Sports Studies: A Financial Decision?

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The university claims the decision to phase out Sports Studies has not been financial.
Rather, they claim, it is just another step in delivering the university’s policy that excellent teaching should be underpinned by excellent research.

Comments in this year’s annual financial review, however, tell a different story. Following a 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the university slipped in comparison to competing institutions. This led to a £3 million reduction in the annual grant from the Higher Education Funding Commission for England (HEFCE), and a commitment from the university’s treasurer to ‘focus more scarce resources’ and ‘make difficult choices about disciplines where investment will be reduced or ended altogether’.

The Vice Chancellor, speaking to the Wessex Scene, claimed that this had nothing to do with the decision to end Sports programmes, citing the fact that Sports had not contributed any research to the 2008 assessment. However, the implication from the comments in the review is clear; the university would focus on disciplines that would raise the research standard of the university at the expense of those that did not. And its motivation for doing this was financial.

In addition to this, it must be noted that the university received income of over £88 million from research grants and contracts in the last financial year. Bearing this in mind, it becomes difficult to argue that a decision to promote degrees with high levels of research is not financially motivated.

The majority of staff in Sports are employed on teaching only contracts. The university has acknowledged that there were no concerns regarding the quality of teaching or the level of student satisfaction. In addition to this they also recognise that Sports degrees, which make community volunteering a part of the degree for the first two years, have a positive impact on the university’s contribution to the local community.

Further, Sports studies itself, while not necessarily likely to attract large amounts of research funding, is crucial to developing UK sport, important from both a public health and community cohesion viewpoint. In making this decision, purely on the basis of quality of research, the university is ending a course which had high levels of teaching quality, and contributes both directly and indirectly, to the health and well being of wider society.

” I loved my time here and could not think how any other university could outdo Southampton in pretty much any area.” – Final year student, Sport Studies, quote taken from university website.

In the Vice Chancellor’s recently published new strategy, the university claim that they are aiming to make a positive impact on society through community outreach and cultural engagement. However, they also aim to develop research excellence, and become a top 10 ranking UK University for ‘income from research grants and contracts’. On this evidence, it is clear which of these aims will be given priority.

The Consultation Process

Students were first informed of the university’s ‘phased withdrawal from sports programmes’ on December 15th 2009. It is apparent from the email that staff were also informed on this day, the second of the Christmas holidays.

The consultation process regarding this decision is now closed, and a final decision will be made on March 25th. Some students were not impressed with the way in which the consultation process was carried out. Instead of a genuine opportunity to argue the case for their degree programme, they were given a rather weak ‘question and answer’ session with the Head of the School of Education. “There has been no attempt from the University to discuss with students what their opinions are or to involve them in the process. The questions that were asked were all given the same answer. It did seem from that point that the decision was already made up. It was really more of a persuasive exercise,” one student told the Wessex Scene.

In addition to this, the review document that forms the basis of the university’s decision to end Sports degrees has not been made publicly available. The Vice Chancellor explained this by stating that it was commissioned under the agreement that it would not become a public document. However, this has meant those arguing the case for Sports have been required to do so without knowing the full case against. While the university cannot go back on a promise to those who carried out the review, some would argue it would have been fairer not to make such a promise, given that the document was to become the basis of an open consultation process.

From the beginning students were assured that the quality of teaching would be maintained despite the impending closure of the course. However, by January, an important member of staff had already left. Although students have been assured that any vacancies will be filled with ‘high quality new appointments’, the practicality of fulfilling this promise over the four years that Sports Studies degrees will be taught is questionable.

There is reason to complain both about the motivation for ending sports programmes and the means in which it has been done. The timing of the announcement was misplaced and the consultation process has led to feelings of bitterness for those involved. In this respect, lessons may be learned. But as long as government grants are linked to research based assessment and cuts to higher education continue, University management will be forced to prioritise areas that generate the highest income. Staff, students and the wider community are the ones who will suffer.

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