‘Union Funding Barely Keeps Us Afloat’: UCL Water Polo and the SU

Robert Delaney

The first rule of water polo is to keep your head above the water. Yet, the UCL Water Polo Club is struggling to stay afloat due to the lack of fiscal assistance they receive from the Students’ Union (SU). The club’s inability to pay for regular pool sessions and basic equipment has seen them turn to external sponsorship, with the Union’s insufficient funding forcing the society to not partake in the British Universities and Colleges Sports League this year. 

In an interview with The Cheese Grater, Ruari Woodhead, the team’s social secretary, explained the constant uphill battle his, and other smaller sports societies, face without sufficient funding. Ruari explained that UCL Water Polo is a mixed team, with those identifying as women accounting for ‘around a quarter of the regular squad’. 

The Club has a ‘very inclusive atmosphere’, and is known for its non-participation in many of the exclusionary customs practised by more mainstream sports societies like Men’s Hockey. Surely the club ethos of UCL Water Polo is something that the SU would want to promote and facilitate? With the SU securing a multi-million pound investment from UCL in 2023, one would think that money should be pouring into societies like Water Polo. After all, the SU has promised to give ‘every student access to a sporting offer that meets their needs’ following their recent investment. 

Despite its drastically increased fiscal ability, the SU could only give Water Polo ‘a £250 increase on [their] already tight budget for meeting the 30 member threshold’. One hour-long pool session for water polo costs £110, so ‘£250 is literally two weeks of training’ stated Ruari. Not only is this a minimal amount of money for societies that need to rent expensive spaces (like pools), it also didn’t reach the Water Polo club until ‘months after’ they’d reached 30+ members. Ruari, expanding on his initial point regarding diversity, said that ‘to facilitate the greater accessibility of Water Polo, a sport often only played by private schoolers, the SU needs to invest more to allow us to become fiscally secure and have the ability to increase participation’. With very few mixed-gender teams across UCL, Water Polo’s position as an inclusive society is unique. But, without the proper funding, the club is struggling to stay buoyant.

Ruari also told The Cheese Grater of the Club’s sponsorship ordeal. Due to their stringent fiscal situation, the club had to turn to Ruari’s dad, the owner of a beer delivery company, for help. Ruari’s dad agreed to sponsor the club, allowing them ‘to get enough water polo caps for the whole team’. With this most basic item reliant on sponsorship for delivery, it is clear that the SU is not sticking to its flagship promises of facilitating all sports clubs in UCL. The SU’s financial delays meant that it took from November until early January for the sponsorship money to reach the bank account of the Water Polo Club. During the 22/23 academic year, the bureaucracy of the Union prevented the Club from partaking in a game against St Barts Medical School (the RUMS of QMUL) due to a lack of caps, pointing to not only the SU’s lack of funding, but also its inefficient accountancy process. Finley Littlefair, the club’s captain, told The Cheese Grater that ‘the problem still remains a whole year later’, with each of their recent fixtures only taking place due to their opposition not claiming ‘a walkover’ (an enforced forfeit) against them for a lack of caps. 

We mustn’t forget that UCL Water Polo has won Varsity three times in recent history and are a valuable asset to TeamUCL nearly every year. However, due to their issues maintaining sufficient levels of participation, resultant of the society’s lack of funding, Water Polo was not selected to take part in the UCL-KCL annual sports fixture for this academic year. On the topic of other London universities, Imperial College London, which has its own pool, sees its Water Polo team train ‘4 times a week, allowing them to compete at a much higher level, with greater participation’. Ruari explained further that the lack of subsidised travel meant that both seasoned veterans and prospective team members ‘found it difficult to afford train fares to games outside of London’. 

‘If we had a bit more money, and could train even twice a week, we could become a great society here at UCL’. The inability of the Union to provide the appropriate funding to smaller sports societies, whilst Rugby, Football and Hockey maintain their fiscal monopoly, is counterproductive to their aim of ‘Transforming Student Life at UCL’. The case of UCL Water Polo stands to show that the SU’s policy of diversity in sports and increasing participation is failing, and that more needs to be done to facilitate a greater range of people to take part in non-traditional sports, or sports which are usually consigned to the swimming pools of the country’s largest public schools. Ultimately, more needs to be done to ensure that societies, like Water Polo, don’t merely stay afloat, but can thrive in our student community.