A sporting chance

June 30, 2000

It may be the most popular degree subject in Britain, but is sports science just a fad? Jennifer Currie reports

When Mike Reid decided he wanted to be a sports scientist he thought he was a decade too late. "After ten years as a chartered surveyor I realised I had grown to hate it," he recalls. "I have always been a sportsman at heart, but when I finally got around to changing direction, I did not know if Manchester Metropolitan University would accept me onto their MA programme in sports psychology. I'm so glad they went with a hunch and offered me a place. It was the best move I've ever made."

Reid, 39, now a sports science lecturer at South Cheshire College, is just one of the thousands of people who succumb to the fresh-faced allure of sports science every year. Since its creation 25 years ago, at what is now Liverpool John Moores University, sports science has managed to become perhaps the most popular degree subject taught in Britain.

More than 5,000 students embarked on a sports science degree last year compared with 3,800 in 1997. With about 60 universities and colleges offering a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications, students are spoilt for choice. But, like most health fads, will sports science go out of fashion?

"There doesn't seem to be a limit (to the demand)," says Tom Reilly, director of the research institute for sport and exercise science at LJMU. "Our graduates are disciplined, polished and very employable. Academia may once have treated sports science with a great deal of suspicion, but it is now its glamour subject."

More than 1,500 students compete for the 75 places on Loughborough University's three-year physical education and sports science programme, making it the most over-subscribed course in the country. David Bunker, Loughborough's director of undergraduate programmes, says that in previous years the competition has been even more intense. Such high demand has forced the university to increase its entry requirements from three A levels at grades ABB to three at AAB. This puts the entry qualifications demanded of sports science students on a par with those for traditionally high-flying subjects such as medicine and law.

"We used to reject thousands of candidates, so we have to ask for high A-level marks because the department suffers financially every time we over-recruit. If we can become more like Oxbridge, with only three applicants per place, people will realise that there is no point applying unless they are a special case," Bunker says.

"There is something inherently fun about studying sport, which is why the courses are popular. It seems a lot sexier than poring over French textbooks. But, in actual fact, it involves an awful lot of hard work," he says.

Clare Smith, a first-year sports science PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University, agrees that the subject's glamour is short-lived.

"Most students get a rude awakening when they realise they have to spend hours in the library reading journals. Very few sports scientists get to work with national squads, and those who do will rarely get anything more than short-term contracts. The sports scientist will get the blame if the team fails to perform, so there is very little job security," Smith adds.

The huge range of subjects that can be taught within a sports science degree has sparked criticism that the subject's standards are variable. It is a charge that worries Adrian Taylor, professor of health and physical activity at De Montfort University. But it is also one that he rejects:

"The quality of submissions to the research assessment exercise from sports science departments improve year on year. Any scepticism about the quality of a degree in sport is unfounded."

For this reason, the British Association of Sport and Exercise Scientists (Bases) is pushing for the authority to award its members the same kind of professional privileges enjoyed by, for instance, chartered physiotherapists.

Don MacLaren, deputy director of the school of health and human sciences at LJMU and a member of the Bases executive committee, believes that the "conceited misconceptions" caused by the subject's diversity can be overcome by accreditation. "Bases is working to accredit some courses. By creating a professional body, we will be able to hold the unregulated areas to account."

Will the sports-science market ever reach saturation point? Andy Smith, chair of Bases and head of sports science and psychology at the University College of Ripon and York St John, thinks not. "Our training prepares students for a broad range of employment opportunities - not just in sport and health, but also in the broader economy. The future looks good because the research base is strong and getting stronger. Accessible and enjoyable to study, sport will always appeal to a broad group of learners."

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