Common health games

August 25, 1995

Universities should stop pandering to a small elite of athletes and instead promote fitness for the masses by scrapping playing fields in favour of multipurpose indoor sports centres, argues Richard Cox.

Sport is high on the agenda of most universities in the United Kingdom- arguably for the first time in more than half a century. The prime minister's personal crusade to make Britain a world power in international sport, the availability of National Lottery money for capital sports projects and the intensification of competition between universities to attract the diminishing market of quality students are all contributory factors. So what should be the sporting priorities of universities in the 1990s?

One option is to make no provision for sport whatsoever. This does have support - at least among university administrators - because of the absence of any legal obligation to provide sports facilities, the cost of maintaining existing ones (many of which need major refurbishment), the introduction of Wednesday afternoon teaching and the demand on space. The key argument against going down this road is that sport plays an important part in student recruitment and in the quality of life at university.

A survey of University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology students suggests that, while sport was not the preeminent reason for choosing the institute (the nature of the courses on offer and the pull of the city were more significant), just over half did expect to play some sport at some level during their time at UMIST. More tenuous reasons for providing sporting facilities include reduced absenteeism, increased productivity, improved social relations, greater job satisfaction and the promotion of corporate identity.

If one is to accept the weight of the argument for making some form of provision, then the next question is what kind of sporting opportunities should we provide? Some institutions, aware of differing demands and traditions, have attempted to be all things to all men and women, catering for inter-varsity sport, intra-mural competition as well as for casual recreation. Commendable as this is, it is not always feasible and is certainly not the best use of limited resources. A policy designed to produce elite performers and to achieve success in inter-varsity competition (as advocated by the prime minister) is inappropriate for most of the 150 universities in Britain.

To achieve pre-eminence in this respect, it is increasingly necessary to have a large pool of students from which to choose team representatives, a large department of physical education or sports science with all the extensive on-site facilities and technical back-up (Birmingham, Exeter, Loughborough), easy access to quality teams and facilities (golf at St Andrews, rowing at Nottingham) a tradition of excellence in sport (Oxford and Cambridge) and/or an affirmative recruitment policy for outstanding athletes (Durham and Swansea).

Elite performers have usually developed their skills by joining local clubs, especially since the demise of extracurricular sport. At UMIST, this is encouraged by establishing close relationships with clubs in the community. In future, increased movement between institutions - caused by the modular degree structure and credit transfer system - will undoubtedly detract from a student's sense of belonging to one institution and the desire to identify with it through representative sport.

Just as success in sport helps to raise morale, to promote self-esteem, confidence and a sense of identity, so lack of success usually has the opposite effect. In recent years, some teams at sports-oriented Loughborough University have inflicted humiliating defeats on inferior sides, notching up devastating scores, often more than 100 goals/points to nil (in both hockey and rugby). Yet it was precisely the sense of being made to feel inadequate that put thousands of young people off sport at school. Certainly a growing number of teams now default on their matches when drawn away to the big guns in the knock-out phase of the British Universities Sports Association competition, considering it a waste of time, effort and money.

There are other factors making it difficult for institutions to put up representative sides, including larger leagues, additional rounds and competitions in BUSA tournaments, and escalating expenses for travel, venue hire, and officials' expenses. To take existing UMIST teams 50 miles to Bradford for one of the regional rounds of the BUSA competition on a Wednesday afternoon costs more than Pounds 1,000 in travel alone.

Finally, while success in varsity sport might attract a certain amount of public attention (although the experience of the World Student Games in Sheffield in 1991 would suggest otherwise), it will not necessarily generate the right sort of publicity: that is, publicity to enhance the image of the university as an institution of academic excellence. Indeed, in some instances, it can have the reverse effect. Even if the negative elements such as the increasing instances of rowdy behaviour among teams are ignored, there is often an implicit assumption that success in sport is achieved at the expense of something else - if not an imbalance of brain and brawn, then an imbalance of time and resources allocated to the playing fields and gym rather than to the library and classroom.

It would be better for most universities in Britain to stop trying to provide first-class facilities that are only ever required by a handful of elite athletes. Instead, they should devote resources to promoting mass participation in health-related fitness activities such as swimming or working out at the gym.

And if mass participation is to be the primary goal, then multipurpose indoor sports centres must have priority over playing fields, since playing fields usually cater for only a small proportion of students and offer few opportunities for staff. Turf pitches can only be used once a week on average during winter (usually during daylight hours and only when weather allows). By contrast, an indoor facility can be used two-thirds of the day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Staff and students can reap all the benefits that more traditional field sports have to offer in less time and with a greater degree of safety (most injuries occur in highly competitive contact sports like rugby and soccer). Compare, for example, the efficiency of a 30-minute work-out on a hi-tech programmable aerobic training machine (with graphic displays of fictitious competitors and feedback on heart rate, distance travelled, calories burned) with a 30-minute drive to the playing fields and a five-hour game of cricket interrupted by periods of rain. There are considerable financial differences too. It costs around Pounds 1,800 a year to support each member of the UMIST cricket and football teams, compared with Pounds 15 a year for each user of the sports centre.

It is likely that many people would be saddened to see the loss of playing fields, and romantics would perceive the loss of cricket and football to be a further erosion of an important part of our national heritage. Yet, when priorities have to be determined, it is difficult to justify retaining facilities that are expensive to maintain and that cater for only a small minority of students and staff.

Also, more attention should be directed to fulfilling the wishes of the large number of students who like such challenging and alternative sports as canoeing, hang-gliding, horse-riding, wind-surfing and the martial arts. These are activities that can be organised relatively cheaply by students or through outside agencies and do not require the universities to provide any specialist facilities. The handful of advantaged universities can carry on fighting the expensive and time-consuming battles on the playing fields if they wish, but it is time for the rest of us to focus on the masses.

Richard Cox is director of sport, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

Interviews by John Davies.

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