A genuine academic hurdle

Don't underestimate the intellectual rigours of these degrees. After all, they are science qualifications, says Gareth Rubin
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The Independent Online

"I do feel a certain amount of chagrin when people call it a Mickey Mouse degree," says Professor Doug Carroll, head of the school of sport and exercise science at Birmingham University. "Because I know exactly how much our students have to do and the quality of the colleagues I have. We have a very taxing programme."

Sport and exercise science in British universities has an image problem. If it were restricted to a few sniggers among the public at large about the academic quality of these degrees, it wouldn't be too bad. But the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) is worried that applicants to these courses are also labouring under a misapprehension that they will spend three years playing hockey and going to football matches.

Dr Valerie Cox, spokeswoman for BASES and head of the school of sport science at the University of Coventry, says: "Applying to a course you're not academically suited for is not really a problem. The problem comes when they turn up on the first day of their course and then learn they are out of their depth. We see it at Coventry, but my external examiner, who is at Birmingham, says they have the same problem."

She says her department would like to require A-levels in chemistry and biology, but there just aren't enough school pupils doing science subjects to be able to sustain that - so schools need to encourage more students to take them. "The key concern," she says, "is that we don't want people doing courses that aren't what they want to do. It just leads to students leaving at the end of the first year or failing."

Sport science has undergone an incredible expansion in the last 20 years. In 1984, seven universities, polytechnics and FE colleges offered single honours degrees or two-year HNDs in sport science. By 1988 this had grown to 35. There are now 63. Last year UCAS had 8,864 applicants for these courses, of whom 7,545 were given places. If the economy were growing this quickly, Gordon Brown would be laughing his socks off. But the subject's very popularity has brought problems in the shape of under-prepared undergraduates.

Dr Neil Maxwell, course leader for the university of Brighton, says applicants are often unaware of the academic challenge of the course. "You try to combat it through open days, but there are some prospective students who know they want to do something related to sport and they may choose sport and exercise science. Ultimately, this is a science degree. But some students come in not realising that they need to understand maths and to be able to handle data and statistics and that there is a high level of academic content. The danger is that they come on to a degree that they are not able to do or not interested in because it is not what they thought it would be. It results in them either dropping out or not progressing very quickly; or simply not being very good at it - every year we have some students fail because they were not prepared for the course. You might expect about 10-15 per cent to fail each year - although some will resit - and 5-10 per cent drop out."

Professor Carroll says the answer lies in selecting the right candidates. At Birmingham, applicants need a minimum of three Bs at A-level and one of those has to be in a laboratory science. Despite this, the sport science degree has 10 applicants per place, so the school can be quite choosy.

"We make it quite plain to students that this is a heavily science-based degree. There are one or two who come in and are shocked by the science nature of the course; but we get few drop-outs," Carroll adds.

Richard Winsley, head of Exeter's school of sport science, also points to high entry requirements. Students come in with ABC at A-level, which is higher than the university's English or psychology departments. "We take in bright students and, hopefully, we stretch them," he says. "People think that our programme consists of doing press-ups and playing games. It doesn't. Our students study physiology, biology, biomechanics, psychology. In the context of the physiology part of the course, say, our students' ability level is most certainly on a par with the university's biology students."

The reason for the image problem is partly historical, he says. "Because many of the sport science degrees evolved from PE degrees and teacher-training degrees about 10 years ago, it has taken us some years to change the perception that sport science is an easy option. It is taking time for the perception to filter back to schools and into the kind of advice that children are getting from their careers advisers. But I think the perception is now changing."

Britain's most prestigious sport science institution is Loughborough. Eighty per cent of students for their courses need three As for a place. "Putting aside the grade inflation that we've seen over the last few years, you can't get much better than three As," says David Bunker, director of undergraduate programmes, who puts the subject's rocketing popularity over the last decade largely down to the growth in PE A-levels and GCSEs and defends the scientific nature of the course as vigorously as his colleagues at Birmingham and Exeter. "For us, science means the pursuit of knowledge in a rigorous way - you don't need to have a Bunsen burner or a test tube in your hand or to be taking blood samples to be a scientist."

Bunker says that jokes about the supposedly non-academic nature of the degree add to the problems in educating prospective applicants, but he is philosophical about it: "The subject is the latest one to be hit with a stick - media studies had it for years. Sport science has seen exponential growth over the last 10 years, so now it's our turn to get the Mickey Mouse label."

'My physiology knowledge is useful in training'

Daniel King, 21, is going into his third year of a sport science degree at the University of Coventry

I spent my one-year placement on the course working as a researcher at the university for some of my tutors. We were testing elite athletes in a number of sports. We would check heart rate and blood, among other things, so we could compare athletes in different sports. I didn't have a big background in sports science going into the course, and I was quite surprised at how much science there is in it, but I studied science A-levels so I was OK. I'm an athlete myself - I'm in the Great Britain and Northern Ireland athletics team as a race walker - and the knowledge of the physiology is useful for my training. I compete at distances up to 20km and am currently Number 1 in the UK at both 10km and 20km. I am still an Under 23 but am a regular member of both the Under 23 and senior Great Britain teams. This year I raced in the World Cup in May in Naumburg, Germany, in the senior 20km. I have aspirations of making the Olympics and am currently on target for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.