University sports teams and elite sports
A guide to university sports in the UK with information on representative sports, student-run teams, sports scholarships and elite sports.
Representative sports at university
If you want to take part in higher-level competitive sports, virtually all universities have representative teams across a range of sports. However, if your goal is simply to keep fit while making friends, there are plenty of student-run sports initiatives available. If you'd like to train as a sports coach or referee, you may even get help from your university.
In representative sports, student teams take part in matches against other universities and often also participate in local leagues and other competitions.
If you're a member of a representative team, you can expect to play a couple of matches a week: one against another university (usually on a Wednesday afternoon) and the other against a local sports club. You'll also have at least one training and/or coaching session.
Inter-university competitions in the UK are run by British Universities & Colleges Sports (BUCS) and Scottish Student Sport (SSS). From these, teams can go on to compete at European or international level.
British Universities & Colleges Sports (BUCS)
BUCS is the national governing body for higher education sports in the UK, with nearly 170 member institutions (including universities). It delivers over 50 sports and offers a comprehensive inter-university competition structure. This includes the BUCS Nationals, the UK's largest annual multi-sport event.
BUCS also aims to help students get into sports. It manages the development of services and facilities, from social and recreational sports to those required by elite athletes. Its vision is to create the best university sports experience in the world.
The BUCS sporting programme is available to UK students. Over 100,000 students regularly compete in BUCS competitions, leagues and events. It organises over 100 individual final or championship events each year, where it collates results and produces ‘ranking points’ for participating universities. This then shows the overall standard of sports performance across universities.
Scottish Student Sport (SSS)
Similar to BUCS, SSS is a membership organisation representing Scottish universities and colleges. It works to develop sports in the sector and get more students physically active, working with BUCS, sportscotland and the Scottish Funding Council.
SSS offers over 100 competitions a year. The largest annual event is the multi-sport Scottish Student Games.
International university sports competitions
In certain sports, the top university teams in the BUCS competition are eligible to compete in European Universities Sports Association (EUSA) competitions. These are 'Champions League' competitions, providing the opportunity for university teams to compete against the best in Europe.
BUCS also selects the British Universities' teams for events such as the World University Games (WUGs), the second-biggest multi-sport event in the world after the Olympics.
Student-run sports at university
You can get involved in university sports through student sports clubs or intramural leagues where you compete against other teams within your university. Team sports are great for finding the motivation to keep fit as well as giving you the chance to widen your circle of friends. What's on offer comes at different levels: intramural sports, social and recreational sports, and health and wellbeing or lifestyle.
Competitive student sports
If you want to play team sports regularly without committing to serious training or competing for university teams, you can participate in intramural competitions. There are opportunities for regular but relatively casual competition.
Most intramural competitions are available for men or women, although there may be mixed teams in sports such as korfball or hockey. Some sports may involve university staff or the occasional graduate as well as students, and there's usually around one match a week during term time.
Student sports clubs
These clubs and leagues are generally operated by students for students, but are increasingly supported by permanent professional staff within the institutions. Many universities have over 40 student sports clubs. By joining one (or more) you may discover an aptitude for a particular sport and move from beginner to full international competitor in the few years it takes you to get a degree.
An increasing number of universities now employ professional coaches (either full- or part-time) for most of their student clubs/teams. The professionals are often supported by student members with coaching qualifications.
If you're interested in becoming a coach, the cost of getting the necessary qualification – which looks great on your CV – may be subsidised by the club or sports union. The same goes for umpiring or refereeing.
The Brownlee brothers (triathlon) and Captain Heather Stanning (rowing) are among the Olympians whose sporting excellence benefitted from university. For those with real sporting ability and commitment, going to university isn't only a chance to get a degree, it may be the best opportunity to develop sporting talent.
Many institutions offer university sports scholarships or bursaries for students with the potential to achieve great things. Competition for these awards is fierce and the number on offer is limited. Those who get one also usually benefit from additional specialist support services such as free membership of the sports centre, physiotherapy, strength and conditioning advice or special coaching.
Some universities provide limited financial support to help students meet the cost of going to competitions. They may also permit some academic flexibility. In return, you’ll be expected to compete and represent the university in your sport, helping to build the university's sporting reputation.
Elite sports at university
The UK has an elite sporting infrastructure with a range of sports institutes and initiatives designed to nurture the country's future sports stars. Many of these facilities are located at universities, drawing upon their expertise in sports science to hone athletes' talents.
Universities support sporting excellence by providing:
UK sporting scholarships for talented athletes
In England and Wales, elite sports students may be supported by a scholarship from TASS (Talented Athlete Scholarship), and in Scotland by Winning Students. Both are government-funded sports scholarship programmes, delivered in partnership with universities and national sports governing bodies.
Centres of sporting excellence
These can be multi-sport facilities linked to one of the home country's sports institutes, or one or more sport-specific centres. Check university websites to see which ones house centres of excellence. In some cases, these facilities may be used for major regional or national competitions.
Two of the UK's most famous Olympians learned to row at university. Captain Heather Stanning MBE learned to row as part of the GB Rowing Team Start Programme at the University of Bath in 2005. She went on to win Gold at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics with her partner, Helen Glover. Dame Katherine Grainger, who has five Olympic medals, had never rowed before taking it up at the University of Edinburgh. She is now Chair of the board of UK Sport.
You can find out more about what universities offer (including sports scholarships) on our university profiles – check the section on sports and exercise.