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    University Challenge accused of bias towards Oxbridge colleges in selection process

    The BBC has denied claims that it is ‘hiding’ the extent of Oxbridge bias on its quiz show University Challenge. This follows accusations of elitism on the show made against the corporation. 

    Frank Coffield, an emeritus professor of education at UCL and visiting professor at Sunderland University has launched a campaign for fairer entry rules for the show, which he has described as a rigged contest, The Guardian has revealed. 

    Coffield submitted a freedom of information request to the BBC, asking that the number of Oxbridge teams that have appeared on the show, since it was revived on the BBC in 1994, be revealed. 

    The BBC rejected the request, saying that the information was withheld “for the purposes of ‘art, journalism or literature’”. A spokesperson said: “We actively encourage a variety of educational institutions to apply to University Challenge and welcome greater diversity on the show. There’s no secret as to who’s been on University Challenge over the years, as the programme has been televised.”

    Coffield told The Guardian that he was suspicious of the BBC’s refusal to respond to the request. He asked: “What has it got to hide? Quite a lot, I suspect.”

    As part of his campaign for fairer entry rules to University Challenge, Coffield has argued that it is unfair and evidence of bias that Oxbridge colleges are permitted to enter individual teams onto the show, whilst other larger institutions such as the universities of Birmingham or Manchester can only enter one team. 

    The discrepancy has to do with the fact that in Oxford and Cambridge, teaching occurs primarily at college level. The Wikipedia account of the entrance rules for University Challenge states: “Teams consist of four members and most represent a single university. The exceptions to this are colleges of the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, which enter independent teams. While a number of other British universities have constituent colleges, only those where some teaching is undertaken at the college level may enter independent teams.”

    In defense of these entrance rules, a BBC spokesperson said: “All education institutions that design and deliver teaching towards university level qualifications are welcome to apply to University Challenge independently.

    “This is not limited to Oxbridge colleges, but also includes around 300 colleges of further and higher education across the UK, several member institutions of the University of London, and a number of UK conservatoires and art schools.”

    Coffield did not accept this as a response to his charge of bias. “It still does not explain why more than 70 Oxbridge colleges are treated as separate universities,” he said. “You don’t get a Christchurch college university degree [sic] but an Oxford degree. My main criticism still stands and the BBC is avoiding answering it.”

    According to the University Challenge website, Oxbridge colleges have on average made up 10 of the total 28 teams in the last nine series. They have won 27 of the total 51 previous series. 

    This came as no surprise to Coffield, who stated: “Obviously, if you have 10 raffle tickets out of a total of 28, you are more likely to win prizes than if you have one.

    “Could it perhaps be that the corporation has been run by successions of Oxbridge graduates who’ve turned a blind eye to this inequity?” Coffield alleges that “The rules of University Challenge were set originally to continue the dominance by Oxbridge of our cultural and intellectual life and to protect the unjustifiable advantages of elites.”

    When asked, one Oxford student quizzer highlighted the success of Oxbridge in the British Student Quiz Championships – Oxford and Cambridge have won 17 of the 19 editions to date – suggesting that on University Challenge “the current system is probably objectively unfair, but probably also makes for better TV”. 

    “If the producers were to force Oxford and Cambridge to enter one team each, you can almost guarantee that one of those teams would win every single year. You can also guarantee that dozens of Oxbridge quizzers who could easily captain half of the teams in the tournament would never make it to TV.” 

    The student also said that “the show should also give a pretty representative sample of the current state of the UK university system, which it clearly doesn’t – I know people at the likes of Chester Uni who wouldn’t even consider attempting to get on the show, despite being decent quizzers, because they feel the system just isn’t built for institutions like theirs.”

    In August 2022, Jeremy Paxman, the erstwhile face of University Challenge, said he would be stepping down as presenter. Amol Rajan will take his place for the 53rd season, which will air in Summer 2024. 

    Paxman, Rajan, and Bamber Gascoigne – presenter of the show between 1962 and 1987 – all attended Cambridge colleges.

    Image Credit: James/CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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