Loughborough’s School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences provides degree paths to more than 1,500 students and competition for places is fierce.
Higher education also provides some of the key training environments for the years of work needed to achieve sporting excellence: at Loughborough, for example, we have national performance centres for sports including athletics, swimming, cricket and triathlon, with others bidding to join them.
In short, in our experience the parallel pursuit of sporting and academic excellence can become a reality that benefits university life.
Director of sport