We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.


Durham University named The Times and Sunday Times Sports University of the Year 2015

The following appeared in the Sunday Times on 21 September 2014 to announce Durham University as the winner of The Times and Sunday Times Sports University of the Year Award 2015 (Article by Zoe Thomas)

Fit for purpose: success on the field of play and in community outreach programmes puts Team Durham ahead of the pack

Think university sport and – until recently – the chances are you would not have thought of Durham. But times have changed and Durham has capped another outstanding season in inter-university competition with our title of Sports University of the Year, pipping fellow sporting big hitters such as Loughborough, Birmingham and Bath to the post.

The award acknowledges the sporting transformation wrought by Durham in the past decade, transforming it from an institution with strength in rugby, rowing and cricket– into a genuine all-rounder.

The university attracts elite student athletes in a wide range of disciplines and today boasts 45 sports clubs, from archery to ultimate frisbee. Its teams have seen off all but Loughborough in the overall points league of the British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS) Championships for the past three years on the trot. Durham’s women’s teams, meanwhile, outstripped all their rivals in 2013-14 – Loughborough included.

Alongside its teams’ podium-hogging is Durham’s sought-after BA in sport, exercise and physical activity, which was ranked as the top sports science course last year by The Times and The Sunday Times and has slipped only slightly, to third, in our course league table this year. In the 2014 National Student Survey, the course scored 89.7% for student satisfaction across a range of measures covering teaching quality, assessment and feedback, learning resources, course structure and personal development.

The university invests in sport, boosting its stable of top athletes via 12 vice-chancellor scholarships each year worth £2,000 a year for the duration of the scholar’s degree. Quentin Sloper, head of sport, music and drama at Durham, credits the university’s scholarship scheme with its BUCS success.

“Where we are relatively unique – almost with the exception of Loughborough – is the volume of target sports that we’ve now got. You’d see a lot of universities with seven or eight focus sports that they’d be genuinely very good at, but less strong elsewhere,” says Sloper. “We’ve now got a platform that is around 20. Which is why we’ve risen in the BUCS table to where we’ve risen, and why our profile generally, thankfully, has gone through the roof.”

Hefty tranches of budget are allocated to growing sports facilities, and the university has invested in a rowing tank, water and sand astros, ergo galleries and virtual X-biking together with its regular pitches, courts and sports halls. “We’d be lying if we said we didn’t need to kick that on again in the coming years,” says Sloper. “We are always looking for the next facility development.”

While Durham is a natural home to the cream of the athletic crop, sport here is not limited to the top performers. An energetic 92% of students participate in some form of sport, so couch potatoes have little choice but to get up and go.

Edging this statistic ahead of the pack is Durham’s collegiate structure, which fosters healthy rivalry among undergraduates that the Team Durham sports association channels into a busy intramural sporting calendar. In the past academic year more than 6,000 students took part in over 5,500 intramural fixtures, with lacrosse, rugby and tennis among the 15 weekly programmes for 380-plus teams.

The Team Durham brand is everywhere you go in the city – giving even Superdry a run for its money – with students wearing the branded tracksuits tailored to their particular sports as a badge of honour.

As everyone knows, however, it’s not always the winning – or competing – that counts, but the taking part. The university’s “development squads” make this possible. According to Sloper, if there could ever have been a criticism of the university’s sport, it could be that everything was competitively focused. But in the past three or four years inviting people to take part in recreational sport has got about 2,000 further students active each year, as he explains:

“If somebody comes for a freshers’ trial, rather than them being turned away because they’re not good enough, we invite them to be part of a development squad, which is about recreational sport. So we’ve got 150 recreational tennis players who don’t play college tennis or university tennis but have a session organised for them once a week when they can just knock a ball about.”

Canoe poloist Beth Barratt won a vice-chancellor’s scholarship for her kayaking skills to study Durham’s sport BA. She graduated last year and then took over as Team Durham president. She plays on the women’s and the men’s canoe polo teams, helping both to win gold in the BUCS championships last year. She also coaches the teams and still finds time to train with the Team GB canoe polo squad.

While Barratt was thrilled to receive her scholarship, she says the university did more than just assist financially – it treated her like a professional athlete. “They also helped me with physio, they gave me a strengthening and conditioning coach, and helped with time management. Team Durham supported me in a lot more ways than just money. It was really beneficial, especially for a small sport like canoes where you don’t receive that much attention.”

The River Wear in Durham provides the main facility for canoeing but the university also bought kayak ergos for indoor training in winter and paid to hire a swimming pool for team practice. “The training here is exactly what I needed to be able to compete,” Barratt adds.

Third-year sport BA undergraduate and university first-team lacrosse player Louise Jeffrey went to Durham from Wycombe Abbey school in Buckinghamshire with A*, A, B at A-level. She describes getting on her course as “very competitive”, with most of her peers achieving higher than the entry requirements. Jeffrey says the combination of top-level lacrosse and a world-class degree combined to make Durham her first-choice university.

She has not been disappointed. Alongside training for one or two hours five days a week with the lacrosse team, plus occasional weekend practice sessions before big matches, she is enjoying her studies and the excellent course facilities, especially the physiology lab.

She says: “They’ve got really high-quality, high-performance equipment that we can use. And for me that’s incredible. We can access GPS units if we want to use them for dissertations. They take an overall assessment of the sport when you wear them, they measure how far you run, how fast you run. You can wear them on the field. We’ve got treadmills, bikes and ice baths set up for tests.”

Jeffrey taught lacrosse to children at a primary school just outside the city as part of the university’s sport community outreach programme. Durham engages with all the 47 local schools and the city’s main clubs, as well as opening its facilities to almost 2,000 children each year through specific events; school holiday sports camps (which are always sold out); and dedicated training weeks for children in specific sports.

Students also bring sport to hard-to-reach groups such as youth offenders, substance misusers and homeless people via the community scheme and a number go to Zambia each year to support the development of sport there.

Sloper says the justification for the outreach initiatives is twofold: “At the heart of it, while we hopefully are doing a lot of good to a lot of people, it is also about giving our students that unique opportunity to develop in a different way.”

Employability is the buzzword, he says, and the leadership and development opportunities offered by university sport – be they in performance, participation or community outreach – help Durham graduates stand out from the crowd. “The key thing from our perspective is sport as a tool for developing an individual, so they come out as somebody that is different to when they came in the door.”

Winning on the field of play, academic success in the sports science laboratories, mass participation by students and a concerted programme of community outreach have put Team Durham well ahead of the field in the past year.

For many students, their three years at Durham are just the start of a lifetime of sporting endeavour at their chosen level of competition.

With a roll call of sporting alumni that includes former England rugby union captain Will Carling, two former England cricket captains in Andrew Strauss and Nasser Hussain, triple- jump world record holder Jonathan Edwards, television presenters Gabby Logan and Chris Hollins, and Paul Hawkins, developer of the Hawk-Eye ball trajectory tracking system, Durham University sport has serious pedigree. The university has everything in place to make sure it continues to make a winning case.


You can see all of The Times and Sunday Times University League Table 2015 here: Sunday Times University Guide 2015