This article is more than 1 year old

Physical activity matters more than ever in the Covid-19 fight back

This article is more than 1 year old

Vince Mayne is Chief Executive at British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS)

Student sport has been raised in parliament to the PM – with a positive, if not quite “get ready for Wednesday” response. But beyond the enthusiasm, there are so many questions right now that surround student sport.

Surfing for example might meet all social-distancing restrictions both for competitors and spectators, but getting students from all points of the compass to a Cornish beach wouldn’t be possible using cars or minibuses currently.

Combat sport by its very nature would not meet social-distancing requirements so would not be possible. And what about team sports like hockey or netball, are most racket sports ok due to the nature of the sport? But what about changing rooms? And showers? The list of questions goes on.

On campus, what about gyms? Currently it looks like a 200-station gym might only be able to cater for approximately 70 people, dependent on floor space, so is it worth opening, or moving the gym to a sports hall space to cater for more people?

In the lead up to the lockdown, the BUCS Executive started planning for some of the likely immediate impacts – the cancellation of fixtures and events, closing our office in London, and gearing up for staff to be able to work from home.

But minds quickly turned to what a return to a delivery situation might be like – our own version of the “new normal” – when might it happen, and what would “it” look like?


We quickly established a set of key principles to help guide our scenario planning:

  • Health and safety of students
  • Health and safety of all support staff – event, medical, venue/facility etc
  • Student experience, including quality of teams and officials in competitions
  • Financial impact – responsibility to use members’ funds wisely

Discussions took place under a framework of potential timescales within higher education and have involved the BUCS Board, Senior Managers Executive and conversations with individual members – as well as external partners such as UK Sport, Sport England and various National Governing Bodies.

As an organisation of and in higher education, BUCS sits at the end of a long decision making chain – the majority of which sits outside of its control or influence. From our perspective, this this chain looks something like:

  1. Government decisions regarding changes to lockdown, social distancing and other restrictions
  2. Any potential Government intervention on a financial basis for higher education (which looks like it might be on an individual provider basis only)
  3. Institutional decisions around budget and the restrictions they may need to impose
  4. Directors and Heads of Sport decisions on their delivery – based on budget restrictions they have imposed by their institutions
  5. National Governing Body responses to the situation, and based on their own and Government medical advice how they plan to return to any grassroots competitive competitions – critical for BUCS in terms of officials etc for competitions.

Only once these decisions have been made will BUCS be able to offer any concrete delivery framework.

The scenario framework which we worked under used 4 potential start points as follows:

  • “Normal” start date for the academic year in late Sept/early October with students on campus
  • A delayed start to term – potentially early Nov – with limited student on campus until this time
  • No students on campus during Term 1 leading to a start to any events or competitions in January 2021
  • No students on campus during Terms 1 and 2 leading to a start to any events or competitions in Term 3 only

We also tried to build into our considerations things like student recruitment (both domestic and international) and how this might affect member institutions – and students’ willingness to participate in competitive sport.

Flesh on the bones

To improve the planning, BUCS is also hosting a series of workshops through our Senior Managers Network to gather key information from members about specific challenges, how sport is seen at institution level in the coming academic year, and how people might see BUCS responding to the changing situation.

This is being mirrored by the establishment of a Student Advisory Group to engage with the end users and ask for their input as to what BUCS delivery might be like for them. We are also surveying the 140,000 students who have registered on BUCSPlay to find out what their intentions and expectations about sport and physical activity might be when they return to university in the coming academic year.

As well as arrangements for competitive sport, we have also switched delivery and established #GetBUCSActive – an online portal for people to find either a live or streamed exercise session for them to do at home. The content is provided by member organisations and presents a great service to members, and is a huge opportunity to test new, virtual delivery which will probably be with us from here on.

To say that this process is complex is a huge understatement – but that’s true for all of us right now. Having something definitive to tie to is impossible at present, but is much needed by everyone.

Back to the future

Sport in higher education has huge value. There’s the economic value of student recruitment because of the sporting programme or facilities on offer, the employability of students who have played sport for their institution, the creation of a “sticky campus” where sport is the glue which engages students on their campus, and the civic engagement that sport can engender – to help break down the walls of the perceived ivory towers in a community.

BUCS’ task is to identify where these exist and ensure the offering remains relevant, impactful and valued by its member organisations – and that may not be the same offering in the immediate future as we delivered in the past, but it may not be about wholesale change forever either.

There is clear evidence from the British Active Student Survey (amongst a myriad of other academic papers) that being physically active has a positive impact on people mental and physical wellbeing. Indeed those who go to the gym and play sport are more resilient, have higher aspirations for their degree and future employability (and are more employable and earn more!) than their more sedentary student colleagues.

The importance of physical activity at a time when people’s wellbeing is under significant challenge is therefore a critical one, and not only for the student cohort – but also for the staff working in higher education and the communities within which the universities are located.

We know the value of sport in social bonding (a family away from home) and this sense of belonging has a vital role to play in a young person’s transition to a new and sometimes difficult environment and into a new independence, none more so than at this time.

Getting ready to restart

What all of this might look like is still very much up for debate – however the debate hasn’t just started here and isn’t solely due to coronavirus. In recent years we’ve run a phased sports review, and more lately there has been a healthy debate about reward and recognition for performance within our university sports programmes (the much vaunted “BUCS Points”!)

What sports should we offer, to whom, for what benefit has been a very detailed piece of work with great consultation with and contributions from our members and NGB’s – and what we have now is well structured and well regarded.

We have done the planning, we have considered a multitude of factors and options and we are seeking opinions from our members about how we may take some tentative steps forward before we return to a full sprint. We are a little bit like our Olympians who, having trained hard for so long have now seen their games shifted to next year – we’re ready, we just don’t yet know what the race will look like or when it’s due to start.

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