Review calls for Cambridge sports overhaul

Image credit: Ian Wood

Funding and organisation for university-level sports have come under intense scrutiny recently, as a Sports Review has criticised the current system.

The review aims to create a Cambridge University Sports Committee which would replace the current Sports Syndicate. Currently, it is the Syndicate that advises Council and University about facilities and policy.

Alleged problems

The syndicate nature of the body has been accused of being too distant from the University and it structure, because it is not part of the annual planning round where competing proposals are measured against each other.

It has been further criticised for the lack of University staff, aside from the Director of Physical Education, as members of the syndicate. This means that there is no guarantee of any direct link to any of the major committees within the University.

Critics have argued that it is more difficult for sports funding to come to the attention of those with the power to grant it. The main means of contact between the Sports Syndicate and higher powers currently is an annual report, described by The Blue Bird as “extremely ineffectual”.

The Review Committee's findings

These issues were all raised at a Senate-House discussion on Tuesday 21 January 2014 by the chair of the Sports Review Committee, Professor Jeremy Sanders. According to the Cambridge University Reporter, he and his team recommended that “a University Sports Committee should be established as a joint committee of the Council and the General Board. It should be given overall responsibility for all aspects of University sport, including funding (both internal and external) and organisation, and health and safety and reputational risks”.  The review committee concluded that the independent nature of the syndicate was a weakness rather than strength.

Senate House. Credit: George Rex

Student support

These recommendations have been met with enthusiasm by the sporting student body. Some athletes have reservations over whether the review goes far enough but there does appear to be a sense that there is a step in the direction. The Blue Bird is currently spearheading the campaign to get the proposals through the vote, which is to take place on the 7 November. Their petition currently has over 600 signatures.

Editor-in-Chief of The Blue Bird, Tom Bennett, welcomed the Sports Review, arguing it was “an extremely progressive step.” He said it contains a “core of positive proposals”, such as the newly formed Sport Committee that, if passed, “will lay the foundations for the changes that we think are of fundamental importance....a means to an end.”  He criticised the current Sport Syndicate as “powerless” and “out of touch with the key decision making elements of the University....[which] shall remain marginalised until it is replaced”.

CUSU funding concerns

Students are being supported in this campaign by CUSU. CUSU have also criticised the level of funding for sports societies. Jemma Stewart, CUSU Co-ordinator, told The Cambridge Student: “At CUSU, we’re well aware that the University has not given enough priority to funding and supporting the student experience  - especially sport – and it’s something we’re looking into running a campaign on. Whether or not the ballot passes, the University has much more to do”.

Stewart has been asking other Russell Group Universities’ Student Unions how much direct funding they give to sports clubs and societies. Of those that do, the figures were between £200,000 and £700,000. While it is impossible to identify a precise number, as the recent Report on Sport emphasized, the Sports Syndicate budget for direct funding to societies was approximately £130,000. This does not include college funds, nevertheless many have argued it indicates a below-par level of funds, particularly as societies have been turned away from the Syndicate in the past.

Criticism of the proposed changes

Opposition has mainly stemmed from some academics whose objections can be read in the Cambridge University Reporter. Their primary concerns appear to surround the removal of the right of the committee to report directly to the University, the suitability of having the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education as the chair and the lack of representation for the Senior Treasurers of sports clubs. There is also concern as to how the committee would apply for funding.

During the Senate-House discussions, Director of Physical Education Mr Anthony Lemons stated “This report envisages that sport should be downgraded to a service, like buying rubber bands or paper clips. It leaves no room for vision, imagination or innovative strategy.”

When contacted for comment, Lemons requested that students read the notes of dissent from those on the Council, but added that "It would be inappropriate for me to comment further". 

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