The former Harvard University President, Derek Bok, commented in his book Universities in the Marketplace that the creeping commercialisation of higher education that he so disliked began with the development of sports in universities. As is well known, in the United States many universities give special prominence to athletes and sportsmen and women, and some of them are able to enter their chosen institution without necessarily having the required academic qualifications. Organisations such as the University Sports Program exist to help young American athletes find an institution that best suits their sporting abilities and interests.
Universities on this side of the Atlantic have now also begun to take a much greater interest in sport, including my own university, Robert Gordon University. In most cases this is underpinned by an academic sports programme, often degree courses in sport science. My last university, DCU, has a Sports Academy which gives special support to young people with exceptional talents in athletics or GAA football (Gaelic football), who are however also expected to perform to a high standards in their academic work. My current university, RGU, runs a sports scholarship programme that helps talented men and women develop their sporting talents while also completing their academic studies. And in passing, I cannot help liking the fact that RGU, too, performs really well in GAA football, connecting my current university with my Irish background. Both universities have been able to support international sportsmen and women – with RGU’s Hannah Miley a 2012 Olympic medal hopeful.
If a country wants to participate at the highest levels in international sporting competitions the universities need to play a key role. Young athletes will need to get some of the best coaching and training just at the time when they are also likely to want to (or need to) participate in higher education. They will also need to achieve academic success to ensure that they have a future beyond the age at which they can compete in their sport. Furthermore, recruiting top class faculty in sports science and developing the necessary physical infrastructure allows universities to introduce important elements in the science curriculum and in health research.
It is true that care needs to be taken that sporting activities are properly integrated into appropriate academic strategies for the university, but where that is done sports can play a very significant role. We probably do not want to go down the road taken in many US institutions, where academic pursuits take second place to sports and where sports coaches can be the institution’s highest earners; but we should recognise the developmental and even academic value of sports and we should support university sporting programmes.