Sports science: Shaping up to take the lead in race for students

September 5, 2003

Sports science is becoming a heavyweight discipline, Esther Ingram writes in the latest of our series on the state of academic study.

Sport and exercise science has never been in such good shape. Once derided as a "Mickey Mouse" subject, the discipline is now punching above its weight in the academic stakes.

David Jones, professor of sports and exercise sciences at Birmingham University, said: "There used to be a good deal of snobbery and a disparaging attitude from other departments such as chemistry. They've had to eat their words, though, because we've received such high research ratings and attracted so many good students. We're now subsidising other departments financially."

Professor Jones' words are borne out by statistics. In the 2001 research assessment exercise, five departments were awarded 5* status. None achieved this in 1996. In contrast, one physiology department received the top rating.

According to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the number of places on sports science courses rocketed from 3,837 in 1997 to 7,024 in 2002 to meet increasing student demand. At Stirling University, the single honours sport studies course this year received more applications than the entire arts faculty.

"Our reputation is growing," said Les Burwitz, head of the 5*-rated sports and exercise department at Manchester Metropolitan University. "If anyone looks at our research output, they will see that we publish in the very same journals as the people who throw stones at us.

"We are the jewel in the crown of our institution, which looks to us to give lead and guidance. In the 1992 RAE we were rated 3, in 1996, 4, and in 2001, 5*, so others want to know how they can get there."

Morale within the discipline appears to be correspondingly high. "Sports and exercise science in the UK is buoyant, and the discipline has exploded, with more research, teaching and fieldwork than ever before," said Stuart Biddle, head of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University.

UK research also appears to be holding its own on the international stage.

Thomas Reilly, professor of sports science at Liverpool John Moores University, said: "We don't have a brain drain from the UK like some subjects, and our research is seen as some of the strongest in the world."

But there are problems associated with such rapid growth. Despite huge student demand, there is concern that there are far too many sports science-related courses, of variable quality, available. Ucas figures back this up. The number of courses offered with the word "sport" in the title has risen sharply from 1,443 in 2001 to a projected 1,916 in 2004.

Professor Burwitz said: "Some students (in other institutions) get no hands-on laboratory experience. Sports science has become a sexy subject.

Some institutions jump on the bandwagon just to get students in."

To achieve the government's aim of 50 per cent higher education participation, the wider sports studies field is attempting a culture change to accommodate the broader range of people it needs to teach.

Professor Reilly said: "The discipline has expanded to meet a greater diversity of students in an atmosphere of widening participation."

Funding is another concern. Professor Burwitz said: "Twenty-five per cent of our staff are externally funded. The government is no longer keeping pace with providing the staff to do the job, therefore we have to look outside in order to balance top-class research, teaching and links with the community."

Forming links with the community is a topic close to the heart of the minister for sport, Richard Caborn, who in November 2002 accused leading UK sports science departments of failing to use their latest scientific developments to benefit the public, focusing instead on elite athletes.

Professor Jones said: "This is untrue, it's almost the reverse. The only money available is in researching health and exercise in relation to disease prevention. This means that we are moving away from sport and working less with sports people. Sport England (which oversees national sports policy) has no research budget or strategy. If it put £1 million into sports research, we would happily do it."

Talking to The THES this week, however, Mr Caborn appeared more conciliatory. He said: "There is now a repositioning to make sure that what we find with elite athletes can benefit the general populace. There is a need to use all the assets and facilities of sports science and sports medicine to help the nation become healthier and fitter."

Clyde Williams, chairman of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences, which meets this week, welcomes the public role his discipline can play. He said: "In terms of the government's health agenda, we hope that we, the experts, will be consulted. Government ministers when mentioning health should also mention exercise and refer people to the professionals in sport and exercise science. They should consult us when producing manifestos."

On the agenda: top students, national health and calls for cash


Clyde Williams, professor of sports science, University of Loughborough, and chairman of the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences
"Professors of chemistry and physics are delighted to run joint honours courses with us because we attract such good students. Our MSc students are producing work of publishable quality. Some go overseas to do PhDs, and those countries are delighted to have UK students."

Les Burwitz, professor of sports and exercise at Manchester Metropolitan University
"At the top of the tree, students' aspirations today are no different than they used to be. But now people have a wider range of job opportunities that they can pursue."

Stuart Biddle, head of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough
"At the top end of the scale, the students are extremely good. Our standard offer next year will be three A grades at A level. But there is also a large number of programmes available up and down the country, so the spread in quality is greater than before."


David Collins, professor of physical education and sport performance, University of Edinburgh
"The subject contributes a staggering amount to the country, by encouraging a physical, active lifestyle, saving huge amounts of money in health and improving the physiological and psychological welfare of the nation."

Niall MacFarlane, lecturer at the Centre for Exercise Science and Medicine, University of Glasgow
"At Glasgow, most of our research is into diseases such as obesity. Also, Glasgow is European City for Sport this year, so we have spent the summer giving tutorials and workshops to the public on sports science and exercise physiology."

Stuart Galloway, senior lecturer in sports studies, University of Stirling
"There are initiatives being set up by National Health Service hospitals and academic departments to address, for example, weight management and osteoporosis. The discipline definitely helps the public health agenda and has practical value."

Roger Harris, research professor in physiology and chair in sports science, University College Chichester
"Sports and exercise science at its best has enormous application to society - past, present and future. It provides one of the major ways forward in terms of preventive medicine."


David Jones, professor of sports and exercise sciences, University of Birmingham
"If the government wants to educate 50 per cent of the population, we have to understand that we won't have uniform education throughout the country. Some institutions will be academic and research oriented, others will be more vocational. The two are of equal importance."

Professor Burwitz, Manchester Metropolitan
"Research funding for elite sport has dwindled. But some applied work is still going on. For instance, we have a biomechanist working with the Paralympics team. This sort of research generates a knowledge base and new equipment to give athletes an edge in competition."

Dr Galloway, Stirling
"You can focus on elite sport and health within the same department. But funding sources are definitely being directed towards developing health and encouraging physical activity."

Susan Ward, head of the School of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Leeds
"In terms of 'pure' research, say exercise physiology or biochemistry, there is no more problem getting funding than for any other kind of research. But as the subject becomes more applied and multidisciplinary, it doesn't fit into the research councils' remits. This could hold back research."

Professor Williams, Loughborough
"It's quite heartening that governments in other countries are citing UK research into health and exercise."

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