Patrick Oisin Mulholland
“Okay, you all know the rules so let’s get on with it, shall we? Ten points for this starter question: Premiering in 1962 and currently in its 44th season, the popular TV quiz series, University Challenge, has been won most frequently by which institution?”
“Magdalen College, Oxford.”
“Correct! University of Manchester would also have been acceptable. Your bonuses are on …”
University Challenge! Yes, it’s that time of year again. The final is upon us – or rather, it was a fortnight ago, but that is not to say the dust has settled. Far from it! In fact, the storm rages on relentlessly. With colleges from Oxbridge taking up the much-coveted places in the final two, it may not be difficult to guess why there is debate over the show’s current format. Since its inception, Oxford and Cambridge colleges, as sums of their respective parts, have taken home the trophy a grand total of 24 times. All in all, that’s slightly over half of the 44 tournaments that there have been. Still not latching on to what’s at issue here? Not to worry.
The question before us is one of propriety, of fairness. During a 1987 interview, Bamber Gascoigne, Jeremy Paxman’s predecessor, had this to say about the survival of the show,
“There was resistance, particularly… on the grounds that we were elitist… There were far more Oxford and Cambridge colleges that kept coming on.”
In fact, in the 37 matches broadcast in the most recent series, an Oxbridge college has featured in a staggering 22. Such an imbalance has renewed calls for an end to collegiate participation and the distillation of two teams – one for Oxford, one for Cambridge. This way we could expect 13 Oxbridge matches at the very most. Of course, that’s assuming the very unlikely state of affairs that both teams make the final after both having lost their first rounds and one of their quarter-final matches, and – further still – not having the chance to meet each other before the final! Pardon me while I take a deep breath…
Whilst such a viewpoint has my sympathies, I cannot help but feel it is rather misguided and here’s why – neither Oxford nor Cambridge are monoliths. Think about it. Each college retains its own identity and, but for an annual boat race and a shared old town, there is very little that truly unites us.
Intercollegiate rivalry is fierce. No matter how hard I try I will never be a Wadham zealot or even a student at St Hugh’s (the geographical approximation to Oxford of what the Falkland Islands are to the United Kingdom). For goodness sake, just look at Torpids! There’s a reason why my fellow Trinitarians go to the Thames to see The Lady Elizabeth recast as a trireme, emulating the Battle of Salamis. Few, if any students can find it within themselves to rejoice in another college’s triumphs. And – let’s be frank – if they did, it would be a little weird.
In any given year, University Challenge may reliably anticipate 120 applications before whittling them down to 28 TV-primed-teams. Speaking on BBC Radio 4, Peter Gwyn, the executive producer, outlined the tiresome efforts exerted in “cajoling” and “badgering” students to apply.
A thorough selection p rocess – including a test – ensures that the procedure is meritocratic, insofar as it is possible. The best teams progress.
Doubtless then, we find the same names cropping up again and again. Presently, there are three institutions that nurse a strong culture of competitive quizzing – they are Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester. Make no mistake about, in some of these institutions, quizzing is taken very seriously indeed. Some even go so far as to employ coaches. And, with all the tenacity of an Olympic weightlifting crew from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, they perfect their craft; the fruits of which we have seen in Manchester’s harvest in recent years under the watchful tuition of Stephen Pearson.
To this end, the collegiate approach is a godsend, not an injustice. In the words of Cameron Quinn, a finalist in this year’s contest, “What individual college teams allow for is a dilution of the concentration in Oxbridge of both cultivated quizzing skill and accumulated cultural capital.” This way, the programme remains not just enjoyable to watch, it also fulfils the equally important function of continuing to be competitive. The simple problem here is that pooling every ounce of talent into a single team from each of Oxford or Cambridge would almost certainly render them invincible.
In what has since become infamous, the Manchester team of 1975, featuring one David Aaronovitch, rattled off absurd answers in protest against ‘elitism’. Surely that cannot be a point of contention. I mean, come on – take a step back; you are partaking in a bourgeois test of bourgeois knowledge. “[Initiation into bourgeois culture and values] is one of the things universities are for,” explains Quinn, “and Oxbridge is the institutional initiator into the bourgeoisie par excellence.” It’s inescapable. There is no appreciable golden standard of fairness; it will always be a balancing act. And, with a respectable mix of semi-finalists year after year, I see little cause for complaint and little cause for change.
I get as much enjoyment out of testing myself against the contestants on the intellectual battleground of University Challenge as the next person. However, by allowing the two most elite institutions in our higher education system to submit multiple teams, forming over a third of the contestants, the show upholds the bastions of privilege in our society and further perpetuates the Oxbridge bias. Although pitting rival colleges against each other might make entertaining TV, there’s no denying that Oxbridge has a disproportionately amplified voice in the media as it is – be that presenters whose alma mater is Oxford or Cambridge, or just general media coverage – and by consistently allowing inter-college matches to play out, we’re only dishing out more space and time devoted to Oxbridge.
Previous attempts at quashing the Oxbridge multi-team rule, such as in 1975 when a Manchester University team, headed by journalist David Aaronovitch, expressed their disdain by answering every question with “Trotsky” or “Lenin”, have failed to turn around the minds of the show’s producers. But 40 years on, why are we still complicit in allowing this preferential treatment? Why is it that Oxford and Cambridge’s collegiate system is still regarded as unique, qualifying the universities for multiple plus ones in this exclusive party when other universities, like Durham, have several colleges too? The reason given for why Durham’s colleges are collapsed into a single team, competing with Oxbridge colleges which have a fraction of their student cohort, is that they have not acquired ‘proper’ college status as defined by Oxbridge criteria. Despite the fact that here too we are taught within university faculties and by tutors across the whole board of colleges, Durham’s separate college identities can be cast aside because their raison d’être is seen as primarily for accommodation.
It makes perfect sense that the network of universities under the University of London qualify for separate teams, given that UCL and LSE are in fact stand-alone institutions with thousands of students. But how is it fair that whilst Sheffield University may submit one team, handpicked from its 24,000 students, so too can St John’s Oxford, with its 390 undergraduates and 250 postgraduates, simply because of its longer history or by virtue of its endowment being ten times that of Sheffield’s?
Then there are those who profess that having a single Oxford and Cambridge team per series would result in the creation of a UC Frankenstein’s monster, an unbeatable ‘super’ team dominating the competition and turning it into Eggheads. The aficionados of the show love nothing better than to see non- Oxbridge teams conquer an Oxbridge team, and by having combined Oxbridge teams, this occurrence, they claim, would be much rarer.
But this assumption that combined Oxbridge teams would pool all the best players into one unstoppable team is predicated on the centuries-old notion of Oxbridge’s intellectual superiority and quite simply smacks of arrogance – the idea that no other miserly, redbrick university could have a shot at competing with such a formidable opponent is unfounded and downright snobbish. Yes, there might currently be a string of Oxbridge teams in the semis, but is that not to be expected given the inflated number of Oxbridge contestants? Furthermore, institutions like UCL, Durham, Imperial and Manchester have frequently been strong contenders, consistently making at least the quarter finals in many series.
It may be that Oxford or Cambridge will still have a winning team every few years competing as an inter-college amalgamation, but at least it will be on an equal playing field. We need to abandon the conceited and unproven assumption that an Oxford or Cambridge team would walk to victory. And we ought to stop glorifying the peculiarities and quirks that make Oxford and Cambridge so exclusive, and where better to do so than on such a well-known and liked TV programme?