If you are sports-mad and want to pursue competitive sport as an undergraduate, then Loughborough is the university for you. It is ranked No 1 by the British Universities Sports Association (Busa), ahead of Bath (second) and Birmingham (third).
At the bottom of the rankings are Bath Spa University and the University of East London, followed by two central London institutions: Soas and the University of the Arts.
The positions of these universities are given in the latest sport and recreation table of The Complete University Guide (formerly The Good University Guide), published today, which assesses universities on a range of measures, including swimming pools, cricket pitches, outdoor courts and sports scholarships. "Sport is an area of increasing importance to students when making their university choices, and here they can see at a glance what each university has to offer," says Bernard Kingston, the founder of The Complete University Guide.
Apart from Loughborough, other universities that excel at sport are Edinburgh, Nottingham, Durham, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, Newcastle, Exeter and Oxford. "We give each student who comes here a positive experience of sport, whether it's an Olympic hopeful or someone who wants to kick a football about," says Chris Earle, Loughborough's sports director. "We have 53 sports clubs you can join, and in each of those you can go for gold or just have fun."
Other universities, which may not excel to the same extent at competitive sport, have carved out a reputation for themselves in the provision of sport for all, rather than for an elite few students. One of these is the University of East Anglia (UEA), which won a large lottery grant eight years ago to build one of the biggest campus sports facilities in Britain, complete with a 50-metre-long pool and an indoor arena.
According to the Complete University Guide table, UEA comes 64th in the Busa rankings, but gets four stars for its indoor sports facilities, pool and winter pitches. "We have bursaries and elite sport, but we have a mass-participation ethos as well," says David Cosford, the deputy director of UEA's sports park.
British universities, with a few exceptions, are beginning to put a lot more emphasis on sport in these days of increasing health and fitness consciousness. In addition, they know that they have to lure in the students, who are today paying fees, and that sport is one way to do it.
One university that has set out to improve its sports facilities is Surrey, on the outskirts of Guildford, which is celebrating its 40th birthday on this site. According to Barry Hitchcock, Surrey's sports director, its three-storey sports hall was built at a time when there were only 2,500 students, and is now no longer adequate. "We're closing what we have and starting again," he says.
Next month, work will start on a new £35m sports park, which will have a 50-metre-long pool, three sports halls, a squash centre, 700 metres of fitness facilities and two artificial floodlit pitches – not to mention eight floodlit tennis courts and a climbing centre. "I sincerely hope it will make a difference to the number of people applying to Surrey," Hitchcock laughs.
In London, Britain's foremost university for science and technology, Imperial College, has also invested millions of pounds in a new sports centre, which has been named Ethos. It replaces an old 1960s sports centre that had grown shabby. "We want to attract the best students, and part of that is to say we're good at sport as well as being excellent academically," says Neil Mosley, Imperial's head of sport. "Students need to get fit and to stay fit to cope with the pressure of work at an institution like ours."
One of the amazing things about Imperial's sports centre is the fact that the gym and the swimming pool are free to students, something that is not a feature elsewhere. "We believe it's important for our students, and we make budgetary provision for that," he says. It has helped that Sir Richard Sykes, Imperial's rector, who is himself a keen swimmer, is convinced of the need for fitness.
Susannah Atwell, the executive officer of University & College Sport, which tomorrow joins with Busa to form a new organisation, says it certainly helps if vice-chancellors are enthusiastic about sport. One such sporty VC is Professor Simon Lee of Leeds Metropolitan University, who has promoted the university's involvement in rugby and cricket locally. Leeds Met's sports faculty has been renamed Leeds Carnegie, and has a range of on-site facilities at Headingley.
In the run-up to the Olympic Games in Beijing, Britain's Olympic hopefuls are being trained at universities around the country, particularly at Loughborough, where Paula Radcliffe got her degree and where she still trains regularly. Sixteen of the 31 British medallists at the Athens Olympics were Loughborough students or graduates; its students won more medals in the 2006 Commonwealth Games than 32 countries, and almost equalled New Zealand's performance.
British universities are getting ready to host teams from abroad in advance of the London Olympics in 2012. The University of Bristol, together with the city council, companies and the University of the West of England, is hosting the Kenyan Olympic team and will be providing facilities for them.
Bob Reeves, the director of sport at Bristol, is proud that the university is doing this, even though it doesn't have the sporting facilities of a Loughborough or Bath. Seventy per cent of Bristol students use the university's sports facilities, and one-fifth to one-quarter are members of a sports union or club.
Sports directors agree that things are changing. City University, which comes towards the bottom of the league table, has recently appointed a new head of leisure services, who is trying to get more students involved in sport after finding that of 600,000 visits to sports facilities in 2007, only 63 per cent were made by students. "If they are healthy and well cared-for, they are more likely to do well with regard to their studies," says Bill Thompson, the new head.
These sports directors are pleased that Busa, the organisation in charge of inter-university fixtures, and British University College Sport, which represents those who manage university sport, are forming a new organisation, British Universities & Colleges Sports, which will be able to speak for the whole sector with one voice.