Education: University challenge: let's train the brains and the brawn ...

If Britain wants its national teams to win, it must invest seriously in university sport. By Tom Chesshyre

A major shake-up of the organisation and finance of university sport can now be expected with the publication of a report this week by a working group headed by Sir Roger Bannister, who ran the first mile in less that four minutes as a student in 1954. Sir Roger wants pounds 10m of National Lottery cash to be used to provide high-quality facilities, medical services and coaching within an academic environment. An extensive system of scholarships run by sport's governing bodies could be introduced for the first time.

The recent decline in British sporting achievement, particularly in football, cricket and rugby, has focused attention on the universities. A growing number of top athletes now take degrees, and the British Olympic Association predicts that more than half of Britain's team for the 2000 Sydney Games will be students. An improvement in university facilities and the standard of coaching appears to be vital to re-establish the quality of our national teams.

A look across the ocean highlights how far Britain has slipped behind what is possible. University sport in the US is in a totally different league. The best athletes receive scholarships worth thousands of dollars: specialist coaches are standard, top-quality medical back-up is widely available; facilities are first rate - most large US colleges have stadiums with 80,000-seat capacities, the same as Wembley; and games are even shown on TV.

Not surprisingly, more and more of Britain's best young sportsmen and women are leaving to study in the United States on scholarships: a trend that has been dubbed the "brawn drain".

By comparison, British university sport has been described by some involved in its administration as "third world". Over the past 10 years the situation has become even more critical as student numbers have grown by as much as 50 per cent, with relative spending on sport falling way behind.

Now at last something is to be done. John Major - a keen sports fan himself, especially of cricket - has recognised the problem and last July he published a government policy paper entitled Sport: Raising the Game, which led to the setting up of the Bannister group.

Lottery money could be used, alongside private sponsorship, to help find scholarships. One possibility is that such scholarships would be administered by sport's governing bodies, which would award them to candidates who met the right athletic and academic standards.

Already privately funded scholarships are offered by the Lawn Tennis Association (12, worth up to pounds 1,800 each year, are available from October) and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (70, worth up to pounds 1,250 per year.)

Ged Roddy, director of sports development at Bath University and a member of the Bannister group, believes that university sport has long been in need of an overhaul. "At the moment not all students are able to fulfil their athletic potential."

For some top sportsmen and women, the pressure of combining training and taking part in competitions with a heavy academic workload becomes too much, and rather than waste their athletic potential they quit university altogether. One such example is Steve Backley, the British javelin champion, who left Loughborough to concentrate fully on honing his throwing skills and taking part in the European tour.

Few universities offer the financial aid needed to cover extra medical bills, equipment costs and travel expenses. Bath - the first to introduce sports scholarships in 1976 - has five full scholarships (worth up to pounds 10,000 over the course of a degree) and 20 on bursaries (worth roughly pounds 500 per year.) Bath has also just secured pounds 500,000 of private money to finance an additional 32 scholarships. Stirling currently has 26 sports scholars (who receive up to pounds 2,200 per year). Gordon Sherry, the top golfer, is a recent graduate.

Loughborough - which has dominated university championships for the past 15 years, thanks partly to the back-up provided by a large sports science department - has just introduced a dozen scholarships (worth up to pounds 1,000 per year) and plans more.

However, David Wallace, Loughborough's vice-chancellor and chair of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals' Task Force on Sport, says: "There is a long way to go yet. There is no way government funding of universities has kept up with increases in student numbers."

His view was supported by Jim Ellis, a spokesman for the British Universities Sports Association, which organises university sport. "Student sport is desperately underfunded," he says. "The financial squeeze recently put on universities has meant money has been concentrated on the academic side of things. But sport is important at university for both elite athletes and those who just treat it as recreational."

More than pounds 14m worth of lottery money has already been spent on building up university sports facilities. The University of Central Lancashire has received almost pounds 8m for an outdoor sports complex. The Bannister group is also looking at whether a series of British academies of sport could be based at universities. Should this idea get the go-ahead, it would inevitably mean more lottery cash for student sporting facilities.

In the public mind, university sport in Britain has long been associated mainly with the Boat Race and the Varsity rugby match between Oxford and Cambridge. Mr Ellis thinks that it is vital that times move on: "If the overall quality of student sport improves, so will the quality of national sides. Whether we will ever catch up with the States, however, is another matter altogether."

`I've had to sacrifice some student social life to keep up'

Paula Radcliffe, 22, is a 5,000-metre runner from Bedford, in her final year of European Studies at Loughborough University. She receives a pounds 1,000 sports scholarship a year.

Paula Radcliffe's finals finished on Tuesday. While most students are exhausted enough after all the late nights of last-minute revision, tomorrow she has another traumatic experience to live through: competing in the British 5,000-metre qualification trials for the Atlanta Olympics.

"I've organised my time schedule between revision and training, it shouldn't be too much of a problem," she says, taking it all in her stride.

However, maintaining training levels and keeping up with her course work has, Radcliffe admits, not always been easy: "Sometimes I'm completely knackered out. I've had to sacrifice a bit of the usual student social life in order to keep up. But it's good at Loughborough as there are a lot of sporty people in the same boat."

Radcliffe, who came fifth in the 5,000 metres at the World Championships in Gothenberg last year, describes herself as having a "borderline" chance of a first in European studies. She is fluent in French and German and if athletics does not earn her a living, she hopes to find a job in international marketing.

Does she wish she had studied in the US? "Personally, I'm glad I didn't go, as I've heard that colleges have too many meets, which can have a bad effect on a distance runner like myself because you could be in danger of getting too tired out. Admittedly, though, there is much better back- up for athletes over there."

`If I'd stayed in Britain, I would have given up swimming'

Lucy Findlay, 21, is a 200-metre and 400-metre medley swimmer from Chatham in the third year of four studying international trade and finance at Louisiana State University. She receives $10,000 a year on scholarship.

Lucy Findlay - Britain's record-holder in the 400-metre, short-course medley swimming category - cannot believe her luck. "The facilities here are amazing," she says. "Every university here has a pool equal to Britain's best one at Ponds Forge in Sheffield. And I have my tuition fees, books, accommodation, medical insurance and food paid for - which is an incredible help."

The swimming team is flown all over the country for meets. Findlay says: "We're ranked in the top 20 swimming universities, which is a big deal over here - I've been on local TV already. It's fun going around the different universities; this year I've been to Ohio, Tennessee and Texas."

Training is intensive: Findlay gets up at 5.30am every day and fits in 26 hours a week, but she is carefully watched to make sure she does not overdo it. She just missed out on qualifying for the Atlanta Olympics and now has her heart set on the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Findlay - who applied directly to Louisiana State University - certainly has no regrets about deciding to study in the US.

"If I'd stayed in Britain I can say for sure that I would have given up swimming years ago. It's a very frustrating experience trying to become a top swimmer and keeping up your studies at the same time in Britain."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Suite dreams: the JW Marriott in Venice
travelChic new hotels in 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: MIS Officer - Further Education Sector

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Operating throughout London and...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect