Essi Lumme: The coronavirus pandemic can leave its mark on higher education sports for a long time

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The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected the sports services of higher education institutions and spurred them to action, and its effects will be seen for a long time. Vice-President Essi Lumme describes what OLL’s follow-up survey reveals about the effects of the pandemic on higher education sports.

In the spring of 2020, we carried out the first survey on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on Finnish higher education sports. Then the survey results were alarming: up to 45% of the activities came to a complete standstill. As the pandemic continued, we carried out a follow-up survey. The results are not positive this time either. A clear majority (10/13) of those higher education sports service providers who answered the survey say that their operations came to a complete standstill or were partially halted in the autumn of 2020. Their operations were partially or completely halted in many places at the beginning of spring 2021.

The most widely halted activities were instructor-led group fitness classes (12/13 respondents) and indoor exercise opportunities (12/13 respondents). The distribution of the answers was in line with the results of the previous survey. However, the higher education sports service providers did not rest on their laurels. When they could not provide services normally, they focused on developing their activities. This way, they developed new ways of organising sports and minimising personnel cuts. So, the pandemic has had both positive and negative effects, but its impact has been mainly negative.

Impacts on the economy, communality and the future

The higher education institutions have reacted differently to the negative effects of the pandemic. Reducing expenditure has been the most common type of economic adjustment. According to the follow-up survey, the respondents have reduced expenditure in more areas than in 2020, but the most common area is the same: reducing outsourced services (7/13 respondents). Some municipalities compensated for the charges for hiring facilities for those months when the operations were halted. Half of the respondents tried not only to reduce costs but also to increase their income through e.g. campaigns.

In addition to economic challenges, the survey highlights reduced social interaction. When the activities are organised online, those who do sports will no longer interact with each other in the same way. An important part of the significance of higher education sports is lost.

The number of users of the sports services has also decreased, as already observed in last year’s survey. The sports services have not served the needs of new students as they normally do, and many have found the services they need in the offering of commercial operators. This has raised concerns about the future among the higher education sports service providers: how many students will return to higher education sports?

The pandemic accelerated development

Fortunately, the effects of the pandemic have not been only negative. The suspension of operations has forced the respondents to develop the activities in a new direction. The main area of development has been online activities. The most common forms of activity have been remote or video-based sports instruction (11/13 respondents) and offering encouragement and advice on self-motivated exercise (10/13 respondents). The respondents believe that organising activities remotely will in some way remain part of the operations in several places. This enables students in network higher education institutions to have more equal sports services and supports the operations of all higher education institutions in future exceptional situations.

Many respondents are concerned about the future of the sports services. Although none of the respondents assessed that the state of their operations is critical as the pandemic prolonged, the majority (8/13 respondents) reported that they had to make internal adjustments to balance their operations and economy.

We must continue to monitor the effects of the pandemic, because while the restrictions closed the facilities of higher education sports, many commercial operators continued to operate relatively normally. It is only when the situation normalises that we will get more detailed information on the proportion of students who have permanently changed from higher education sports to commercial gyms and how this will affect the sports services of the higher education institutions.

The 13 respondents to the survey represent 16 higher education sports service providers.

Essi Lumme

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