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A Guide to UK University Sport

Sep 14, 2023

Sport plays a big part in UK university culture. Whether you’re an elite athlete or trying a sport for the first time, universities are committed to ensuring an inclusive sporting environment for all of their students. There are many options to get involved at UK universities and we provide an overview below.



Performance programmes cater for elite athletes and are the UK’s equivalent of varsity sports. Performance athletes typically receive an enhanced support package compared to their non-elite peers, with offers varying between institutions and individuals. Support packages vary in scope, but they typically include physiotherapy, nutritional support, strength & conditioning and access to sport psychologists.

 Athletes at the performance and club level compete in inter-university leagues run by British Universities & Colleges Sport (BUCS) and Scottish Student Sport (SSS). As well as competing in BUCS & SSS leagues, elite athletes sometimes compete in other national & international competitions and can even be classed as semi-professional or professional athletes. 

Performance programmes usually employ full-time coaches who are dedicated to the success and development of the programme. Performance programmes are different at each university – whilst one sport may be a main focus at one institution, it could be a club or social sport at another. Whilst some universities have specific performance sports, others choose to support athletes on an individual basis within designated sports. 

One difference between the US and UK is that performance and club teams usually sit within one club structure. A performance squad may be referred to as the ‘first team’ or ‘elite team’, with club sports taking up the second, third, fourth team spots, and so on. Some clubs are so big, they have six or more teams within their infrastructure! 



Club teams are usually run by students, for students. Athletes are coached by part-time staff, volunteers or qualified students but there are also instances where club teams are supported by permanent staff, particularly at universities with large sporting cultures. 

From soccer to rowing to ultimate frisbee, there are a breadth of options to get involved. Whilst club sports don’t usually receive the same level of financial or athletic support as performance teams, that’s not to say they’re any less competitive. Many club teams have competitive trial processes and play at a very good level. Some club sports, such as ice hockey, do not participate in BUCS/SSS competition, instead competing in alternative national leagues.


Intramural Sport

Not ready to commit to a full schedule of club sport but enjoy the thrill of competition? Meet intramural sport. Halls of residence at universities across the country battle it out each week in a variety of different sports and leagues, in the hope of being crowned campus champions at the end of the academic year. From American Football to tennis, there’s lots of sports on offer and it’s typically free to participate. Intramural sports are a great way to meet new friends, stay fit and get competitive – after all, hall culture is a huge part of UK university life. 



Social sport programmes provide an opportunity to gather friends and play sport in a friendly, competitive environment. Social sport leagues allow you to define your own level of competition and it’s a great way to stay active and take a break from your academic commitments. There are opportunities to get involved in social sport at universities across the UK and it’s usually free to participate. 


Recreational Sport

Recreational sport programmes offer free and inclusive activities specifically designed for students. They allow anyone to participate in an environment that is free from competition, inclusive and fun for those who want to exercise, keep fit and play sport.

Fancy trying something completely new? Many athletic clubs also open their doors throughout the academic year to allow students to try their hand at a new sport, completely free of charge. 


Coaching & Volunteering

We can’t talk about all of the great sporting opportunities in the UK without mentioning coaching and volunteering! Many universities have their own sport-specific coaching and volunteering programmes, allowing students to gain real world experience and formal qualifications. These opportunities provide valuable sport based coaching, volunteering and leadership opportunities that enhance student experience and personal development. Other universities have general volunteering set ups, with sport opportunities incorporated into the wider offering.