Winners on and off the pitch: How Loughborough acquired a reputation for academic excellence

Loughborough, the university famous for sport, has suddenly acquired a reputation for academic excellence too. Lucy Hodges asks the vice-chancellor how it happened

It's Wednesday afternoon, the day when students traditionally take part in sport, and a group of smiling and fresh-faced students at Loughborough University are powering across the 50m pool where Britain's double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington trained this year before her triumphs in Beijing.

Up the road other students are playing football. I spot a young woman dressed for hockey outside the Sebastian Coe indoor high performance athletics centre and the Paula Radcliffe running track. This, in case you were wondering, is the UK's premier sporting university, which has come top of the British Universities Sports Association (BUSA) league table for decades and sent an amazing 48 sportsmen and women to the 2008 Olympics. Slowly the university is also becoming noted for academic excellence.

This year it came 13th in the Complete University Guide league table published by The Independent. It does well in the National Student Survey and has won six Queen's Anniversary prizes, which recognise outstanding achievement in UK universities; only Oxford has won as many. "There is a genuine caring and nurturing of students here, which includes the way the halls of residence are set up with hall wardens to help students with their problems," says Professor Shirley Pearce, Loughborough's vice-chancellor.

It is perhaps not well known, but Loughborough is good at other subjects as well as sport. Its engineering faculty is outstanding, as is its social science and business school. Radcliffe, for example, studied French, economics and German at Loughborough, and says that she chose the university for its academic rather than its sporting reputation. She was clever as well as athletic, leaving with a first class degree.

One of the young women limbering up in the pool, Joanne Long, 19, who swims for the university team, endorses this point: "I didn't choose to come here because of the sports facilities but because maths has an amazing learning support centre," she says.

She, and the other five young female swimmers, are training for water polo in their lunch hour. You get the impression that they are representative of sizeable numbers of students who play sport hard and work hard. Last year, Long shared a corridor with about 40 other students, of whom six or seven were playing sport for the university.

Professor Pearce believes that where Loughborough has fallen down in the past is in not telling the world how brilliant it is. "That's what I hope we will begin to do," she says. To this end the university is trying to reconnect with alumni in a way it has not done before. "Many of our alumni are hugely successful and are in really important roles from business to engineering and sport," she says.

Investment in alumni relations has been increased, an American, Ron Gray, has been poached from Warwick University as director of development, three new staff have been hired and the alumni database is being expanded. The university is forming relationships with people whom it hopes will be major donors but says it can't make public their names. One runs a private equity company in the Middle East; the other is an Indian entrepreneur.

"When I came here there wasn't much going on in the way of raising funds from alumni, particularly in accessing these big players," says Professor Pearce. "Now I'm saying let's invest in this. We need to get people of influence around the world to start talking about what Loughborough is doing. Our alumni are our very best advocates, so getting back in touch with them is important."

Pearce herself signed up for a three-week fundraising course in Canada and at Penn State University in the US to learn what to do. She then sent the three deans of the faculties at Loughborough on a similar course. "What I saw from the North America experience is that this is a 15-year programme. If we don't do it, Loughborough in 15 years' time won't be where it needs to be."

Pearce has produced a new strategy for the university, identifying its strengths and building on them rather than trying to do everything. She wants to strengthen the links between different parts of sport – the sports development centre, concerned with performance, and the sports science teaching and research facilities as well as the sports technology activities. "There was potential for these different strands to be pulled together," she says.

She wants the whole university to feel proud of its sporting success – and to recognise the profile internationally that sport gives it. Everyone needs to realise that sport has a powerful effect in a number of ways, she says. It is good at enticing young people into higher education, and it is good for the health of the nation.

But, she adds, she doesn't want to force students at the university to take part in sport. So it's always going to be OK to apply to Loughborough for reasons other than sport and to participate only by being a spectator, she says.

"I want to create an environment where people feel they are doing what they want to do. I would feel slightly uncomfortable if people felt under pressure to do things to meet the institution's mission. We're committed to an environment where everyone can aspire to reach their own potential whatever field that is in. That's the original Olympic ideal. We have the elite sport, but we also have lots of sporting opportunities in intramural sport. I should emphasise that you don't have to be good at sport to come to Loughborough."

Professor Pearce believes that one of the reasons why Loughborough is so successful is because of an ethos of commitment to excellence. "That's what I mean about everyone aspiring to maximise their own potential," she says.

"The ethos of sport is that you need training, determination, commitment, discipline, an ability to get up and on again when you have had a disappointment and not to be overly pleased when you have won – all that you find across the campus, even in places that you might think not linked to sport."

The young women in the pool maintain that Loughborough is very different from other universities. It seems to suit them and is undoubtedly the reason the university does so well.