Exclusive Interview: Mark Goodwin on sport at Exeter

Callum McKay

Please scroll down to the end of the article to read the interview with Mark Goodwin in full.


Sports interview
photo: Hermione Blomfield-Smith


t has been a rather good month for the University of Exeter:  Top 100 in the world for the first time, once again in the Top 10 in The Times Good University Guide, and also thanks to The Times, Exeter has been voted Sports University of the Year 2016. This momentous accolade was in recognition for Exeter’s sporting success and academic achievement in Sports Studies and research.  I sat down with Professor Mark Goodwin, Deputy Vice Chancellor, to discuss it.

The Times Sports University of the Year award is given in terms of the sporting facilities available, the engagement of students in sport, and the quality of the academic research and education done in sport. For Exeter to excel in these three criteria and be placed above sports universities such as Loughborough is, according to Professor Goodwin, “absolutely fantastic”, as he believes this award will help attract more students who are interested in sport. “We’re already noticing people coming to open days since it was announced and asking about it”. Additionally, it helps promote sport at the university in general to help keep Exeter at the forefront.

We’re conscious that as the Penryn Campus develops and as student numbers grow, we need to provide the facilities to match that.

One of the key methods of keeping Exeter at the forefront is the significant investment in the facilities across all campuses. In the last ten years £20 million have been invested in sport. But with £9 million being spent on the Streatham Campus sports park and £4.6 million spent on a new sports facility in Penryn, it may look as if Penryn is lagging behind the other campuses. However, Professor Goodwin sought to allay these concerns, stating, “I think we’re conscious that as the Penryn Campus develops and as student numbers grow, we need to provide the facilities to match that. So the new sports centre is obviously a major breakthrough in that regard.” Of course, £4.6 million compared to £9 million is roughly half what is spent on the Streatham Campus. But what must be taken into account is the proportion of investment and upgrades in relation to the number of students. Taking this into account, Professor Goodwin believes “We’ve spent more here per student than we have in Exeter.”

The new sports facility is due for completion during the academic year of 2016-17, and will offer students of both Falmouth and Exeter universities brand new sporting opportunities that bring Penryn much closer to the opportunities at Streatham. For example, Penryn currently offers a 45 station gym, while Streatham provides 200 stations. The new sports centre doubles this number and will also include a sports hall for the first time. Instead of having to work around the schedule of a school sports hall, students will have access to a full sized indoor space that can be used for basketball, badminton and other indoor sports including football. So no more frozen five-a-side nights on the MUGA!

All these new services will no doubt be a welcome blessing for serious athletes competing at national levels, but Professor Goodwin also hopes these new facilities will help to enhance the student experience. He said, “We would see the provision of top quality sports facilities as being part of the overall package that we provide for our students, and I think it is important that students have time to engage in activities outside their studies.”

Exeter’s fine sporting quality is evident not only through the title of Sports University 2016, but also as it is the BUCS top institution for golf, rugby and men’s hockey. When asked whether there was a particular sport he wanted to see added to Exeter’s list of table topping sports Professor Goodwin stated any sport was a positive result, though he emphasised the rise of women’s sports and the success Exeter’s female teams are enjoying, both on a university and international level. Here at Penryn in particular women’s sport is constantly growing as efforts are being made to establish the FXU Ladies Football Club and a women’s American Football team.

The growth of sport at Penryn is a clear sign that efforts are being made to bring Cornwall up to the same level as Exeter, not only in sport but in all areas. As Professor Goodwin says, “It’s a question of balancing investment across all activities to provide the best possible student experience.” Based on the awards and accolades bestowed upon Exeter this year, you’d have to say it is not far off.


Interview in full

How will this accolade help a) the university and b) its students?

First of all, I think it’s a tremendous accolade for sport at the university, it’s absolutely fantastic for us to be voted sports university of the year, to come ahead of major sporting universities like Loughborough is fantastic for us, um, the award is given in terms of both the facilities you have for sport, the engagement of students in sport, and also the quality of the research and education that you do in sport. So the fact that it covers those three things is important to note. In terms of what it means I think it will enable us to um attract more students who are interested in sport. I think it will enable us to… promote sport a bit more than we do at the moment. It is a major thing for the university and the university has invested heavily in it, and I’m sure we’ll come on to that later, but I think it will give a real kind of impetus to sport across the university. We are doing a lot of publicity around it so I think that will help and actually we’re already noticing people coming to open days since it was announced asking about it. So I think it will just have a knock on effect on the students who apply and we should be able to go on and do more and more because if we get more students applying who are interested in sport and it will help to keep us at the forefront.

You spoke earlier just then about the idea of the facilities being improved and so on, in the last 10 years £20 million has been invested in the university in sport alone, £9 million invested in the sports park at the Streatham Campus, and £4.6 million on other sports facilities including the new one here at Penryn, but do you think that given how much more is being spent on Streatham that somehow Penryn is lagging behind in sport and being a smaller campus does that have an effect?

I think we’re trying to address that and I think we are conscious of that which is why we’ve just spent over £4 million on the new sports centre for Penryn. So I think we’re conscious that as the Penryn Campus develops and as student numbers grow, we need to provide the facilities to match that. So the new sports centre is obviously a major breakthrough for us in that regard. It is funded by both Exeter and Falmouth and obviously be available to students of both universities which I think is important. So actually if you look at the percentage spent, that £4.6 million going into sport here, probably means we’ve spent more here per student than we have in Exeter actually.

So the proportional level of having much less students down here makes sense and it’s going to the local community as well.

Well we want to make it available to the local community to use, but obviously students and student societies will have first call on it, but we also want to open it up for the local community to use.

On the subject of proportional levels, a few figures on the facilities down here as opposed to the ones in Exeter. Here there’s a 45 station gym as opposed to a 200 station gym and so on, and…

And we’re doubling that number in the new facility, so again we are conscious of that.

Could you give us an idea of what facilities will be in this new upgraded centre?

It will be a sports hall for the first time, so at the moment the Penryn Campus doesn’t have its own sports hall, we’ve had to use the sports hall at the school, which means we have to fit around their timetable and it’s a fairly small hall. So this will be a sports hall which will have a full sized basketball court, so it’s equivalent of four badminton courts, and obviously it can be used for other indoor sports such as indoor football and things. In addition to that as I said we’ll be doubling the number of gym stations. So there will be a much larger gym space.

That sounds good because I know in the case of the indoor football how useful that is because I play football at the five-a-side pitch and it’s not fun in the pouring rain which you get in Cornwall quite a lot so that’s definitely a step forward.

Exactly so hopefully you’ll be able to make good use of that. So, you know, it’s kind of doubling the existing gym stations and also adding a brand new sports hall.

There was an email by your colleague Steve Smith sent out a while ago about this incredible accolade, and he mentioned quite a lot of the sporting achievements of the students that go on to national competitions and so on, but again it was very much the achievements of Streatham and St Luke’s, so do you think, with these new facilities sporting achievements down here can be just as successful?

I would really want to think so. As you know the FXU run a sports bursary scheme, so there’s an opportunity for what we call elite sportsmen and women to use those bursaries to travel if they need to get to places for elite competition, if they want elite sports teams based in Exeter they can do that. But I think you always have to keep a balance between elite sport and the more mass participation if you like because not everybody can be an elite sportsman. So what we try to do is to provide facilities for both kinds. So the person who wants to use the gym once or twice a week, we also need to cater for them but we also need to cater for the student who’s representing their country. So I’d like to think we can use those sports bursaries here so that if anybody is at national level and we do have students at national level on the Penryn Campus, that they’re able to use those bursaries to travel and do the training that they need to do. So, as you say, it can be difficult because of the issue of scale, but I think we now have sufficient students between Exeter and Falmouth to be able to justify a provision of this size. It will be used, comprehensively I hope, and with that should come a future enhancement, and we continually keep these things under review.

Just away from the elite sportsmen because as you say not everyone’s elite, with the facilities coming and the current facilities on campus, how important are they for the growth of interest in sport for students in terms of enjoying their student experience?

I think they are very important. I wouldn’t want to say that everyone should make use of them, people make their individual choices. But I think it’s important for students to have that choice to make. We would see the provision of top quality sports facilities as being part of the overall package that we provide for our students, and I think it is important that students have time to relax, have time to engage in activities outside their studies. Of course in Cornwall you’ve got fantastic facilities off campus, you’ve got facilities for water sports you know you’ve got a beach a few minutes away, you’ve got surfing racks in the halls of residence, so you’ve fantastic facilities for all kinds of outdoor sports in Cornwall and leisure facilities generally and I would urge students to make the fullest possible use of them.

Talking about the beach, there was an article a while ago talking about students applying to ‘thrill seeker’ universities and Falmouth was one of them because of access to the beach and surfing and so on. Do you think that this different ethos in some way have an effect in terms of how sport is invested in or viewed on different campuses?

Potentially, we’re very conscious that we need to offer a really first class student experience and we need to cater for different types of students and sport comes into that package. Certainly students will choose to come here because of the nature of the surroundings and students who feel comfortable here wouldn’t necessarily feel comfortable in the middle of London and again we are conscious that some of our student societies will reflect that. So you’ve got societies that make use of the surrounding area, you’ve got societies that make use of the beach like Kayaking or Surfing and you wouldn’t do that in the middle of Birmingham or London, you’d have to travel two or three hours to a place where you could it. So it does attract a different sort of student and we want to make those students feel comfortable here and we want those students to have the types of provisions they need.

Can you give me a quick insight into your work because doing a bit of background, you were the Dean of College of Life and Environmental Sciences, looking at Biosciences, Psychology and Sport and Health, what goes into that and how has that contributed to the sports university of the year accolade?

I was very lucky in that I was Dean of college that included our sport and health sciences department that’s based at St Luke’s. We don’t offer a Sport and Health Sciences degree here because we don’t want to duplicate that provision. But for me as Dean it gave me a real insight into the academic side of sport, the study of sport, the study of sports psychology, the study of elite sport, the study of coaching could again be used for the benefit of students, not just in a pedagogic way in that those staff are running degrees on sport and exercise science, they’re running degrees in sport and psychology. Those degrees are worth the same as any other degree in terms of their academic rigour. But also the ways in which people involved in those degrees might also contribute to sport in general in the university. So I know some of the academics are involved in some of the student societies around sport. We are very lucky, we’ve got people who work in the Sport Sciences department who are actively involved in national sports teams. We do work with Manchester United and other premier football clubs. We help to coach elite Olympic athletes; we’re working with members of the UK athletics squad all the time. So that knowledge is bound to have an effect and that’s one reason we’ve been chosen as Sports University of the year.

The British Universities and Colleges Sports competitions began a few weeks ago and Exeter was third in 2014/15, what does the university need to do to go two better in 2015/16?

We’ve done extraordinarily well to get to that position for a university of our size. We have a sports scholarship scheme which encourages those top quality sportspeople to apply and attend Exeter. I think we just need to keep on the path we’ve been going on, so get the right kind of coaching support in, get the right general support in and I think the key is that students enjoy it. I think the more you’re able to enjoy your sport and the more you are able to combine that with your studies then the better you’ll do. I played a lot of sport at university and I know how important it is to combine the two and fit them in together. So I think we need to keep on performing at the level we are performing at.


What sports in particular did you play?

I played football, an awful lot of it.

In that case, I probably know the answer to this, but Exeter being the top ranked institution for golf, rugby and men’s hockey, is there a sport in particular that you’d want to see Exeter at the top of?

I would love to see Exeter at the top in football, but I think any sport. What’s particular pleasing is the rise of female sport and the performance of some our women’s sports teams. We’ve had a lot of international women’s athletes. I would want to encourage everyone to get involved in sport if they felt they wanted to. It’s nice to do well at anything and I wouldn’t want to privilege a major sport like football or rugby necessarily over other sports I think we need to cater for as wide a range as we can.

Are there any visions for future development?

There are always considerations, we are very conscious that we have to keep our facilities at the highest possible level. It’s always a question of fitting in developments in sport with other developments because obviously our students want fantastic lecture theatres and fantastic labs and fantastic libraries and it’s a question of balancing investment across all these activities to provide the best possible student experience in general. So I think we are constantly looking at what levels of provision we do need to provide and I think having made major investments in the last couple of years in sport at Streatham and Penryn there aren’t any immediate plans because these things take time to plan and build. But all the time we have a rolling programme of improvements and upgrades going on. And we constantly look at our student numbers and the size of our student body, we monitor the use, we check if we’ve got enough of things, as you said we were conscious we didn’t have enough on Penryn so we put the £4.6 million in, so I think it’s a constant watch on what is necessary. I’m sure there will be major upgrades in the future but they’re not planned for next year.