University Challenge – thoroughly outdated, it’s time for it to go

University Challenge is a hallmark of BBC2 programming, celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year. But its structure is thoroughly outdated, and completely misrepresents academic rigour.

This year is University Challenge’s fiftieth birthday. Some might want to applaud the longevity of this programme and would like to see it continue championing so-called academic excellence long into the future, but they seem to miss the fact that the format is completely outdated, and indeed contributes to misplaced notions of elitism about Oxbridge and other top universities. As such, I think the time has come to condemn it to broadcasting history.

So what’s wrong with University Challenge? Ultimately, it’s an issue with the very notion of the programme, in that it hinges on universities to provide teams of undergraduates to compete for victory in a challenge of general knowledge. The problem this creates is that it associates academic rigour and standards with the ability of a few select students to answer a never-ending stream of largely highbrow fact-based questions quicker than another team, until the most effective human Wikipedias have been found, crowned, and later on in their academic careers, gowned. The issue here isn’t so much asking questions about knowledge per se, but the connection with universities, and the focus on general knowledge.

Such an approach is stuck in a wholly outdated notion of what academic rigour is. In the past, entrance to Oxbridge relied on being able to succeed in general knowledge tests of similar style to the questions often asked on University Challenge. Students were expected to show general knowledge in a range of areas related to the arts (often classics) and the sciences. In the 21st century, however, our notion of who the best students are has changed radically. If you want to be a biologist, then in depth knowledge of works of art isn’t going to get you far. Similarly, whilst it can’t hurt to have a good understanding of the sciences, historians will ultimately be successful based on their ability to study history. In other words, academic study for an individual at higher education level has become focused within one or a few disciplines, and the thoughtful study of those disciplines in depth, so the existence of a general knowledge test to get into universities like Cambridge seems rightly completely outdated. Yet this is the model of knowledge and academic rigour that University Challenge uses, and what makes this a particularly big issue is that by framing the show within universities, the show implies that high standards in university education are equated with a broad general knowledge of atomised facts, rather than quality research and thoughtfulness. Ultimately, what use is there in being a human encyclopaedia in a world where we have instant access to the real thing? What’s the point? These students aren’t necessarily going to be the most gifted academics in the university because of their general knowledge, because that’s not what universities are for. That’s why we have dissertations in the arts and projects in the sciences, not a long list of questions with sentence- or word-long answers.

Some may take this as an attack on knowledge in general, as though I am suggesting it is wrong for people to ‘know’ facts. This is not what I am saying at all. In fact, I’d like to use another example of a TV programme which I think does this better – Mastermind. This show is different from University Challenge in two ways – firstly, it primarily allows you to specify the topic you would like to be asked about, thereby at least rewarding knowledge about a particular subject, and secondly, it doesn’t pretend to assess academic excellence, just to be a game (incidentally, I’m aware that there are general knowledge rounds, which I think defy the point of the show, and should be scrapped – it seems pointless to ask people to be an expert on a particular topic if they then cannot win the show without general knowledge too). It is crucial that it is a gameshow, separated out from academia.

On a simply practical level, there is a greater level of luck than may initially be deemed the case – after all, students in a particular field are inevitably more likely to be able to answer questions in topics in that field, and so the selection of questions in a particular round will skew a team’s chances of success away from ability and towards the chance that someone on their team will be well versed in the subject being asked about. Clearly this is why teams aim for a range of subjects to be covered across the four people, but for four people to attempt to represent the whole field of academic study possible at university is ridiculous, and fails to understand the breadth of study possible at university today.

A further issue is that by featuring teams of often entirely white middle-class people answering questions about composers and artists from centuries ago, it can only perpetuate an outdated notion of the top universities. Oxbridge ends up connected inextricably and almost exclusively with highbrow culture, which isn’t necessarily connected to academic rigour – knowledge of classical music, for example, isn’t an intrinsic aspect of being a good student (unless, of course, you are studying music). As such it may alienate students who are less interested in highbrow culture, but are still academically gifted, from applying to top universities.

Whether a better alternative to University Challenge can be designed is a different matter. It would probably revolve around dissertations and projects rather than facts, as that is what undergraduate study is about. Some truly exciting research is going on in our universities, so to perceive that the best way of discovering academic quality is to ask a few students a load of irrelevant questions seems perverse. I’m sure many will disagree, but perhaps that’s just because it would make all that time spent reading encyclopaedias a waste.

  • Jonny Walker

    I’d love a TV show about my dissertation but nobody would watch it apart from me, again and again.

    I disagree a fair bit. First of all, I don’t think many people really equate University Challenge with academic rigour and few people forget that it is just a gameshow. I appreciate what you say about how it rewards a particular sort of knowledge that is no longer the core of university teaching but, really, it’s not completely disappeared. You mention History – the Liam McNultys and Sam Anders’s of the world need a range of skills and abilities, but also they needed to be able to reference the dates, events and other ‘memorisables’.

    I daresay I might have done better if, instead of moping in a slumber through June, I had really gritted my teeth and memorised enough theorists, names, dates and buzzwords to convince the Criminology markers that I knew what I was talking about.

    And also, because I’m in a disagreeable mood, I will also disagree with what you are saying about student pursuing individual disciplines needing, ultimately, to have knowledge only about that discipline. If Dawkins only spoke of biology, he would be a crusty angry nobody. Most of the major sociological and philosophical thinkers of the 20th century are praised precisely on their ability to synergise academic disciplines and schools of thought – Foucault’s position as an academic philosopher is marginal compared to his interdisciplinary forays into spatial geography, social power relations, European history and sexuality.

    More now than ever, I think interdisciplinarity is in, so having a good knowledge of a wide range of subjects is favourable. Not that Paxman’s little no-brainer is going to develop that because, like I said, it’s just a game innit.

    PS Yes, having a picture of Foucault does make me look obsessive I know.

    • Kenichi Udagawa

      Feel free to disagree, this is exactly what I think we should be doing, rather than answering general knowledge questions. First of all I want to reiterate that I’m not opposed to knowing ‘memorables’, nor am I opposed to multidisciplinary study. But this has little to do with the challenge of university. Firstly, while exams reward the ability to recall memorables, this has little to do with what universities are really about, and to my mind serves to show that exams are a similarly poor method of assessment, at least for the arts. In terms of multidisciplinary study, this has little to do with general knowledge, as such an approach is about being able to understand different modes of thinking, rather than acquiring ‘memorables’ about, for example, music, art and history. I do say in my post that students may well study a few disciplines, but again, this has little to do with ‘general knowledge’ of the kind University Challenge advocates.

      My argument really hinges on the fact that the programme makes an explicit connection with universities, and students from within particular universities. I’m not even saying the show format isn’t at all valid in any context, I’m just saying that connecting it entirely and exclusively to universities isn’t. Call it something else, and let any team compete, and it’s fine. But to class it in such broad terms as ‘university challenge’ seems quite sweeping. It seems the same as suggesting that ‘spelling bees’ are a test of linguistic ability, which they aren’t really, but at least they don’t pretend to be in their name.

      Perhaps a TV show about dissertations isn’t quite the right idea – it’s at best undercooked. Perhaps such a show should span a range of ‘challenges’ – debates, and yes, some factual questions to those studying a subject. But my point is that if we are to call a show ‘university challenge’, then we should show in it challenges which are somewhat representative of university.

  • You seem to have fallen into the trap of assuming that University Challenge was ever a representative sample of what universities or admissions was about.

    The format was actually copied from the American College Bowl series which began in 1953. Admissions for the last forty years at least has been about aptitude for a subject, not general knowledge. Saying it’s outdated seems to suggest that it was once a good representation of what universities were about, where as this simply isn’t the case.

    At the end of the day, it’s a game show, it’s not designed as a advertisement of what going to Cambridge or Oxford is like.

    • Kenichi Udagawa

      I never said it should be an advert, or that it was designed to represent the admissions process. But I’ve seen entrance tests which did test general knowledge for entry to the university, in a way which would simply not happen now. Whether it was designed to be representative is not really my point. I’m saying that previously it might have correlated with the entry tests, because of similar approaches to academic rigour, whereas it doesn’t now bear resemblance to any real aspect of studying at university, so it’s outdated.

      As I have just said to Jonny, my core argument is that a show called University Challenge should show the challenge of university, and not something which bears no resemblance to study on a university course. Extract the university connection, and it’s fine. Bunch of people want to do a general knowledge competition, fine. But why should that be connected entirely and exclusively to teams of undergraduates from particular universities? That’s my real problem.