University Challenge doesn’t just need quotas — it needs structural change
Yes, there are too many Oxbridge colleges on University Challenge. But that’s only a small symptom of the wider problem
Image credit: Phil Fisk
Every year, as University Challenge gets into the swing of its newest season, two recurring questions start to pop up on social media and in the national press: a) why is this show all white dudes with RP accents? and b) why are half of the teams Oxbridge colleges? These are both good questions, and they’re definitely things that bother me — and I think they should bother you, if they don’t already. This is a show that’s meant to represent the UK student population, and it’s obvious that it’s not currently very representative. (In addition to the obvious Oxbridge skew, women make up over 50% of students but less than 25% of UC contestants.)
Polly Smythe has published the most recent of these articles today, talking about the Oxbridge college bias. Said article features actual quotes from multiple current contestants, which is great, considering that a disappointing amount of people who have written about UC appear to think that deigning to talk to the actual people who have done the show is somehow beneath them. Or that learning anything about the rules of the show is also somehow beneath them. (Here’s looking at you, Anne Robinson.)
Plus, Smythe’s right. It is absolute weapons-grade bullshit that almost half of the University Challenge field is Oxbridge teams. Of course it is. I mean, look, I’ve benefited from the Oxbridge individual colleges system directly, given that I captained an Oxbridge college team; many of my brilliant friends have also been on Oxbridge college teams, and they are all excellent quizzers and I am very glad they got on the show; but even I can see it’s bullshit. It’s a flagrant injustice and perpetuation of privilege to have that many Oxbridge colleges on the show.
Here’s the issue: the problem goes far deeper than a too-high Oxbridge head count. Smythe’s suggestion in her article is to limit Cambridge and Oxford to one team each, but that wouldn’t work as well as she’s imagining. Why? Going solely off the stats we have, they’d still win almost all of the time. Out of the last fourteen final-reaching teams, thirteen were Oxford and Cambridge, and that was colleges — those teams are picked from a restricted pool of approximately 1/30th of the university. If you’d pooled the entire university and picked the four best quizzers out of that total, the dominance of these two universities would, it would seem, move from significant to astronomical.
Plenty of people make this same argument, but they make it from a frankly idiotic position of believing that Oxford and Cambridge are magical smart people universities and that they dominate solely from a position of having the cleverest students. But I’d invite you instead to think of it as indicating that something’s off. Oxbridge’s academic selectiveness is a very small part of the reason they dominate at UC. (Oxford and Cambridge perhaps have a higher-than-usual concentration of exceptionally brilliant students, but the majority of the country’s exceptionally brilliant students are not at Oxbridge.) These are much bigger reasons:
· Resources. Oxford and Cambridge are both extremely well-funded universities and have the most prominent, well-funded quiz societies in the country, stacked with previous alumni from the show. You can attend UC training at quiz society meetings; plus, you have a wealth of advice available to you, especially since the interview format is basically the same each year. Compare that to a university that doesn’t have a quiz society at all and hasn’t had anyone on University Challenge in the past decade (or ever). A dedicated enthusiast at a non-quizzing university will have to put in so much more work to get anywhere near UC. At Oxford and Cambridge, there are resources and there’s infrastructure.
· Pre-existing scene. This connects to the first point; the fact that there’s a big Oxbridge presence on University Challenge is self-perpetuating. The show is visible at Oxbridge — there are a bunch of alumni walking around, there’s a clear link between the universities and the show, and so Oxbridge people are more likely to try out because they’re aware of it as a thing they can do.
· Cultural privilege. This is the most crucial one. The knowledge that University Challenge rewards isn’t neutral: it’s highly tied to a middle-to-upper-class upbringing, in a certain culturally versed family environment. Because Oxbridge is dense with unusually privileged people, it’s packed with the kind of people who see University Challenge and go ‘I could do that.’ Honestly, critically watch a UC episode sometime and have a think about what knowledge it rewards. Endless Greek and Latin derivations (‘from the Greek from…’), knowledge of operas and famous paintings in art galleries, European and American geography, classical music, monarchs, world politicians. Then think about what kind of upbringing is most likely to result in people recognising Rigoletto after barely a second of listening to a music round.
Cutting University Challenge down to a singular Cambridge and a singular Oxford team is the equivalent of hanging a picture over a gaping hole in the wall: it would definitely be better optics-wise, but it’s also a nice and easy way of ignoring more difficult problems. Talking about privilege and stopping at Oxbridge head count is pretty short-sighted. For one thing, you’d be surprised how many contestants on UC competing for non-Oxbridge teams have previously completed at least one degree at Oxbridge, then gone to a different university for postgrad. For another, though Oxbridge is a concentrated bastion of privilege, privilege does not actually end there; many Russell Group universities have a disproportionately white, middle-to-upper-class cohort. Filling the field with primarily white, male, RP-speaking teams from Russell Group universities that aren’t Oxbridge would be less ‘shaking things up’ than ‘limply jiggling them.’
Ultimately, the problem is deeper than that. University Challenge is a really weird show: we talk about it in very intense ways when it is, ostensibly, a nice dumb quiz show with students where Jeremy Paxman gets mildly scandalised when people mix up their regnal numbers and state capitals. But UC has a very particular kind of cultural capital; we look at it and talk about it in a way different to every other show full stop, let alone every other quiz show. When we talk about UC, we’re never actually just talking about UC. We’re talking about society, class, youth, the education system, ‘intelligence’, culture…it’s always felt weirdly emblematic of something big for us — because it is. Which is why I say, from a position of affection for the show and gratefulness for what it has given me: the problem is deeper than the Oxbridge bias or the male bias or the white bias. The problem is the show itself — and, beyond that, what the show is a symptom of.
This is a show that liberally rewards people who grew up being taken to the opera and going on holidays across Europe, with a presenter who habitually ridicules students for not knowing ‘basic’ facts (read: what are assumed to be common knowledge in a shared middle-class Anglophone education) and makes fun of students for knowing things about less ‘high-class’ topics (such as video games or pop music). Viewers, when they watch UC, are watching an overwhelmingly privileged group of students who have access to what we, socially, view as a highly class-linked form of intelligence and ‘polish.’
That’s why the contestants inspire this strange mix of alienated admiration and disgust on platforms like Twitter; we’re performing high-cultural fluency in a very strange and distilled way. Answering these questions wrong means you’ll be ridiculed as stupid, but answering them right means you’re kind of…inhuman. But if you’re animated and very obviously human in your mannerisms and speech, then you’ll also be ridiculed and treated with suspicion. Despite the remit of the show, in a very real way, the audience does not see us as amateur students; they see us as sort of detached actors, the performers of an unreal kind of ‘intelligence’ deeply rooted in class and privilege, the reinforcers of a canon.
Filling that role takes a toll on the contestants, too: UC requires students to publicly test their own knowledge, which is equated with their intelligence and self-worth, on TV and then read the audience dissecting them further on social media, without any substantial preparation for what that will be like and what that will do to you (trust me, it can really mess you up). That’s a scary-as-shit thing to do. Therefore, those who apply to University Challenge are likely to be people who are more secure in themselves than the national average: people who have certain privileges that shield them from vulnerability, such as whiteness, maleness, and being at Oxbridge, which confers an extreme — and unwarranted — marker of status in our society.
Of course, there are still a minority of people who do UC who are more vulnerable, such as women, people of colour and trans people. Maybe they get through the barriers because they’re particularly confident, really committed to quiz/the show, or feel motivated by the idea of beating the odds. I know both first- and second-hand, however, that those people often suffer quite a lot when the episodes start screening.
So, what do I want? I do want representation to be improved on the show. I want to see more women, more people of colour, more people from working-class backgrounds, more non-British people, more people from underrepresented universities on the show. Aside from anything else, it makes the show significantly better, because it’s so interesting seeing a diverse range of people pool their separate knowledge bases to get to answers. And it was lonely and scary being targeted for my gender on-screen — which may have been helped by more female & non-binary contestants.
But I am sick of seeing the debate end there, because as long as UC is as much a cultural flashpoint as it is a dumb quiz show, we can’t stop the debate at, for instance, ‘we should really have more women’. You have to reach the next stage from that: why aren’t women applying? How do women contestants get treated? What does UC test and reward, and how might the metrics of the success at UC be shutting out women? How might the UC format make women vulnerable? Also: why do we want women on the show at all? Why do we care who the contestants are? In a very real sense: why do we care about these people? (Because, as a society, it appears we do, as much as it continually surprises me.)
The Oxbridge college overrepresentation is a problem, but the problem isn’t the Oxbridge colleges. The problem is that what the show is designed to reward is reliably reproducing structures of privilege. More than that: what we consider to be worthwhile knowledge is also often tied to structures of privilege. I quiz in several different formats now, and you learn pretty quickly that every format has a different type of knowledge that it tests/rewards and different reasons for rewarding that particular kind of knowledge. There is so much valid knowledge that we would not consider valid knowledge, often because we’ve been taught some people are more important than others, some countries are more important than others, some perspectives are more important than others — and often because it’s always been the same people writing the books (and writing the quiz questions, as it were).
So, what do we do to mitigate that? We can ask different questions, broader questions. The question-writers are starting to do this, such as asking more questions about underrepresented women in history and the sciences — a laudable move that has, predictably, been met with scorn. We can refuse to reproduce these little rituals of mockery around ‘lower-class’ knowledge. We can change the format, so that it emphasises the (extremely important!) teamwork element more, rather than putting a highly pressured spotlight on individuals. We can continue improving recruitment processes for the show. We can provide media training. We can try to find ways to make the audience be less shit to students. We can listen to potential contestants about what’s putting them off, and current/former contestants (like me! I write for hire!) about what we can do to improve the processes.
Saying University Challenge would be better if you cut out a bunch of Oxbridge colleges misses the point: society would be better if privilege and vast swathes of resources wasn’t clustered in a tiny area of society, and that tiny area wasn’t then bathed continually in praise for its achievements and abilities. University Challenge’s issues are social issues, shrunk down, put on an extremely blue set and stared at uncomprehendingly by Jeremy Paxman.
If you were to ask me, I’d say reducing the college quota is probably a good idea, but reducing it down to a single whole-university team probably wouldn’t work well at this stage — though I’d still be interested to see how it’d work in practice. As it is, just arguing about how many Oxbridge teams there should be is the equivalent of repositioning the picture on the wall: no matter how perfectly you place it, the giant hole’s still going to be there. All quiz shows have a hole somewhere — we live in an imperfect world — but don’t act like the angle of the picture is the real issue.
Finally, in terms of structural changes, there’s a big thing we can do right now and which I plan to stop doing in precisely one paragraph’s time: stop writing thinkpieces on University Challenge. Honestly. I like UC, I’m grateful to it, I’d be happy if it continues, but I do think we would be socially doing a little better if it was bumped down a couple of notches in terms of media attention and had a few less oversimplified media pieces inadvertently elevating its cultural power. Write about something else — maybe about the things you were actually writing about when you thought you were writing about UC.