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."