University challenge – investing in sports facilities

How do universities balance the sporting needs of their student population with those of the older community?

This year, the University of Birmingham will open a brand new £55m state-of-the-art indoor sports centre to replace its existing, ageing facility. It’s a huge investment for the renowned sporting university but although it will be the most expensive such facility to date, the financial commitment to sport that it reflects is by no means unique within the higher education sector. 

Also in 2016, Nottingham University will open its own £40m sports centre, while in 2010 Northumbria spent £30m on its flagship Sport Central. In the intervening period, many other universities – and not just those in upper echelons of BUCS – have invested smaller yet still very significant multi-million-pound sums in building, developing and upgrading sports facilities.

This recent surge of investment in university sport is inextricably linked to the sweeping changes that have taken place across higher education as a whole. “For many parts of the university sector, the introduction of £9k tuition fees has been a real game-changer,” says Tim Garfield, director of the sports development centre at Loughborough University.


On this new playing field, sporting universities are having to work harder to meet the expectations of fee-paying students who want to play sport, while continuing to nurture the elite athletes who help to raise their profile. At the same time, funding all this new development is leading some university sports centres to re-evaluate how they operate commercially, particularly with regard to usage by external organisations and the wider community.

Breadth of opportunity

So how do university sports operations balance the needs of all these different groups while also remaining financially viable? In this highly competitive and deregulated market, it seems there is no one-size-fits-all solution. At Loughborough – reigning number one in the BUCS Points Table – Garfield and his colleagues pride themselves on the University’s impressive range of sport-specific facilities. With centres dedicated to athletics, badminton, cricket, football, gymnastics, hockey, lacrosse, martial arts, netball, swimming, squash, tennis and table tennis, the reach is vast. 

But “even though these are specialist facilities, the vast majority cater for the full range of abilities and interest in that sport,” says Garfield. “It’s this breadth of opportunity, for complete novices to elite athletes, that makes Loughborough so inspiring.”

During term-time there is limited community usage of the facilities – Charnwood Athletics Club regularly uses the athletics track while the 50m pool hosts regular casual swimming sessions as well as community swimming galas. 

But with students and elite athletes the clear priority in term-time, it is in the holidays that the university focuses on optimising wider commercial sporting opportunities. Loughborough hosts three national camps for the Youth Sport Trust each year, and was the team base for Tonga, Namibia and Uruguay during the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

“It’s this breadth of opportunity, for complete novices to elite athletes, that makes Loughborough so inspiring’

While Loughborough already had a long history of catering for elite athletes, the introduction of tuition fees has sharpened its focus on students who want to play sport recreationally, says Garfield. Since 2010, £11m has been invested in the Holywell Sports Complex, now home not only to an upgraded stadium, eight grass pitches and the University’s fifth floodlit artificial pitch, but also the new Holywell Fitness Centre, opened in 2014. 

Although modelled on commercial facilities, the centre is exclusively for the use of students, staff and ‘campus partners’ (staff from external organisations based onsite) and “was built to increase our sporting offer and segment our fitness market between lifestyle health and fitness and those training to support their sport,” says Mark Davies, head of sports facility operations and customer service. While the latter are catered for in the existing Powerbase Gym, the new centre – comprising multi-purpose sports hall, two fitness studios and an 850sqm gym – is geared firmly towards recreational use, with a three-year student membership charged at £300. 

The figures certainly support Loughborough’s claim to be catering for all levels of interest. As many as 70% of the University’s 17,000 students play sport regularly: 6,000 are members of its gyms, 4,500 are members of its 54 sports clubs, 2,500 take part in intramural sports and 3,000 participate in its non-competitive recreational sports programme. All organised sporting activities are free of charge, with a ‘modest fee’ charged for casual use. 

Community outreach 

At the University of Durham, second only to Loughborough in the BUCS rankings, there are three competing priorities, says head of sport Quentin Sloper: meeting the needs of elite athletes, increasing student participation, and providing high-quality facilities to community groups.

To support these aims, the University has spent £12m enhancing its facilities since 2011, including £6.7m on a new indoor sports centre and £1.6m on two rubber-crumb surfaces (in each case, Sport England contributed £500,000).

Facilities now include a £1m indoor rowing tank and a 28-station ‘ergo’ gallery; a world-class fencing salle, home to British Fencing; a sports hall; a high-performance weights room; a fitness suite; an aerobics studio; two squash courts, and three physio rooms. There are also multiple grass pitches, a water-based hockey surface and a sand-dressed artificial pitch. 

If a key aim of the new centre was to increase student participation, this has certainly been achieved: 90% – more than 12,000 – of Durham’s students regularly engage in physical activity. Of these, 2,000 compete for the University across 45 clubs (including 50 international athletes) and 10,000 take part in intramural or non-competitive activities. 


Despite these numbers, Durham places great emphasis on making its facilities available to the wider community – and not only for the commercial benefits. Its University Sport programme involves 47 local schools and all the city’s major clubs. More than 200 student volunteers coach within schools each year, and 2,000 children have access to the University’s sporting facilities. 

Sloper admits that catering effectively for all these different groups has significant challenges. “With the exception of our high-performance weights room, all our facilities are used by both performance and participation groups. The obvious drawback is that there is never sufficient time to accommodate everyone and there is inevitable strain on our facilities… The benefit is that there is a clear focal point for all our activity, and that goes a long way to ensuring the three strands of the programme (performance, participation and community) are joined up.” 

Value for money 

Another university carefully balancing the needs of students and elite athletes with those of community users is Sheffield Hallam University (SHU).

In  2013, SHU invested £6m in a 22-acre outdoor facility, Sportspark, with a further £325,000 subsequently spent on upgrading and rebranding the city’s existing athletics stadium as a Sheffield Hallam venue (Sheffield City Council and Sport England each contributed £150,000 towards the latter, with the balance provided by England Athletics). The indoor facilities at the University’s City and Collegiate campuses have also been refurbished to the tune of £1m.

The policy at SHU is that all facilities – including its commercial health and fitness centres, performance training environments, courts and pitches – should be available for community use. A recent analysis shows this is indeed the case, albeit more in evidence at the outdoor venues: at the City and Collegiate facilities, University usage (paying students, student clubs or academic usage) accounts for 80% of the total, while at Sportspark it’s 40% and at the athletics stadium 8%.

Students, staff, performance athletes and members of the community wishing to access the facilities can choose from a range of memberships, with prices starting at £12 a month for an off-peak student ‘health and fitness’ membership. SHU currently has 4,759 paying sport and fitness members, across all categories. 


At present, SHU has around 350 community members. Why would a member of the public join a university sports centre rather than their local leisure centre or health club? According to operations manager Andrew Miller, it’s a no-brainer: for the price point of a budget gym, they get not only a high level of personal support – two hours a month of personal training are included – but also facilities and equipment more in line with a premium club.

As part of its efforts to remain competitive, SHU participates in two national schemes: Quest, Sport England’s quality scheme, and the National Benchmarking Service (NBS), which is administered by Leisure-net Solution in partnership with SHU’s own Sport Industry Research Centre (SIRC). Both a badge of accreditation and tool for continuous improvement, Quest Plus involves an initial two-day assessment and mystery visit, followed by another mystery visit and one-day review a year later. NBS, meanwhile, shows facilities how they are performing compared to their competitors. 

According to Miller, a key objective of signing up to NBS was to demonstrate to the University that its sporting offer was value for money. Quest, meanwhile, helps develop formal structures that support best practice and ensure “you’re doing the right things for the right reasons.”

Aiming for excellence 

While other university sports facilities struggle to strike a balance between student and external use, the University of East Anglia’s Sportspark – opened in 2000 and still the largest Lottery-funded indoor university sports centre in the country – has no qualms about calling itself a community facility. Sportspark is bound by a Community Use Agreement (CUA) until August 2018, which requires it to prioritise community over university usage – the rule of thumb is 80:20. 

Membership numbers also reveal the emphasis on community, with 8,800 community adult members, 2,800 junior members and 1,900 student members. While community members pay monthly, from £5 for a pay-and-play discount card to £40 for peak all-access membership, students pay a one-off annual fee ranging from £135 to £300, depending on usage. 


Crucially, the CUA also allows any surpluses from the commercial side (Steele receives a grant from the University to subsidise student use) to be reinvested in facilities or programming. With regard to performance, Steele admits UEA is not yet an elite sports university, although he hints plans are afoot to offer more support to its talented athletes. In terms of facilities, a £1.5m refurbishment project completed last year included more performance-oriented training equipment and a studio for higher-intensity training, while specific strength and conditioning and targeted training sessions have also been introduced at the request of university clubs. 

Like Miller, Steele sets much store by Quest, with UEA receiving its first accreditation – Quest Entry, a one-day assessment – in January this year. Looking ahead, Steele now wants UEA to be the first university to get a Quest ‘Excellent’ rating at the Quest Plus level. “The framework it creates ensures we continuously reflect on service delivery and review impact and outcomes, something that commonly gets overlooked,” he says. 

“This in turn should drive improved customer satisfaction [and] a more consistent level of service, both of which should assist us in being more financially successful.”

Changing the lens 

At Birmingham, the practice of catering for community members alongside staff and students is even more deeply embedded than at UEA. According to director of sport Zena Wooldridge, the UB Sport team has been juggling the needs of these different user groups for 40 years. 

“We’re very good in the university sector at sitting back and saying, ‘operationally, we’re very good, aren’t we?’ But actually, in the commercial sector, there are a lot of things we can learn from the way they operate’

While extending opening hours, ruthless policing of time slots and creative use of dead space – the conversion of a storeroom to a group cycling studio, for example – papered over the problems for a while, it reached a tipping point “where as a leading sporting university we were falling further behind… in terms of the expectations of our students and our profile.” 

While rebuilding the current facilities to 21st-century standards would have cost around £30m, the University was persuaded to make an even bigger commitment – £52.5m, with a further £2m in Lottery funding and half a million in alumni donations. What the extra investment has done, says Wooldridge, is allow them to build the new centre big enough to increase participation and therefore revenue. 

In 2012, UB Sport took part in NBS, “because it’s a valuable benchmark against industry standards [and] informs us how much we need to improve in the lead-in to a new facility.”

Like SHU and UEA, it is also one of seven Quest-accredited university centres, and the first to achieve Quest Combo, which assesses both facilities and sports development. The motivation, says Wooldridge, was to help operational staff to “understand the standards to aspire to if they are to be the best in the industry. We’re very good in the university sector at sitting back and saying, ‘operationally, we’re very good, aren’t we?’ But actually, in the commercial sector, there are a lot of things we can learn from the way they operate… And our students and members are leaving private clubs before they come here. That’s what their expectations are; that’s what we have to deliver… It’s very easy for [staff] to get comfortable and not necessarily see that. So all [Quest] does is change the lens through which they see the world.”  

Send an Invite...

Would you like to share this event with your friends and colleagues?