Natasha Loder reports on the NUS campaign for Wednesday afternoons
Traditional Wednesday afternoon sports at universities are under threat despite growing demand for more professional facilities from budding athletes.
By 2000 half the United Kingdom's top athletes are expected to be in higher education and this presents a challenge: how to provide the specialist training facilities they need while ensuring that all students have a chance to participate in their favourite sports.
Sport has come a long way in universities since the start of the century when traditional games such as rugby, football, cricket and boxing were dominated by a male upper-class clique.
Jim Ellis, from the British Association of University Sports, said: "The biggest club in any university today will probably be the aerobics club."
Sports centres are a focal point for very different kinds of students of all ages and nationalities. They offer a variety of activities, ranging from snowboarding and rock climbing to judo and yoga.
The most popular sports are non-competitive, which may be connected to the greater participation of women. For many, opportunities at university provide the springboard for a lifelong involvement with a sport.
But doing sports takes time and money for facilities, equipment, fixtures and kit. And alongside the squeeze in finances for both student and university that can work against participation, there is the pressure to timetable courses on the traditional Wed-nesday sports slot.
Iona Wakely, of the NUS national executive, said: "In general it (free Wednesday afternoons) seems to have died down a bit but there are some institutions that have maintained it and are very supportive."
Ms Wakely sees support of Wednesday afternoons as crucial for providing students with extra skills and is running an event in support of the traditional time-tabling.
Extracurricular activities are important to students' development, she said. They make them more rounded individuals and teach them skills that employers want, such as teamwork and self-discipline.
Demand for more facilities is strong. The Committee of Vice- Chancellors and Principals has reported demand for 50 new sports halls, 30 pools, five tennis centres and more than 50 artificial pitches. Hopes of construction are largely pinned on National Lottery money.
But even if these one-off sums can be found, running costs present a problem. Increasingly students are having to share their facilities with the public - with the money either subsidising expansion or warranting support via lottery funding, corporate sponsorship, European funds, the private finance initiative or other external sources.
For elite athletes the story is very different. There are a growing number of sports scholarships and commercial sponsorships on offer. In 1996, 35 universities and higher education institutions were operating sports scholarship schemes. Loughborough University, with a reputation for its athletic training, had eight alumni at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996. It provides elite athletes for 13 national squads. But while scholarships are welcome, their typical value - of about Pounds 1,000 a year - falls short of need.
In the United States, college sport is hugely successful, attracting popular support and large financial investments - allowing colleges to build top facilities and fund first-class coaching and teaching. In the UK loyalties focus on the local soccer club rather than university teams.
There are some notable exceptions. Oxford and Cambridge attract crowds of 70,000 to their rugby matches and large sponsorship deals. And recent moves see Oxford building a multi-million pound athletics centre to raise the university's profile and attract the best sports people.
It is accepted that training top athletes in universities requires more than money - universities need to take a flexible attitude towards study periods, exam times and even workloads if students are going to be able to compete at the highest levels while coping with the demands of their academic career.