• University Students’ Sport Participation: The Significance of Sport and Leisure Careers

      Haycock, David (University of Chester, 2015-04)
      There is now national and international evidence which indicates that those who have higher educational qualifications are more likely to be present-day and future sport participants than those who leave education once they reach the minimum school-leaving age. In Britain, despite significant government policy and financial investment in interventions designed to boost youth sport participation alongside other favourable trends, including a doubling in the proportion of students entering higher education (HE) since the 1980s, the rates of sport participation among the general population, including young people, have remained relatively static. This is particularly significant for, if attending HE does indeed help explain why university students are more likely to become present-day sport participants and remain sports-active into later life, then one might have expected to observe increases in participation by young people and adults over the last three decades or so. Since this has not happened, definitive conclusions about whether there is a HE effect on sport participation and, if so, what this effect/these effects are, cannot yet be drawn. The central objective of this study, therefore, was to explore this apparent paradox by analysing the development of 124 20-25-year-old undergraduate students’ present-day sport and leisure participation via a retrospective analysis of their sport and leisure careers. The study employed a cross-sectional, mixed methods, research design incorporating structured and semi-structured interviews held at two universities in England between March and July 2011. The findings indicated that the two clearest predictors of differences in the present-day sport participation and sport careers of university students were subject of study and sex, with sport students and males being the most likely participants over the life course and whilst at university. These differences first emerged during childhood, widened from age 12-13-years-old, and remained relatively set from age 16 onwards. The differences in the present-day sport participation of university students, and the richness of their overall sport careers, could thus not be attributed to a ‘HE effect’ as previous research has suggested. It was during childhood, rather than youth, when the preconditions required for constructing short- or longer-term sport (and leisure) careers were formed. The differential childhood socialization practices students’ experienced played a crucial role in the development of sporting habituses and dispositions within their unfolding networks (or figurations) which provided the foundations upon which present-day inequalities in participation were based. In this regard, the assumed contribution attending HE has previously been expected to make to students’ current and future sport participation appears to have been over-stated, and in so doing diverted attention from other processes associated with the inequalities that underlie students’ differential engagement in sport. It seemed that the context of university did little to promote overall levels of student participation, the numbers of sports they played, and the facilities they used. At best, attending HE may have simply delayed the drop-out from sport among those with already established and longer-running sport careers prior to attending university. In this regard, the present focus on raising sport participation among 14-25-year-olds by various sports organizations and facilitators would appear misguided and perhaps doomed to failure, for the evidence of this study suggests that a more appropriate focal point for policy interventions concerned with boosting longer-term participation is not with youth, but with children.