This article is more than 5 years old

Evidencing the role of sport and physical activity

This article is more than 5 years old

Richard Medcalf is the Director of the Institute of Sport and Human Sciences at the University of Wolverhampton

It’s not news to anyone that there are competing demands for budgets in any university.

The investment in facilities and programmes associated with university sport are not immune to institutional perspectives on how to spend capital funds, and in the uncertain times of the present the choices about how best to allocate those funds are becoming ever more pressured. So what role might sport and physical activity assume in the landscape of such competing demands?

People love sport

You won’t have to look too hard on a university campus to find advocates for sport and physical activity. We know the evidence base which reaffirms how important they can be for our physical and mental wellbeing. However, given that in fiscal terms it is most often a cost rather than a provider of ‘profit’, it becomes more difficult when you try to demonstrate any relationship between physical activity and the most common university KPIs of recruitment, retention, and positive student outcomes and perceptions.

Can we establish a link between those who participate in university sport and those who are more likely to stay on their course of study? Those who are more employable? The students who are more satisfied with their university experience? Does the provision of facilities and programmes for physical activity result in students staying on campus for longer (think ‘sticky campus’), or students with a greater sense of belonging to their university? I would argue that they do, but in the spirit of the academy we must seek the evidence for these claims. I continue to challenge myself and my team to do exactly that.

We need the evidence

Accepting my inherent biases, I believe we need to do more to better evidence the great contribution that sport makes to the life of a university. The dis-investment in sport at Northumbria University was widely reported last year. I’m sure there will be many other such examples where the investment in sporting provision is very closely looked at if it can’t evidence a return. The difference may also come between those universities who have invested in facilities over the past decade and now have to demonstrate a return on investment, and those who are in the position of arguing for resource to develop sports facilities at a time of increasing financial pressure.

The perennial ‘scandals’ which seem to pop up around some sports will continue to make such claims more difficult if cultures aren’t addressed. It is now vital for those involved in sport to take on the challenge to evidence how critical it can be to the fabric of a university and the student experience that it offers. It is incumbent upon those involved in the strategic delivery of sport and physical activity in our universities to speak the language of Governors and senior executives. If we want sport to rise up the list of investment choices made by universities, at times of constrained resources and high borrowing (in some cases), those of us involved in sport need to also contribute to the on-going ‘value for money’ debate. A year ago the OfS/Wonke published its work on the matter which included the view that leisure/sports should be subsidised (not entirely funded) by tuition fees. This will likely lead to more partnership facilities being developed – creating physical and functional links between universities and their neighbouring provisions for sport and recreation services.

How is sport offered?

The ways in which this might be achieved may differ dependent upon whether your HEI offers sport as a subject of academic study, or purely has a provision for student sport through student unions or other such arrangements. The most recent British Active Students Survey from BUCS has argued that if students are active they will have higher perceptions of attainment and employability. I continue to see the need for robust evidence which places those relationships into the language of university executive. National trends help with this, but I emphasise the need for the local context within the data being used.

At Wolverhampton we’re trying a few small steps to make this happen. We’ve developed a university sports board to connect this agenda into the decision making bodies of the university. We’ve combined the academic provision of sport with the participatory and performance arms of our offer to students and staff, to align the intentions of both under one organisational framework. And, importantly, we’re attaching student sport engagement to our student records system so we can see if there’s any relationship between students who participate and the wider university KPIs.

I also think it’s important that we share the gospel of physical activity to our staff and student communities, and whilst we work on ways to evidence the link to KPIs we continue to promote the benefits of a physically active time at university.

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8 responses to “Evidencing the role of sport and physical activity

  1. Very well put Richard and something that, as Chair of the newly formed British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Research Group, is top of our list. One of our aims is to work with universities to try and develop this research to better evidence the value of sport to the breadth of student experience and wider university strategic areas but, as you have highlighted well, there are challenges with this for example where universities may not have the infrastructure in place to measure physical activity or sports participation effectively to track with KPIs. Progress with Learner Analytics and advancements in digital technology in universities I hope will help with this.

  2. Hi Richard,

    An interesting and important article. We at NTU systematically track the academic outcomes of students who take part in a range of extra-curricular interventions. Engagement in such pursuits is critical to the student experience. And our latest statistical analysis suggests this is very much the case for opportunities in sport.

    We have found that membership in sports clubs and/or the University gyms, is strongly associated with higher degree classifications and higher rates of progression to further study or professional, graduate level employment. These trends hold when statistically controlling for other key influential factors, including pre-entry qualifications, degree subject area and students’ characteristics (gender, ethnicity, socio-economics etc.) – although it should be noted that the unknown ‘self-selection’ factor could be an additional influencer.

    We are currently reviewing the literature pertaining to the relationship between participation in sport and student health and well-being and any associated influence on their success. We’ll be writing up our findings in due course.

    We also looked at the characteristics of students who take part in particular types of sport and found that existing stereotypes often ring true – e.g. rugby union, hockey, rowing were very much dominated by ‘white, middle class’ students, whilst students from BME and/or widening participation backgrounds were particularly well represented across more ‘working class’ sports – e.g. boxing, basketball, men’s football. These findings have given us food for thought on how we might encourage different student groups to participate in a wide range of sporting opportunities.

    In terms of gym membership, students from low income backgrounds were less likely take up a subscription. With the strong association we’d found between membership and improved student outcomes, we sought to equalise participation by offering a 50% discount to our low income students. Subscription rates have increased considerably as a result and we will be monitoring the learning outcomes of beneficiaries.

    Putting my Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes (TASO) hat on, I agree wholeheartedly that we need to do more to evidence the contributions that sport and other extra-curricular interventions can make to the student experience, both before and after graduation. To this end, we have put out an evidence call to the sector. Should you establish any more evidence links following your timely article, I’d appreciate you signposting our evidence call.

    Best wishes

    Mike Kerrigan
    Strategic Data & Intelligence Manager, Nottingham Trent University
    Deputy Director (Establishment Phase), The Centre for Transforming Access and Student Outcomes

  3. A great article Richard which articulates some of the challenges BUCS face in communicating the value and relevance of sport and physical activity to the wide variety of institutions we have in membership and raises some really interesting questions.

    Julie has already commented on the new BUCS Research Group and the need for us to evidence the impact of what we do which will be vital in the coming years. I’ve often talked about the need to be “multi-lingual” when seeking to communicate with university leaders as the Finance Director will want a specific set of data whilst the PVC responsible for student experience will require a different type of communication or story. Sport and physical activity as a sector generally needs to be better at providing the evidence and creating the impactful narrative to really improve the understanding of the importance of what we do for HE and the wider society.

    Investment in the sporting infrastructure of HE has been significant in recent years and whilst I would love to say this is driven by competing in BUCS competitions I am not naïve enough to think that recruitment, retention and the experience of students and staff are actually the driving forces behind this. This is a good thing as it places sport in a strategically important position rather than as a peripheral service. It would make a huge impact if sport and physical activity were referenced in university corporate plans which is not the case for the majority at the moment – an indication of the challenge of communicating our impact more effectively!

    In terms of culture you are again absolutely right. In my experience a good news story from sport lasts for a term whilst a bad news story can last for years in the corporate memory! BUCS is working with several partners and NGB’s to address the negative culture of initiations and to create great leaders amongst the students who engage with us. It feels at times like society has moved on (less young people drinking, using recreational drugs, more environmentally aware, greater awareness of mental health etc) whist some elements of sport remain routed in an irrelevant and outdated history or tradition which is holding the sport back in terms of maintaining participation levels from school to HE and HE into community clubs. At BUCS we know this will be a challenge but we’ve set off on the road and would encourage our members and other partners to help us address this issue. UUK are also looking at this.

    Sport and physical activity at university is a wonderful thing which we all inherently “know”, it is time now to evidence this and shout loudly about it!

  4. HI Mike, thanks for your reply. In a previous life (when managing our TEF submission) I visited NTU and met with Ed Foster – was great to hear more about your analytics work. Pleased this is extended to engagement in sport and PA too, we’re still just exploring how this might be embedded into pre-existing systems rather than looking at a new analytics platform in its own right. Sure much of the sector are currently doing the same. I’d love to read more about the analysis you mention at the start of your reply – has it been published yet?

  5. Hi Richard. Not published yet but watch this space. Hoping to publish the main findings on wonkHE soon. My analysis on NTU Sport participants and their learner outcomes is separate to Ed’s student dashboard (we are looking at the feasibility of integrating systems in due course), so there are ways and means of embedding into pre-existing systems. Drop me an email at if you want to discuss more. Thanks.

  6. Hi Richard,

    After attending the BUCS Senior Managers Network recently, a colleague at NTU Sport mentioned this article and your work. It is a very insightful piece of research and I fully agree with everyone comments above.

    Aside my role as Head of Sport at University of Brighton I am Chair of English University Sport and we are always keen to work with others on highlighting value of sport and breadth of student experience it can afford to many diverse student populations.

    Look forward to following this research further within the wider network.


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