The THES continues its series on subjects at the top and bottom of the popularity stakes. Sports
THE popularity of physical education and sports science degrees has increased enormously in recent years although our European competitors are still leading the academic field, writes Alan Thomson.
PE and associated disciplines such as sports science, leisure studies and recreational management have seen massive growth over the past decade. This reflects a growing awareness within society of the benefits of sport and also the increased amount of leisure time available to people.
But countries such as France, Spain, Germany and Italy invest more in the academic study of PE than the United Kingdom. This is often reflected by international success in a wider range of sports.
Loughborough University's PE, sports science and recreation management department is one of only three institutions to gain an excellent five rating for sports-related subjects in the last research assessment exercise. The others were Birmingham and Liverpool John Moores.
Loughborough is bidding, as part of a consortium, to run the Pounds 100 million British Academy of Sport. This reflects the confidence and expertise of a department which provides academic support for most of the nation's top sportsmen and women through sport governing bodies. Sheffield University is part of another consortium bidding for the academy.
Three single-honours sports-related subjects are on offer at Loughborough; PE and sports science, sports science and recreational management, and recreational management. Six joint-honours programmes allow undergraduates to study PE and sports sciences with maths, physics, chemistry, English, geography and social sciences. Nearly 3,500 people applied for 264 places this year.
Many doing the single honours PE and sports sciences will go on to become PE teachers. Those doing recreational elements may gravitate to the leisure industry.
Career paths for joint honours graduates are more diverse. For example, many of those who study PE and sports sciences with English do so because they are interested in sports journalism.
Those who include geography tend to be more interested in recreational management and planning and link this with demographics. Chemistry-oriented graduates can be interested in pharmacology and in work in sports nutrition or sport and drugs.
David Bunker, senior undergraduate course tutor, said: "I think that sport is a very important modern phenomenon. It encompasses everything from elite performance to purely recreational sport. Part of the growth in popularity of university courses is due not only to people having more leisure time but also to the increased popularity of these subjects at A level.
"Despite this we are still behind the levels of sport education provided in other nations. This is due mainly to a lack of money. I think the British Academy of Sport would make a difference helping us to be compared to France, Spain, Italy and even Germany."
Around 60 of the country's top sportsmen and women study at Loughborough thanks to its scholarship programme. Only the elite who have proven or potential international status are admitted.
The financial benefits are significant and scholarship holders receive other benefits including priority access to physiotherapists and training equipment.
One of the country's oldest university PE departments is at Birmingham. It was started just after the second world war. But since then the university has changed the nature of its sports education. It now offers 40 single-honours BSc sports sciences and exercise science places a year where the emphasis is firmly on the science.
A Birmingham University spokesman said: "We shifted the emphasis from actual performance to science in order to lend the whole subject area more rigour. Our graduates may therefore be good, and sometimes top, sports people but they also have solid grounding in science."
Competition for places is intense with 20 people applying for each of the 40 BSc places. An additional 70 or so places are available each year for those who wish to study sport and exercise science in combination with other disciplines like psychology, recreation studies, geography and mathematics.
New technology has made a great difference to all PE and sports sciences departments in the UK. Computers have proved very useful when analysing body movement and sporting technique.
The Centre for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores is trying to create a database of the golf swings of the world's leading players.
Tools such as this will greatly improve coaching not only in golf but many other sports which lend themselves to such technical analysis.
* There were 6,142 people enrolled on physical education courses in 1996, excluding those doing associated courses in sports science and recreational management. This is a substantial increase on the 5,744 people enrolled in PE, sports science, leisure studies and recreational management in 1995.
* In 1996 there were eight applicants for each place available on a PE course. Applications for PE and sports science, which are now coded together, stood at 31,866 by June this year.
Source: UCAS and HESA