Going for gold

Keri Beckingham finds out why it’s so important for today’s universities to offer top-class sporting facilities

In October 2016, a Sport England survey found that the national average for student participation in sport was 65%, reinforcing that physical activity has become an integral part of the university experience for many students. With this statistic in mind, University Business asked two universities to talk about the sporting facilities that are offered at their campuses and explain how students are benefiting as a result. 

Why is sport important in HE?

The national governing body that is responsible for HE sport in the UK is British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS), who deliver more than 50 sports to 170 member institutions across the country. Reinforcing the importance of sport in HE today, a spokesperson from BUCS comments: “Physical activity plays a huge role in supporting students to get the most out of their time at their chosen institution. With the student population becoming more and more diverse, there’s ever more emphasis on delivering an engaging, high-quality service that meets a wide variety of needs and is accessible to all students regardless of motivation and ability. 

With one in five students stating that provision of sport was very important to their choice of institution, and 78% of students meeting Chief Medical Officer guidelines for physical activity (150 minutes per week), institutions cannot overlook the importance of their provision in this area. The benefits of sport and physical activity to students are wide ranging, from enhancing and maintaining mental health to increasing their employability prospects.

Case study: Loughborough University

Ben Aherne is Business Development Manager (Sport) at Loughborough University, and he explains how the institution has always believed in the philosophy of a healthy body and healthy mind:

World-class sporting facilities

Loughborough is known for elite sport. We believe our environment and ecosystem is extremely inspiring, with students able to train alongside some of the most recognised names in world sport, such as Adam Peaty and Jonnie Peacock.

In addition, the development of the Loughborough Sport brand has further created a sense of belonging, as it covers the full spectrum of our sporting pathway, from elite to recreation. It has also contributed to increased secondary spend, which helps to strengthen our commercial appeal to sponsors and third parties, generating new income streams through merchandise, sponsorship and philanthropy.

Refurbishment challenges

At Loughborough our biggest challenge is choosing an appropriate time for facilities to be decommissioned in order to implement any long-term maintenance requirements.  The best example of this is just last year, when our swimmers headed to Rio for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Here, our swimming pool was taken off line for eight weeks to enable work to take place without impacting the high-performance environment or student programmes. The same will happen in 2018 when the Sir David Wallace Sports Hall will have its floors replaced and new bleacher seating installed.

Managing stakeholders’ expectations and committing to long-term events can also cause problems when it comes to refurbishment programmes. The 2017 School Games and hosting a European Football competition are two examples of events that have been booked for over two years and therefore cannot be moved to accommodate refurbishments. As with all capital investment, limitations on budget are always a factor and this needs to be well thought out. We work over a 10-year programme to prioritise activity.

 Sporting initiatives for students

Our primary focus is to make our campus as active as physically possible. One scheme that we are most excited about is our ‘My Lifestyle’ programme, which targets recreational activity as a way to get students fit and active. It also offers a number of free sessions, something that alongside the non-competitive, social element removes most of the barriers to participation. New quirky activities such as ‘Raveminton’, which is effectively badminton in the dark using ultra violet lights and equipment, have been extremely popular.

Gym usage is another key focus area for us, and fresher offers encourage students to sign up to a three-year membership deal on arrival, which is heavily discounted. Our student participation rates have been assessed by Sport England, which revealed that we’re the most active UK university for sports with a score of 71%. This is undoubtedly helped by cheap access to our world-class facilities, which is important for helping the University to maintain an income stream to firstly operate the facilities, and thereafter reinvest any surplus to improve our offering.

Case study: University of Sussex

Simon Tunley is Head of Sport at Sussexsport, the University of Sussex’s sporting facility. Here, he looks at students’ expectations for sport at university, and explains how the institution has started working with providers from the local community to improve their offering: 

Student expectations

When a student makes a commitment to study at a university they come to expect a holistic offer that matches the investment they are making to the institution. A core part of this offer should be sport, fitness and wellbeing: it allows a student to keep both body and mind healthy and at the same time provides opportunities to experience a range of activities that enhance the student experience.

A big part of this should be the provision of good-quality facilities and services that match the local ‘high-street’ offer. In addition, university team sports are especially beneficial for meeting new friends, learning to work as a team and even gaining skills in organising and managing a group of people, which are essential attributes for future employability.

Encouraging student participation in sport

Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ initiative has been a game changer and a real success in increasing female sport and fitness activity levels. Working with BUCS, who run ‘This BUCS Girl Can’ week (a national campaign for HEIs to showcase and encourage female participation in sport), we have started our own ‘This Sussex Girl Can’ initiative. This has grown in popularity and scale enormously, so much so that we are now planning a year-round programme of activities under the ‘This Sussex Girl Can’ brand.

We look to engage other low-participation groups in innovative ways too, and our ‘Active US’ project is about to enter its fourth year. It has been incredibly successful at targeting specific groups of the campus community, creating over 50,000 additional visits to our facilities and off-campus sessions in under three years.

Sporting activities of the future

Introducing new and unique activities such as Quidditch, Zorball, Bouldering, UV sports, Ice Skating, Beach Sports and a Colour Run has been key to our success.

In addition, research on participation levels, combined with student feedback about the types of activities they wanted, showed we had a gap in our offering. We responded to a clear need to provide a greater number of free or low-cost opportunities that were flexible and did not require commitment to memberships. 

A current focus on working with non-sporting societies is also increasing engagement. For example, building external partnerships has enabled us to hold an exclusive highly popular Sunday Bouldering night at a local centre and provide beach games events, and support from two leisure contractors has allowed students and staff to swim for £1 at local pools. 

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