Interviews Opinion

University Challenge: an elitist institution long past its sell-by date?

University Challenge, now in its 50th series, has graced our televisions for over four decades, first hosted by Bamber Gascoigne, before being taken over by the perennially angry Jeremy Paxman. The show continues to be watched by millions, as University students face some of the most obscure questions in quizzing history. Year on year, #universitychallenge trends on Twitter as contestants win the hearts of the British public, with Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull scoring their own show, Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain, off the back of their popularity in the 46th series.

Oxbridge’s teams perform exceptionally in the show, with the last decade of finals containing a college from at least one the universities. Just as niche at the University as the questions they are able to answer, I was excited to speak to some of the captains from colleges who were featured in the series this year, and some that didn’t quite make the mark.

First up was my own college’s captain, Manny Campion-Dye. Manny took over the captaincy of the Wadham team this year, which has not appeared on the show in over a decade. When asked what drew him to University Challenge, he said, “it’s a place that is specifically testing that fairly useless knowledge and an environment where everyone else is interested in it,” the kind of knowledge that is “occasionally impressive.” I wanted to know whether his self-proclaimed party trick took practice, and was surprised by the answer: “when we do training it’s much more about trying to get used to the feel of the questions, and how they work,” as opposed to rote learning; “you’re being given several pieces of information, and you have to think, have I heard of this thing before, what feels like the right answer.”

Wadham has signalled itself frequently as a defender of inclusivity, and with criticism of University Challenge’s supposed elitism both in the lack of diversity in teams and the knowledge it implies is valuable (that taught in the top private schools of this country), its desire to feature on the quiz show was hard for me to reconcile. Manny argued that “it would be very interesting to look historically at the way that those questions have changed because now you are much less likely to be asked about things like Latin or classical music.” For him, “University Challenge isn’t necessarily seen as having the intractable issues with diversity in the way other things are” such as the Oxford Union, which Wadham SU motioned to boycott in 2019. Manny points to a “quirky British sense of humour and sensibility” that helps to lessen this blow, where the show connects art, music and film, for example, through a round on dogs. This, he claims, is what is attractive to the British public, and diverts the show away from accusations of elitism. It focuses much more on the way that people think, as opposed to what people ‘should’ know.

Aside from the shocking revelation about Jeremy Paxman that “he may have a suit on his top half but he’s wearing jeans underneath the desk,” when speaking to Seoan Webb, Corpus Christi’s Captain, we knuckled down to the issue of colleges entering separate teams as opposed to a University wide entry. In response to the idea of one University team, so as to reduce the prevalence of Oxbridge in the show, Seaon rebutted: ”I think this is an idea that’s trying to solve a real problem but at the same time, I see it implementing it would only really make things worse. I approach this from someone who is involved in the university quiz society itself off screen, and does a fair few things of this nature off-screen as well as on. And the issue really is that the raw talent present at Oxford and Cambridge is such that, having them enter as a whole team would, if anything, make this issue worse.  It would probably guarantee a semi-final slot, or at least qualifying slot, for at least one of them each year. This is not me claiming that they’re better than everyone else; it is merely that they have an off-screen quiz culture that precedes those of most universities by quite a number of years, there are more resources, there are more people to support you, and so on. So, I fear that entering individual colleges has its flaws, but I don’t really think that this proposed solution alleviates them in the way people think they do think it does. And I think it actually has the risk of making the problem worse. So for that reason, I would say probably leave an, admittedly, flawed system as it is rather than bringing in a new one, which could potentially make the imbalance even wider.”

Certain players each year seem to get huge attention from members of the public on social media, particularly Twitter, and this was the case for Seoan in his episodes. Responding to this Twitter frenzy, he said: “I wasn’t expecting it, because I wasn’t expecting to do as well as I did on the programme. I mean obviously you don’t want people being nasty and so on because there are people who are very much bothered by that, but it’s never really the kind of thing that bothers me. I just find it bizarre. I suppose, I’m glad that people found me worth watching. And they found that a reason to watch the programme. But at the same time, it’s a team game. This focus on personalities isn’t ideal, although in some senses inevitable. I’m not enormously enamoured by fame, if you can call this fame. I’m not going to deny that it’s nice to be recognized and have people say nice things about you. I’m not going to pretend that I’m some kind of transcendent monk who’s uninterested in things like that – obviously it’s a nice ego boost, but it’s not something I’m going to be obsessed about.”

My final conversation was with Joe Cary, who has captained Brasenose College’s University Challenge team for two years. Asking him (rather pointedly) if he thought University Challenge brought the same Oxford stardom as student politics or journalism, he laughed: “Those examples were very nicely targeted. I think it certainly does give you it, if you get onto the televised stage. I remember my first year, because as Brasenose had gotten on TV the year before, we had a whole JCR watch party for it. And I think three of the contestants were actually in the room with us and I’m sure they were feeling pretty pleased for themselves and like they had quite a lot of clout just for getting to the televised stage. Even though they didn’t do fantastically there, you’ve made it this far, you’re competing against a very good team, you’re on TV, you’re getting answers right. It sort of is quite a quintessentially Oxford thing to represent your college for University Challenge. And it doesn’t have any of the downsides of other things like the libel cases of a student newspaper or the toxicity of student politics – it’s just a bit geeky.”

Turning to my final question to Joe, I asked him whether he saw University Challenge being something that stayed on our screens for decades to come, or whether it was reaching the end of its career in the primetime spot: “I think most TV shows have a sell-by-date,” he replies, “but, University Challenge does seem to recognise that they need to keep up with the times and can’t just use the same tired format of asking questions which favour the education you get at Oxbridge colleges, such as a focus on classics. They are recognizing the fact that the broad areas of knowledge which people in this country care about are actually much more wide ranging. So I think that if they’re going to be engaging more and more people with the questions that they’re asking and the answers that they’re looking for, then they can hold off their sell-by date.” The quirk of University Challenge, the key to keeping such a high-brow quiz show on television, seems to be something no one can quite put their finger on. Despite the questions of elitism and a lack of diversity, people across the country still tune in to watch University students answer some of the toughest quiz questions on TV. Like many a British ‘treasure’, then, this clash between a celebration of knowledge and a dated position of what qualifies it, isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Image source: dullhunk/Flickr

Gabriella Emery is one of the Co-Chairs of the Board. She was one of the Editors-in-Chief at The Oxford Blue from June-December 2020. She reads Classics and French at Wadham College and is going into her second year. When not ruining all things light and wonderful like Christmas (or your dignity and pride), her hobbies include: being a welfare queen at Wadham, fangirling the M&S Deli Counter or confusing having a dog with having a personality.