Sporting rivalry

September 22, 2000

Students can choose from almost 1,500 sports-related courses. But the tough competition for places means the discipline is no easy option, says Elaine Carlton

The battle is hotting up in the sporting field as universities compete for premier league students. Courses such as marine sport technology, human sport science and sport product design give a taste of the burgeoning number of sports-related programmes that are tempting students into higher education. With almost 1,500 courses to choose from, prospective students are spoilt for choice.

Twenty years ago, it was totally different. There was only one option available for those keen on sport - a degree in physical education - which led to a career as a PE teacher. Today, new courses are springing up all the time.

Bath University is one of the most recent arrivals on the sports degree scene. Until last year, it offered only a higher national diploma programme. Then it launched a degree in sports science and poached sports academic David Kerwin from Loughborough University to become head of the new sports department. Last year, Bath offered 25 places on its new BSc course. This year, 40 students will embark on the degree, although more than 1,000 A-level students applied.

Professor Kerwin says:"A lot of universities and colleges are seeing sport as a very popular area with young people and a good course to recruit to. It is hard to deliver at a high level, and for that you need both human and physical resources."

Gaining a place on Bath's course requires a demanding points at A level, and the stakes are getting higher all the time.

Each university offering sports-related courses is at pains to portray its degree course is the most academic, most scientific and most popular.

Loughborough, still smarting from the loss of Professor Kerwin, recognises its rival university's intentions. The head of admissions at Loughborough, David Bunker, admits that in ten years, Bath will be its biggest rival.

"At the moment, our most serious competitor is Birmingham, but Bath has made great strides in the past couple of years. They are fishing in the same pool as us, looking for a very small number of students, but very good ones," he says.

Loughborough boasts the most popular course in the country - BX69 - the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service code for PE and sports science at the university. Last year 1,493 students applied for 75 places. Loughborough offers ten sports-related programmes and seven joint honours.

Such is the rivalry among universities that Loughborough plans to change the name of its single honours in recreation management to sport and leisure management because, Mr Bunker says, sport is today's buzzword.

Competition is fierce between universities, but sports subjects are becoming more popular with students. Between 1997 and 1999, Ucas recorded that the number of applicants for more than 400 sports science courses rose by 17 per cent to 8,075 students, while the number of students accepted by the universities rose by more than 50 per cent to 5,224. Twice as many men as women applied to sports-related courses.

Mr Bunker is concerned about falling standards in sports-related courses. "Since 1989, universities have become far more entrepreneurial. The Conservatives believed that more young people needed a university education, which was something I agreed with. I just wish that successive governments wouldn't fudge the issue of there being no deterioration in standards and quality. That is logically impossible."

Loughborough is proud of its academic reputation. Ten years ago, the university was offering two single honours sports degrees: PE and sports science; and PE, sports science and recreation management. In 1990, more than 1,900 students applied to the two degrees and 85 were accepted. This year, more than 2,000 school-leavers applied to the university's three single honours degrees and more than 150 places were taken up. But five years ago, more than 3,000 applied.

Mr Bunker attributes the decline in applications to a realisation among A-level students that there is no point in applying if they are not likely to get the grades.

"There is a feeling in schools that if you excel at sport and you are going to get 18 points, don't bother applying to Loughborough because it will be a waste of your choices."

Birmingham University, Loughborough's fiercest rival, is quick to point out that its course is for high achievers. This year it has consolidated its courses - it now only offers one single honours BSc, instead of the two BScs and a BA offered in previous years.

Michael Parkes, lecturer in applied physiology and admissions tutor at Birmingham's school of sport and exercise sciences, says: "We used to run several sports courses, but we have decided to move towards a science-based course because we feel that is more likely to get our students jobs. Our applications have been down a fraction, compared with last year, but not much."

In 1995, Birmingham received 1,073 applications for its three single honours sports-related degrees. The university accepted 71 students. This year, 929 students applied for just one degree - sports and exercise science. The university has accepted 132 students.

Ucas has witnessed enormous growth in the number of courses on offer and a growing number of students eager for places. Ross Hayman, a Ucas spokesman, puts it down to the rising number of jobs for people with sports qualifications.

"The growth in the number of courses and applications reflects the growing employment market for people with sports-related qualifications, not just among traditional sporting jobs, but also in sports management.

"In the past year, there has been a 7.8 per cent rise in the number of students taking up places in sports-related subjects. The number of places offered in sports-related subjects is definitely growing, yet the courses are still oversubscribed.

"It is definitely one of the fastest growing subjects, although not as fast as computer science, but it is certainly growing faster than a subject such as chemistry, which has seen a 9.3 per cent fall in students taking up places."

The fitness boom gripping the nation shows no sign of abating, and it is estimated that 100 new health clubs will open next year. Sports analysts in the City are sounding a word of caution, however. One City broker said last month that unless every member of the British population unexpectedly become fitness fanatics, the UK will reach saturation point by 2003.

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