University Challenge was biased towards Oxbridge when I worked on it, and it still is. But there’s a fix | Lillian Crawford

It’s hard to argue that University Challenge isn’t elitist. The quizshow relies upon the assumption that Oxford and Cambridge will be the favourites to win, aided not only by virtue of historical reputation, but by the fact that individual colleges are invited to enter thanks to an archaic entrance process devised in 1962. This creates a programme premised on class divides, illustrated weekly by social media users who post the satirical image of Scumbag College sitting atop Footlights College, Oxbridge in a 1984 episode of The Young Ones.

Professor of education Frank Coffield is calling for the programme to address this bias, and has complained to the BBC regarding the weighted screen time given to Oxbridge students – given that these two universities constitute about a third of the teams competing.

Full disclosure – I am an alumna of Trinity College, Cambridge and a former University Challenge contestant. I also worked on the current series as a questions researcher and casting assistant. But I agree with Coffield that there are too many Oxbridge teams. I applied for the job to try to diversify the question subjects, in the hope that this in turn would begin to change who applies to compete. I no longer work on the programme, but if University Challenge wants to remain relevant and representative of the UK’s student body, diversification must continue. Limiting Oxford and Cambridge to one team each should be a part of that process.

The argument in favour of keeping the historic casting rules seems to be that having one team apiece for Oxford and Cambridge will render the competition a two-horse race of “superteams”. Both would no doubt submit strong entries to the competition, but in the pressure of the studio and under the fire of a changing set of questions, no team is infallible. While Oxbridge colleges have won 27 out of 51 series to date, they have not taken the trophy since 2018, with Edinburgh, Imperial College London and Warwick each defeating an Oxbridge team in the final since. In 2022, Imperial were victorious over Reading, the first final not to feature Oxbridge since 2013. The tide is turning.

This has been stimulated by the establishment of quizzing cultures in more non-Oxbridge higher education institutions, partly thanks to the outreach work of the University Challenge producers. Yet this work is undermined by retaining the old application process whereby every Oxbridge college is invited to apply individually. The result is that out of about 120 annual applications, 70 come from Oxbridge; these are then whittled down to 28 for the competition proper.

Jeremy Paxman with the 2013 University Of Manchester team.
Jeremy Paxman with the 2013 University Of Manchester team. Photograph: BBC/Granada Media/PA

University Challenge was formulated six decades ago as a battle of wits along the lines of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race: the nation’s best universities pitted head to head with a smattering of redbricks thrown in to shake things up. But given that the mandate of University Challenge is to show a cross-section of the higher education system, it is an absurdity to say that roughly a third of the UK’s university makeup is represented by Oxbridge students.

The programme is produced by ITV’s Lifted Entertainment owing to the ownership of format rights, but since the programme’s 1994 revival on BBC Two with Jeremy Paxman, major decisions such as who hosts the show are the prerogative of the BBC, as are the institutions they elect to feature. We don’t know if the rule allowing multiple Oxbridge colleges to apply was reconsidered by the production team after Paxman’s exit from the series in favour of Amol Rajan this year. But Oxbridge teams were invited to apply by college yet again. The message that University Challenge continues to disseminate is that attending Oxbridge is the key to success. It’s notable, too, that all three hosts have been Cambridge alumni.

There are a multitude of factors that favour Oxbridge at this stage. The invitation documentation landing on the desk of an administrator at an Oxford college of 700 students is far more likely to be taken further than in a university of 45,000. Applying for the series is demanding, involving self-organised tests and practice sessions, which are far easier to manage in a small institution. This is acknowledged by the producers, and the initial stages are seeded such that Oxbridge colleges knock each other out early on.

Looking at the current series, it’s worth observing that Oxford and Cambridge had four colleges each this year, the lowest number to date, only two of which – Newnham College and Jesus College, Cambridge – have made it to the quarter-finals. Ultimately, it’s not an institution with its collective brainpower competing in University Challenge – it’s four students, each with a buzzer and a microphone. The BBC can argue that every student in the country has the opportunity to sit at the table, but right now, some are being given more opportunity than others.


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