Student sport can’t be an optional extra in September’s offer

UCAS research says that right now, 1 in 4 students are saying that their biggest single worry is “missing out on the experience”.

The finding comes when universities are working round the clock to ensure a full, rounded and high-quality offer for students next year.

That will involve tough decisions over space, capacity and budget – and teaching and learning will rightly be a priority.

In that context, activities like Sport need to stand-up to scrutiny and be confident about what they can deliver for an institution’s students and staff. If space and budgets are tight, why should sport command any of that?

The physical and mental wellbeing of staff and students is paramount and there is a wealth of high-quality, evidenced based research to document the positive impact that sport has on individuals’ wellbeing. But how widely applied is this knowledge, and is there a clear understanding of what the real value is to an institution?

Isolation and Loneliness

Moving out of Covid-19 isolation and loneliness that is often felt by university students – both as they enter into university for the first time as well as during their studies – is arguably the most important time for universities to take up the evidence that has been shown around the world from both individual and team sport athletes versus the wider student body, where athlete students experienced significantly lower feeling of loneliness than non-athletes.

Eighty five percent of the student body in the UK said in the last Higher Education Sport Participation and Satisfaction Survey that they would like to do more sport and active recreation whilst at university, which puts to rest those staff perhaps where they themselves may have had negative experiences from school sport but times have changed and the vast majority would like to be more physically active.

Belonging and making friends

Recent evidence has highlighted the value of physical activity and sport, when ‘accelerated friendships’ were achieved for first years from an outdoor adventure residential experience in the first 3 weeks of university life.

This allowed what might otherwise have taken many weeks or months to get to know people on their course, or to build solid friendships, to happen in 3 days. Speeding up this transitioning process and feeling a sense of belonging has shown to be central to help students “stick” at university that in this time of uncertainty is even more important for universities to get right.

Transition and extended inductions being planned are the ideal opportunity to add in a range of physical activities to help enable those essential friendships and social bonding – which in the coming academic year will be crucial for any institution. New and returning students, whatever course they are on, from computing, art and design to sport, can benefit from the range of activities possible to enable students to feel part of a community of friends. Sports staff are already planning for both face2face and virtual communities, using known technologies such as STRAVA, the online app used by cyclists, walkers and runners, to engage more students to be active and feel part of their course and university.

The sports offer

Even with physical distancing measures, universities can work collaboratively with students to use their creativity to consider ways to capitalise on physical activity and the outdoors.

Universities that build timetables at the course level can then help illustrate to students where their extra-curricular activity will fit and how they can still join in with active recreation or sporting activities around teaching, whether virtual or face2face.

Both physical activity and being in nature is recognised as providing a range of significant benefits, whether parks at city-based universities or other green spaces, an asset for universities during this time. To supplement this universities can capitalise on their growing digital environment and expertise to provide a mixture of both face2face and virtual ‘meet and greet’ or semester-long physical activity to students who may otherwise have difficulties engaging with long commutes, paid work or caring responsibilities.

An upshot of the virtual experience is that it may help to address significant engagement issues with BAME or other marginalised groups who can often not fully engage with student life. Using sports team members running welcome sessions on line and in person or social recreational users also reaching out to the wider student bodies, universities’ sports staff are working to provide a student sporting offer to help support their physical activity and wellbeing as well as connections with, and membership to, team sports.

Sport should be there to help plug the gaps whether through the existing club structures or through healthy lifestyle programmes utilising indoor facilities or where possible the campus or city environments where they allow. Activating a campus may have a more striking visual impact on new students of a vibrant, welcoming and inclusive campus beyond the wellbeing benefits it may bring to participants.

Sport also has a role to play in building resilience amongst staff and students, both physically and mentally – and specifically in terms of physical activity as a way to have a healthier and more functional immune response, feelings of achievement and control.

A whole system approach

A recent report by the Chief Leisure Officers for Local Authorities (CLOA) talks about a whole system approach for promoting physical activity involving the built environment (roads, paths and greenspaces – see above re active campus), councils, facility providers and the healthcare system – universities are exactly the same and need strong and sound leadership to maximise the benefits that physical activity can bring.

At the hard-nosed, purely financial end of the spectrum, the benefit might include staff and students as the producers of “goods” (teaching, research, degree attainment etc) for an institution – and as such they need to be present to keep producing. Absenteeism due to avoidable illnesses cost businesses in the UK billions of pounds per year. In a tight financial climate there seems sense in reducing losses as well as controlling costs for an institution in order for it to survive.

Equally as challenging is the notion of presenteeism where staff and students are present at work but not productive due to physical or psychological challenges which they are facing. It is clear that students and staff will return with some mental and physical wellbeing issues.

There is a key question for institutions about where they should invest – in services which cater for the outcome of those issues or those that invest in preventing them becoming significant problems. Having once used the AMOSSHE “Value and Impact Toolkit” as a Director of Sport there is a strong financial argument that sport and physical activity are far cheaper than some other core services in this area and reach more students perhaps in a softer and more positive way.

Sending signals

The other side of this coin is perhaps a far more positive message that would appeal to students and their parents as well as potential staff – that the institution cares about them, demonstrated through actively promoting services to support their wellbeing. As universities seek to recruit students from around the world, these points of differentiation will come ever more to the fore.

The challenge with all of this is the hard data to measure the impact as physical activity is a complex and multi-dimensional issue. What is clear however from the empirical evidence available to us is the impact that sport and physical activity can have across a number of key university strategic areas.

Sport may well have been viewed by some in the past as a “nice to have” and placed as a peripheral service to students, the shift to student experience and ‘value for money’ in more recent years has brought this agenda to the fore. There has been a growing realisation as a nation of the real benefits that physical activity brings to a community with severe restrictions on their movements. This spotlight on the benefits of being active and the uptake of the various forms of physical activity has moved sport from the periphery to more of a central and essential service.

The challenge for sport in higher education therefore might be to demonstrate that shift more clearly and then cement its role as a core, cross-organisational discipline that uses cutting edge research (created in universities) delivered by experts in their areas (taught and trained in universities) to achieve greater health impacts for the nation, led by universities.

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One response to “Student sport can’t be an optional extra in September’s offer

  1. I think that this holds true for Arts based student activity so perhaps there is a joint way forward in advocating on the importance of both aspects adding value to the student experience ? UCAN UK is a network of University based Arts Centres who would be happy to work with Sport on this important topic

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