The growth of sports education should be good news for Britain's international aspirations. But can students honestly combine academe with success on the track or field? Tom Davies reports
Sports education is booming, with academies, scholarships and related courses mushrooming across Britain as universities seek to harness sport's high profile to attract applicants. Every year an estimated 50,000 students take part in inter-university sporting championships. Most do not compete professionally, but for fun and to keep fit. Now, with many of our national professional teams floundering, particularly in cricket and football, sporting experts are asking whether universities can play a role in spearheading a revival.
After all, universities provide some of our star performers in amateur games, ranging from Bath University's swimming team through to the rowers who have traditionally used student sport as a springboard to higher things. Could they do more?
Already, a number of universities are introducing centres of excellence, academies where sport can be taught and played to the highest level. There are rugby centres of excellence in Loughborough, Cardiff, Northumbria, Brunel, Bristol and Newcastle. There will soon be six similar institutions for promising student cricketers, with academies at Leeds/Bradford, Cardiff, Southampton, Bristol and Loughborough joining the existing centre at Durham, which has been running three years.
Yet despite this investment of time and money, the most popular student sport is not football, rugby, golf or athletics - where the pressure is intense at a national level - but hockey. "What most students still want is the opportunity to play sport on a Wednesday afternoon," says Greg Jones, chief executive of the British Universities Sport Association.
At universities such as Loughborough, where sporting attainment is ingrained, the two sides of participation in student sport - amateur and professional - can conflict.
"Some students are offered a move to national or professional levels, but it can clash with their responsibilities playing in Busa events," says Pat Gubb, administrator of Loughborough's student sports foundation.
And with students increasingly having to take part-time jobs to pay their way, the time to train seriously is being severely curtailed.
Some feel that the introduction of US-style sports scholarships is the answer. In the US, student sport - funded by specific, lucrative, non-academic sports scholarships - attracts vast crowds, considerable sponsorship and TV coverage, and is seen as the main provider of talent to the major leagues.
But at present the funding for a similar structure to emerge in Britain does not exist. Moreover, critics of such scholarships argue that universities would use them as an excuse to admit good sportsmen whose academic achievements might not be up to the mark.
Loughborough has 63 sports degree students receiving scholarships of Pounds 1,000 per year, but Pat Gubb says the intense competition for places means its scholars are also academically gifted. "The applicants are becoming better qualified because it is becoming more difficult to get scholarships," she says.
University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology has also introduced sports scholarships and has opted to develop a high-performance swimming centre for elite swimmers, who will be offered scholarships as an inducement to apply -although the usual academic requirements will still apply.
Yet there is cause to be wary about such developments, feels Richard Cox, UMIST's director of sport, "when it is exposed that somebody did not do any course work and is semi-literate or illiterate yet has still got onto a sports programme". He feels some institutions just pay lip-service to the pursuit of academic excellence among their sporting stars.
An American-style system would never work here, argues Cox. "There is a totally different culture here. Student sport does not feed into the professional game in the same way." There would be resistance to lowering academic criteria, both among vice-chancellors and those running college sports programmes.
Former Lancashire and England batsman Graeme Fowler runs the cricket academy at Durham University, which enables cricketers to develop their game while studying for a degree. While approving of the US model, he is wary of the all-sport-no-study scenario.
"There are parts of the American set-up I like. I would like to see more scholarships so people are not put out of pocket by going to university and training at the same time, but we need to keep up the academic side or it devalues the university.
"What I would like to see is that if I had a talented cricketer from Gloucester, say, I d like that county to contribute more to his education. In England, we are the best in the world up to 19, so the problem is not necessarily with the students, but with the first-class game. The trouble is that the counties just think about the counties and not about England as a whole."
Full integration of student and professional sport is clearly still some way off.
The most popular sport nationally is one where there has traditionally been little crossover between higher education and the professional game, but now that is changing. The Footballers Further Education and Vocational Training Society - funded by the Professional Footballers Association and the Premier and Football Leagues - introduced a programme 18 months ago to ensure young players taken on by professional clubs spend 12 hours a week studying and meet certain academic targets. All but eight of the 92 professional league clubs are signed up to the scheme.
Each July, clubs' young intakes are assessed by the training society and their educational needs gauged. Then officers prepare an educational programme relevant to the players' abilities. The three-year programme enables them to gain A levels, GNVQs or BTec equivalents. Between 9 and 10 per cent gain three A levels, the next 45 to 55 per cent get two A levels, or BTec or GNVQ equivalents, and the other 45 per cent resit NVQs or GCSEs.
Pat Lally, education officer at the FFEVTS, feels there is scope for flexibility in balancing the educational needs of players with the rigours of their footballing careers. "We are discussing with universities the possibility of a compact with them so university places will be available to youngsters after their three-year club programme, even if they do not meet the A-level requirements.
"The universities have accepted that footballers cannot do a full-time degree and train. They are beginning to suggest that they are willing to take boys after three years if they are not taken on as professionals."
The FFEVTS also runs sports science degrees at Roehampton, Crewe & Alsager, and BTecs in sports science. Graduates of these include ex-Man Utd and Everton star Norman Whiteside, now working as a chiropodist at Old Trafford, and Rick Holden, once of Oldham Athletic and now a physiotherapist at Douglas Hospital, Isle of Man.
Steve Palmer graduated in software engineering from Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1989.He played in his early years with his hometown club, Brighton & Hove Albion, before starting at Cambridge.
At university, he trained with Cambridge United and had trials with Ipswich Town, as well as playing for the university side.
He was offered professional terms with Ipswich upon leaving Cambridge. In 1995 he joined Watford, playing a key role in their rise from the Second Division to the Premiership. He is now a regular for Watford in the top flight.
Well grounded in the world of football before starting his degree, Palmer felt the demands of professional football were too intense to be combined with studying.
But he was never forced to choose between them. "I was lucky. Brighton encouraged me to stay on and pursue my studies and said if you're good enough and have the ambition you'll be OK."
Palmer the graduate was accepted in the earthy world of professional football. "There was light-hearted banter about my background at first, but it wore off. A lot of players respect what I have done. Most would like to have something behind them, because the vast majority that make it professionally are intelligent and could have carried on their education if they wanted to."
Ryan Driver signed professional terms with Worcestershire during the 1997 season, at the end of his first year of a community degree at Collingwood College, Durham University. Now in his final year, he has stayed on Worcestershire's books and played three senior games for his county last year. He has also played for the Durham University team, which won this year's university championship.
Driver sees the financial fillip of being on professional terms while still a student as "more or less the same as working in Tesco's to give yourself extra financial support". His academic commitments mean he has only been available for half a season so far. "It is a bit of a disadvantage for me when (Worcestershire) have players available for the whole season," he says."They can put in performances that can establish them in the first team while I am not available."
His twin commitments can cause difficulties the other way too. "I feel that cricket can conflict with studies and my exams did suffer slightly."
Nevertheless, he feels university centres of excellence can play a vital role in keeping undergraduates involved in the game. "I think it fills that transitional phase in sixth forms, where - especially in comprehensive schools such as mine - very little cricket is played. I think the way they are going - creating an elitist set-up - is a good idea."
Chris Rawlinson, 400-metre hurdler and 1999 graduate of Loughborough's PE, sports science and recreation management BSc, tailored his studies to his sporting ambitions. But his course took in more than training, including sports psychology, marketing and law.
Rawlinson has had a successful season, taking gold in the Europa Cup 400-metre hurdles and recording the third-fastest British time ever in Zurich this summer. But injury put him out of the Seville World Championships. He runs for Belgrave Harriers Athletics Club.
The financial spin-offs from this success enabled him to concentrate full-time on getting himself fit for the Olympics, but he is aware of the financial pressures on others: "Loans and fees have made it tougher for students. A lot depends on their backgrounds.
"There has been extra lottery funding, but that is not as much help as it was when I started. There is a gap that should be filled."
Like many athletes, Rawlinson has had contact with the lavish world of US college sport. His Pounds 1,000-a-year scholarship contributed to four-week training trips to LA. "Somewhere like El Paso would pay for my course fees, my residence fees, my food and some spending money.
"It's big business in the US. Alumni have a lot to do with funding university sport. Take the Rose Bowl (the American football championship), where winners get gold rings encrusted with diamonds."