This article is more than 1 year old

Student sport is safer and more valuable than the alternatives

This article is more than 1 year old

Julie Brunton is Associate Dean Teaching & Learning in the College of Health, Wellbeing & Life Sciences at Sheffield Hallam University

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

Universities have followed government guidance for the reopening of campuses, switching throughout the semester from on-campus to online delivery and vice versa.

Most are keeping campuses open during the new November national restrictions in England, and government advice is to practice social distancing – but should we? The World Health Organisation says that while we should be practicing physical distancing, we should try to maintain social support. Without social contact we are all at risk of feelings of isolation, anxiety and poor mental wellbeing.

The restrictions imposed on us all by “lockdown” have contributed to an almost perfect storm – teaching has moved from “blended” to nearly all on-line exacerbating the sense of social isolation, and new students starting university have had little or no time to make and establish friendship groups and support networks.

The very real risk of contracting the virus in an enclosed environment, coupled with the possible threat of not being able to return home for Christmas, has led to significantly increased levels of stress and anxiety amongst an increasing number of students.

Dropping out and wellbeing

Recent Wonkhe research talked about the growing risk of students deferring, and students demanding refunds for their perceived poor experience this year is very real and of huge concern to university leadership teams.

Even a relatively small percentage of drop-out would have a major impact on the already stretched finances of any organization and is already being evidenced across the UK – with 12.6% considering dropping out (WONKHE and Trendence UK survey, Oct 2020) rising to 20% for those from non-selective state schools and disabled students.

There is also a major concern for the majority of universities for the impact of increased loneliness on student mental wellbeing:

Over half of our sample report feeling lonely on a daily or weekly basis. Just 8.2 per cent report strong feelings of happiness, down from 14% before the pandemic and 32 per cent for young people pre-pandemic. And it is feeling part of a community and loneliness that are both strongly related to considering dropping out.”

(WONKHE and Trendence UK Survey, Oct 2020).

When comparing these figures to the BASS report (British Active Student Survey, 2020) we can see just how important sport and physical activity are in promoting good mental wellbeing and resilience, and how concerning this current shift in student views really is.

Any opportunity to engage students in some physical and social activity would be welcome across the sector right now, with many universities already looking at innovative ways to restore some elements of “fun” back to largely quiet and deserted campuses.


At British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) we’ve launched a position statement and a collection of evidence on the “Value of Sport and Physical Activity”. It highlights the crucial role sport and physical activity can play across 6 strategic areas of a university:

  1. Student recruitment – illustrating the impact on students’ choice of university, university’s market position and “brand pull” of university sport
  2. Transitions, and retention – improving social aspects, accelerated friendships and belonging
  3. Physical activity, health, and wellbeing – showing increases in life satisfaction, happiness, and reductions in anxiety and depressive symptoms
  4. Graduate attainment – sports participants gained higher percentage of first class and upper second-class degrees
  5. Graduate employability – graduates participating in university sport earned more than non-sports participants, sports volunteers earned a further premium
  6. Civic and global agendas– £1 spent on physical activity generates £3.91 (SIRC, 2020)

We are also issuing a “Call to Action”, asking all universities to commit to re-looking at the positioning and extent of their sport and physical activity offering, here and now, as well as in life post Covid-19.

This positioning is one that acknowledges the value that university sport and physical activity can bring across the whole student journey – from pre-enrolment to graduation and beyond.

Return on investment

Providing opportunities for sport and physical activity are relatively low-cost and high return at a time when all spending is rightly being heavily scrutinised. It can impact many people across a range of backgrounds and provide a “glue” to hold a campus together.

Whilst sport and physical activity may not be everyone’s preferred choice, 84% of students have previously told us that they would like to do more sport and physical activity, so the potential impact could be huge.

With notable impacts on student retention, satisfaction, wellbeing, graduate attainment, and employability, levelling up sport and physical activity participation for all students would be a good place to start.

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