The financial predicament of British universities is something many of us are very familiar with. Following the government’s cuts on education, particularly in the Arts and Humanities that has jeopardised Britain’s global competitiveness, British education is in the throes of a crisis that only the exclusively educated cabinet appears inexcusably immune to. Coupled with an extraordinary hike in fees, education has been all but rendered the luxury commodity of the wealthy as in generations past. It has led many to question the value of an expensive qualification that, in the economic climate of the past few years, has too often failed to even guarantee a job.
Many, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, are now forced to question whether to go to university at all, both at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Others, like myself, have turned our sights abroad to the well-funded United States, signalling the beginning of Britain’s own “brain drain”. Those who cross the pond can enjoy the benefits of a commercialised system where affluent, world class institutions are able to offer superior levels of financing for their students, which British universities can only aspire to. They offer generous funding opportunities for postgraduate study and scholarship programmes for undergraduate study, which include sports scholarships. University facilities are often quite remarkable, even including large scale sports stadiums.
I am no advocate of the privatisation and commercialisation of something I consider a basic human right. But I do believe there are a few lessons to be learnt from the system of higher education in the States. Most universities in the US hold a remarkably strong and commercialised sports culture. While education should not be subject to commercialisation, I believe sport is a different matter. Athletics is one of four major categories alongside Academics, Quality of Life and Cost that US universities are comparatively ranked on. Universities take their position on sports leagues as importantly as they do academic leagues, with over $1 billion being directed towards sports scholarships for talented young players if they portray athletic promise. Competitions are taken very seriously, drawing thousands to the stadiums and securing viewership and coverage comparable to Britain’s Football Premier League. Games are shown on major sports channels, including ESPN, and played live on screens at restaurants, cafes and bars. Tickets for games aren’t cheap either: starting at $70 for a basic seat. The more affluent attendee can book luxury booths (yes, the university stadiums even have these) with exclusive views, VIP service and quality catering. The whole thing is an exceptionally commercialised affair, drawing on the remarkable loyalty US universities determinedly nurture in their students. As far as such athletic competitions at universities go, it is expected that they draw some attention, but certainly not on quite such a scale. Why all the fuss?
The games attract thousands of students, both locals and alumni. In the case of the latter, many fly in from across the country for the game, bringing their wallets and chequebooks with them to donate to their beloved institution and encourage the coveted athletes. The significant attention received also draws major corporations to sponsor the games. It is a substantial source of revenue, and sports scholarships are given to those students whose athletic prowess promises to draw further commercial success and revenue from alumni attendees, donations and sponsors. Just as students of academic prowess are valued for their contribution to improving the institution’s academic success, so students of athletic ability are valued for their contribution to athletic success. The level of attention and commercial success the games achieve is astonishing. This, combined with the powerful attachment students hold towards their institutions that lead them to donate in the millions.
It strikes me we’ve missed a trick in Britain. Those of us who have been through British universities will probably fail to recall any significantly publicised university game, apart from the back page of student newspapers, let alone keep track of them following graduation. Many of us, unless actually involved or a keen athlete, will barely know a university team even exists. Publicity is minimal, teams are low profile and games are relatively muted. Loyalty exists, but not quite at the level it reaches in the States. Less still are translated into significant financial donations. Sports scholarships – something that in the current exorbitant fees climate many students could benefit from – are non-existent. In the absence of a commercialised sports culture, there is no call to sponsor a student who will not draw an audience and generous donations as they do in the US.
The American universities’ sport culture is something I believe we, in Britain, can and should learn a lesson from. Drawing on the combined passion for a sport and loyalty to an institution, this is an opportunity for British universities to strengthen the bonds with current students, retain the attachment of former students and secure financial gain for their ailing institutions. These funds can then be directed to reducing tuition fees to affordable levels, financially supporting disadvantaged students and funding the research that renders our institutions the world class centres of learning they are. And for those of us who have sought our fortunes elsewhere, it may finally provide an opportunity to come home.
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