Universities in the UK should lower their entry requirements for students with sporting talent, an Olympian and university chancellor has said.
Steve Cram, who won silver in the 1,500m at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and is now an athletics commentator for the BBC, warned that unless universities started to give more consideration to sporting ability when recruiting students, they would be denying young sportspeople access to the best facilities in the UK and, potentially, the opportunity to develop their skills and represent their country.
“I think we should be offering more…sports scholarships and yes, bend a little bit if someone’s exam results aren’t quite what we want them to be,” said Mr Cram, who has been chancellor of the University of Sunderland since 2008.
“[If] they might have a chance of going to the Olympic Games in the rowing team or the athletics team, then help them out.”
In a podcast interview for Times Higher Education, Mr Cram, who is also a world, European and Commonwealth gold medallist, was joined by Bill Tancred, director of sport at University Campus Suffolk and a former Commonwealth and Olympic discus thrower.
Professor Tancred, who completed his doctorate in sports management at West Virginia University in the 1970s, said there was much that UK higher education could learn from its counterpart across the Atlantic to boost the perception of sport.
“I was completely in awe of the professionalism,” he said of his time in the US, although he added that the UK had begun to catch up, particularly at institutions such as Loughborough University that have built their reputation on strong sport offerings.
However, he suggested that the “credible” work of coaches and smaller sports departments at universities other than sports-focused institutions such as Loughborough and the University of Bath needed to be highlighted.
Figures from the Higher Education Funding Council for England show that 94 per cent of the sector was involved with the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in some capacity.
Mr Cram said that it was important to raise the image of sport in the university sector as a whole rather than developing “centres of excellence” at one or two institutions - something that required “really big investment”, a fact that could deter many universities from participating.
“Where we maybe haven’t caught up [with the US]…in the education sector is in accepting that there is nothing wrong with having a good sports programme,” he said, pointing out that many US universities attract top students because of their sporting reputation.
“The danger is that everyone thinks if I’m not going to Loughborough or I’m not going to Bath, then I’ve got no chance of succeeding, and we don’t want that,” Mr Cram added.
“We want to have lots of other satellite places where we’re still delivering the broad experience from the introduction [to sport] but right through to high performance if we can.”