United Academy 92: Delivering education that is more than a qualification

“This idea that it can’t be taught as well – you can’t become tougher and have a better character and personality and more resilient – it can be.”

Gary Neville

The ‘Class of 92’ a term most English football fans have come to associate with the all-conquering Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United team of the 1990s and who have often been described as ‘the greatest generation’ in the history of English football have now embarked on a totally different challenge. Since ‘hanging up their boots’ the Class of 92 – Gary Neville, Philip Neville, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs – have embarked on a number of collective ventures including buying Salford City Football Club and Hotel Football in Manchester. Their most recent venture, ‘United Academy 92 University’ officially opened on August 15th and provides courses in business, media and sport, supported by Lancaster University?

Founding a university is not regarded as common practice for ex-premiership footballers, but then the Class of 92 were never ordinary. They describe themselves as being passionate about helping others develop the mental and physical capabilities that prepared them to succeed. Put simply, they want to give young people a start in life that’s as exceptional as the experiences they shared throughout their careers. The philosophy of United Academy 92 is founded on unlocking greatness, sharing knowledge and making connections. These are all great taglines but what does this look like in practice in the newly established university.

When reading through United Academy’s 92’s Prospectus it is evident that they have formed a unique educational approach which puts character and personal development at the core of the learning experience. With references to character development running throughout the prospectus and subsequent course design United Academy 92 aims to provide students with a distinctive and personal approach to higher education. Students will not only study academically, focusing on their chosen subject in-depth, but they will also have access to a separate Target Talent Curriculum which focuses on a series of character traits, including critical thinking, self-discipline, and ethical leadership. Over the course of a year students will receive a maximum of 20 credits based on the Target Talent Curriculum and attendance will be compulsory. Every student will have a personal development coach who will discuss and support them personally and refer them to physical and mental well-being professionals for specialist advice if necessary. The ambitious aim of United Academy 92 is to produce motivated young people who are resilient, reflective thinkers who are able to communicate in a modern world and have a desire to be lifelong learners. Enrolling in United Academy 92 is described as more than a degree – its preparation for life.

Through research projects such as Teacher Education: Character and the Professional Development of Pre- and In-Service Teachers and Virtue, Practical Wisdom and Professional Education the Jubilee Centre has recommended that higher education include a greater input on the character and ethical development of their students. Therefore it is refreshing to see an institute taking on this advice and making it a priority for their students. This is an ambitious project and only time will tell if United Academy 92 is deemed a success but its current creative approach to education must be commended.

With the Class of 92 now throwing their hat into the character education ring it seems appropriate to examine what role sport can play within character development. It is a common assumption that character is developed through sport but is this always the case and if so how? The use of the language of character in sport, particularly team sport, is well known and focuses predominately on the performance virtues, particularly the ideas of resilience, determination, teamwork and ‘bouncebackability’. Are these the only virtues sport can foster in young people and if so should we be happy with this? These questions amongst others will be discussed at a consultation on character and sport hosted by the Jubilee Centre at St Georges House, Windsor on 12-13 December 2019.

Michael Fullard, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues

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