Sports-park model is a winner, Surrey claims

Commercial set-up could set gold standard, but union criticises job contracts. Simon Baker writes

June 24, 2010

Cash-strapped universities in need of new sports facilities should look to the building of a "unique" state-of-the-art complex at the University of Surrey for inspiration, a vice-chancellor has said.

The £36 million Surrey Sports Park, launched last month, has been set up as a commercial business to avoid the park becoming an expensive subsidy draining the institution's finances in years to come.

However, the move has angered some Surrey staff, who believe the park is a "money-making exercise" offering inferior working contracts for new employees.

As well as providing students with world-class facilities such as an adjustable 50m pool and three sports halls, the park also hopes to attract elite athletes.

China is considering the park as its base for the London 2012 Olympics and top-flight rugby union club Harlequins is already using the complex to train. It will also host the 2010 Women's Rugby World Cup, which starts in August.

Surrey said it would save about £750,000 a year through the arrangement, which it claims will also offer students cheaper sports facilities than other universities.

The recent sale of a highly successful satellite technology firm for £50 million helped Surrey to fund the enterprise, but vice-chancellor Christopher Snowden said that, the source of the investment aside, the model should be seen as an example to the sector.

"If universities want to have very high-quality sports centres, they have to look at something like this model. I don't think in the near future there will be the big funding levels to support these kinds of facilities," he said.

The launch of the sports park comes at a time of high interest in such facilities among UK universities, which are keen to demonstrate that they are offering students the best possible experience in light of the financial contribution they make through fees.

However, the ambitions of estates teams may have been stymied by funding allocations unveiled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in March. Capital-project funding has been cut by £135 million, or 15 per cent, for 2010-11.

New members of staff at the Surrey Sports Park are employed on different terms and conditions than those at the university - saving about 30 per cent a year.

However, terms and conditions for existing employees have been protected.

Sue Gomm, chair of the university's Unison branch, said: "We welcome the park as a great sporting facility for all; but greatly regret the decision of the university management to employ (new) staff on significantly inferior terms and conditions, compared with the staff employed by the university; and not to recognise the campus trade unions.

"This view has been put formally at joint negotiating meetings. Our branch will continue to recruit among sports staff with a long-term view, if those staff support it, of seeking recognition for trade unions."

simon.baker@tsleducation.com

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