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.