Widening participation has given university sports an opportunity that must not be squandered, says Richard Cox.
The 18-22 age group is important for athletes in most sports. It may not be when they reach their peak, but it is a critical transitional period in their development into successful sportspeople.
As ever more 18-22-year-olds pass through higher education, students proportionally represent the greatest percentage of future international athletes. But student sport is not widely linked with or supported by the national governing bodies running sports. One reason is that the student-governed British Universities Sports Association puts as its priority Sport for All rather than excellence, so players tend to be of varying levels of skill.
Some time ago, I pleaded for the higher performance end of university sport to be outsourced to clubs in the local community, but now, in partnership with other organisations, many universities are owners, operators or hosts of major facilities, award scholarships and employ specialist coaches. This opens up real opportunities for the nurturing of talent.
Manchester, for example, has three large universities next door to the highly prestigious Manchester Aquatics Centre. There is sufficient strength in the student squad to compete successfully at a high level and British Swimming is considering a proposal for a national student league to develop student swimming in much the same way as the English and Welsh Cricket Board, with its six centres of excellence, has promoted student cricket. Surely it is only a matter of time before other sports follow suit? Resources are necessary, but once student sport has been promoted to a good standard, is well run with national governing bodies support, it will start to attract media interest from which sponsorship will flow.
The major obstacles are probably theBritish Universities Sports Association with its stranglehold on the World Student Games, and the athletic unions.
While talented, committed sportspeople will always want to go where they can develop their skills, some of their less gifted team-mates do not want to lose the opportunity to participate in nationwide competition. Such teams, depleted of their talented players (drawn into the proposed national leagues) should perhaps be entered into local leagues at the weekend and have expanded intra-mural competition programmes on Wednesday afternoons. If these leagues are spread across large conurbations, standards could improve without incurring heavy transport costs. But this calls into the question the role of Busa in inter-varsity sport and that of athletic unions in determining policy and distributing resources.
It has often been said that the voluntary amateur spirit in British sport that was once its great strength is now one of its greatest weaknesses. Apart from a handful of progressive institutions, resources for university teams are in the hands of nominally elected 18-22-year-old Athletic Union officers in post for, at best, 12 months. Most representative teams are of mediocre standing and yet they are often provided with the best-quality equipment and left to their own devices to swim or sink.
If universities are to take up this opportunity for the temporary custody and nurturing of sporting talent they must have the recognition of the national governing bodies and they must maximise opportunities for personal development. They must engage in a higher standard of competition to win much-needed financial support and public interest. Student athletes should have a broader choice of universities from which to select. This may also provide a wider pool of students for sport. Moreover, engaging with the wider community is not only financially beneficial but can help promote the universities' need for wider access.
Richard Cox is director of sport at Umist.
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