Your Starter for Ten: a one-dimensional picture of universities

Q (Paxman): Is it normal to pick a university based on what would sound better on the voiceover when the buzzer sounded on University Challenge?

 *Warwick, Turhan *

A: Apparently not.

While it was only a small contributing factor to why I chose Warwick, it’s fair to say that watching the show as a kid was inspirational – and that Daisy Christodoulou (captain of Warwick’s winning team in 2007) to a sixteen year old nerd, was something of a hero.

Ten years later, while I still love the show I can’t help but cringe. There may well be over 150 recognised higher education providers, but you can still switch on last night’s episode of University Challenge and watch two predominantly-white, all-male Oxbridge colleges pit themselves against each other in the final of the season.

Complaining about Oxbridge entering as many teams as they like isn’t new. It was famously protested by the 1975 Manchester team, led by David Aaronovitch, who answered every question with a Communist leader; and mercilessly mocked by The Young Ones in 1984. In turn, the arguments for keeping this format have been well rehearsed: that Oxbridge colleges are separate teaching entities, if they were allowed to play as two single teams they would win every year, and – as an old course mate of mine recently argued – people would rather see two powerhouse Oxbridge colleges battle it out to the death than Balliol trounce some ‘Polytechnic’ 300-10.

Whether or not you buy this (I for one certainly don’t), our work as higher education wonks is profoundly influenced by the way the show – with 3 million viewers a week – is presenting the universities sector. Only five of the universities who competed this year – including St. Andrews – were not members of the Russell Group. That’s less than the number of Cambridge colleges that competed. While it is exciting and progressive to see a distance-learning institution like the Open University take part in the contest, this alone is hardly representative of the hundreds of ways people access higher education in the UK today.

Then there are the teams themselves. Despite stand-out women like Christodoulou and Gail ‘the human Google’ Trimble, the students competing against each other are overwhelmingly white, middle class and male. In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Emma Johnson (from this year’s Corpus Christi team) commented on the lack of women who apply to be on the show from her college – unsurprising really, given the sexist nonsense on Twitter and in the press. Even the Daily Mail condemned an episode featuring nine white men (Paxo included) in March. While we know there are more women entering university than men, and record numbers of BME students accessing higher education – our ‘best and brightest’ are still presented as male and pale.

It’s not just about the kinds of students who compete. University Challenge’s cultural significance partly comes from it representing and defining ‘highbrow’, and, to an extent, ‘worthwhile’ knowledge. The contestants are expected to know their Rousseau from their Rabelais, their Dickens from their Darwin, and their Bacon from their Burke.

The ‘Dead White Men’ dominance of the question material is fast becoming a source of cultural conflict across British campuses. In a recent NUS survey, 42% of black students said the curriculum did not reflect issues of diversity, equality and discrimination. The postmodern critique provided by ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ at Oxford and ‘Decolonise Our Minds’ at SOAS may soon progress from lecture halls to our TV screens.

It may have already. A greater number of questions on famous women writers, scientists, politicians and pioneers is noticed and welcome – as are those on the history, geography, languages and culture of the non-western world. While many women might find it funny to watch a group of cis-men struggle to answer a question on Toxic Shock Syndrome, I suspect the joke will soon get old.

On the (soap)box

What about alternative representations of universities in popular media? Fresh Meat, set at the ambiguously named ‘Manchester Medlock’, was a hilarious take on the traditional undergraduate student experience. Campus, aired in 2011 and focussed more on mocking university staff, was cancelled after one series.

In real life, column inches are filled by candid examples of university lad culture, or the myth of ban-happy students’ unions trying to curtail free speech. Outside of that, people’s knowledge of the sector tends to be based on their own, or perhaps their children’s (or grandchildren’s) experiences.

Higher education wonks and academics repeatedly have to battle the concurrent perceptions that higher education is patriarchal, hierarchical, elitist, and yet also overcome by ‘politically correct intolerance’ and the ‘loony left’. That if you don’t attend the universities at the top of the league tables, you might as well have gone to ‘Scumbag college’. It doesn’t help that Theresa May is the 27th Prime Minister to graduate from Oxford, and has been praised for only having a third of her cabinet who shared the same privilege – plus four from Cambridge, of course.

This perception serves to harm our position when trying to improve political and public understanding of less privileged institutions and their students. With degree apprenticeships, distance learning courses and accelerated degrees, the experience of university is more diverse that it has ever been – but would you know this from watching University Challenge?

Like those institutions overrepresented on the show, it’s unlikely that much will change anytime soon. Rather it’s up to us as a sector to broaden public perceptions. We need to celebrate the fantastic influence that an increasingly diverse range of students have on our society: campaigning in national elections; raising awareness of mental health problems, housing issues and sexual harassment; volunteering in their local communities. We should be campaigning to have this kind of engagement presented in the media – getting student leaders on primetime TV and radio slots alongside the ones who can tell you which English word for “bodily suffering” shares a spelling with a French noun denoting a staple food.

Universities today are so much more than a general knowledge quiz for the Russell Group. I’m sure most readers of Wonkhe are well aware of this, but many others are not. And right now, the small chunk of the sector we watch every Monday night at 8pm is the one continuing to hold all the power.

Rumour has it that Wonkhe’s very own Ant Bagshaw was a contestant on this illustrious show. Wonkhe’s archivists are searching furiously for photographic proof. Ed. 

One response to “Your Starter for Ten: a one-dimensional picture of universities

  1. Hello wonks. Thought I would add these Sutton Trust figures into the mix (from 2010):

    “Nine in ten MPs in 2010 attended university – by far the highest proportion of any
    Parliament to date. This includes just under three in ten who were educated at either
    Oxford or Cambridge universities. Oxford has produced 102 MPs serving in the 2010

    38% of Conservative MPs were educated at Oxford or Cambridge compared with
    20% of Labour MPs and 28% of Liberal Democrat MPs.

    Newly elected MPs were even more likely to be graduates – with 94% attending a
    university, including 69% who had attended a leading research university, and 28%
    who had attended Oxbridge.”

    That’s a lot from Oxbridge… It would be fascinating to see the figures for the current Government!

Leave a Reply