Being a full and active member of a sports club in St Andrews is no easy task. Trying to balance both coursework and training is undoubtedly something all athletic students can relate to. On top of this, it is also a financial struggle.
Drawing on our own sporting experience, quick questions to current club members and snooping on the likely cost of sport at other universities, we were left undecided as to whether St Andrews represents a special case.
What became immediately clear is that there is an upward trajectory, a theme of improvement, across all sports and facilities. Members of the Boat Club (rowing) have been promised the construction of a boathouse, without which the club has soldiered on with watercraft simply laid down outside at the mercy of the elements. More money is being ploughed into individual clubs.
The gym has been rearranged and improved a little this year: an expansion of the sports hall will, we are promised, be started next year. Such changes, inevitably, take a long time. Meanwhile clubs are expected to earn their funding: in their first year, clubs are not extended any financial assistance from the Athletic Union (AU) and existing clubs must push hard for extra funding. Several members of the handball squad have testified to the difficulties that this poses. Yet they are far from the only club placed under financial strain.
Travelling home at the end of the semester is tricky enough: competing in BUCS could mean bussing a squad to Exeter, the furthest possible trip on the mainland. Never mind the time expenditure, the travel can be eye-wateringly expensive. Renting a minibus from the AU will cost a club around £40 per day, plus petrol costs. For the Rowing Club, transport to away fixtures routinely costs between £6 and £12. For the cheerleaders who have three national, sometimes international, BCA University Championships a year, these costs hit hard. Minibus hire is always around £600 for a weekend when transporting 36 athletes across the country and that is without the added fuel costs. The fact their transport budget from the AU is, relatively speaking, a measly £400 means the club gets hit hard – hence the regular Cheerleading bake sales often seen outside the library.
This experience seems to be shared across the board. The badminton club have for the first time this year entered a second team into BUCS matches, thus doubling their number of games a year, yet their transport budget has only been increased by £35 to £535 for the year. The club therefore need to raise the other £465 off their own bat.
Mountaineering’s budget has taken a hit of 25 per cent from last year. The £1800 they receive this year as opposed to the £2400 last year is not sufficient to cover their trip costs which is why they are still pushing for a bigger transport grant. The knock-on effects of having less money in the club to put towards equipment and training can taint the experience of these adventurers.
Even when overcoming these financial obstacles to get to the tournaments, further financial concern awaits with members paying for competition entry. Costs range from a basic £10 for individual entry to rifle and Frisbee tournaments, to a pricey £181 for solo cheerleading events. For a sport as popular as ultimate Frisbee members are still expected to cough up £20 for each tournament.
For some sports, of course, equipment is a perpetual financial demand. One member of the Rifle Club spoke of a £30 ammo fee each month. Although one can always argue that, with sports like rifle shooting, members should be aware of what they are letting themselves in for financially, it is nevertheless arguable that precise fees could be made clearer to new members. For members of sports clubs in general, the impression emerges that the purpose of their financial outlay is often far from obvious.
To put things into context, a year’s membership at the gym costs £115. For those who only use the gym facilities with a sports club there is a prerequisite cost of £44. Yet even for members of clubs who never set foot inside the gym – the Mountaineering and Rifle Clubs, for example – this cost must still be paid. Whether this constitutes financial exploitation is up for debate. Certainly, though, it is far from financial transparency.
Yet even when gym facilities do not come at any discernible cost, the twin luxuries of space and free equipment are only meaningful if you are free during the ‘working day’. Trying to go before or after a day of lectures will result in queues, not to mention the pressure of a peer breathing down your neck waiting for your set to finish.
A couple of Google searches puts this fee and its ‘value for money’ into perspective. Having seen other University gyms on open days, it is clear that the St Andrews gym is relatively small. The University of Bath’s cavernous ‘sports village’ – replete with swimming pool, acres of weights stations, cardio machines, the works – is free to access for Bath students paying full tuition fees. Of course we all knew on application that St Andrews is a rather different university experience: just as much as we knew that we were not going to get the nightclubs of Newcastle, we were clearly not going to get a Loughborough-style ‘sports village’ adjacent to the village of St Andrews itself.
Using Durham University as a reference point in terms of scale, then, would be a fairer point of comparison. They pay slightly more for full membership, depending on which gym they use (£120-140 compared to £115 in St Andrews) but the crucial difference is the value for money: each of their gyms has dedicated rooms for Ergos and Spinning on top of multi-purpose activity rooms and weights rooms. They also have 3G pitches, astroturf pitches, a fencing salle, an indoor rowing tank – the list goes on. When crammed around the few chairs in the sports centre waiting in the queue for weights and a stint on the Ergo, it is clear that the facilities are not large enough. Expansion is planned and changes are made every year: the problem is that we are already paying top-dollar for sub-par facilities. It will be interesting to see whether gym prices rise to reflect the improvements the facilities need.
Of course having access to such a variety of competitive sports clubs is itself a privilege and we would do well to remember that. Certainly, from the perspective of sports fans, it is easy to overlook that fact. Nevertheless, it can still be said with some justification that prices for sport in St Andrews are somewhat excessive. The accusation of ‘top-dollar for sub-par facilities’ certainly holds a lot of credence and over the coming years it is up to the AU to justify these prices or risk adding to an already burgeoning sense of resentment.