Challenging University Challenge


Originally published by Varsity on 2nd May 2017

Here’s a quiz question for you: How many women have been on a winning University Challenge team in the past 10 years? The answer is four – 10 per cent of winning contestants.

If you’ve been watching the show for a while, or you’ve been keeping up with news stories about the male-dominated nature of the show, that fact won’t surprise you. University Challenge has a longstanding diversity problem, and it’s not just limited to gender. Only three people of colour have been on a winning team in the past 10 years, and only three non-Oxbridge teams have been winners. It’s not hard to see why people are frustrated – University Challenge is held up as if it’s the pinnacle of intellectual achievement and contestants are celebrated as if they’re academic demigods, yet it always seems to be the same white, male Oxbridge types we’re celebrating. Why is that?

Well, host Jeremy Paxman – also a white, male Oxbridge graduate – told The Telegraph that he thinks it’s just because “more males than females care about quizzing”. That’s right: there couldn’t possibly be any structural or social problems involved, no surrounding culture that values women on their looks rather than on their intelligence – women just don’t care enough.

There’s a little more to this story than Paxman thinks. Hannah Woods, who won with Peterhouse, Cambridge, last year, has pointed out that female contestants have been routinely objectified by both the press and social media. Emma Johnson of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, had viewers asking if she was “the hottest contestant ever”, and Warwick’s Sophie Rudd was subject to speculation as to whether or not she was trans (answer: none of your business). When this is the way female contestants are treated, it’s no wonder there aren’t any more of them.

I appreciate that these are entrenched cultural problems that can’t be solved overnight: I’m not expecting Jeremy Paxman or the BBC or ITN to singlehandedly end misogyny. I don’t, however, think we should let them off the hook. Culture isn’t the only thing driving University Challenge’s overwhelming maleness, and there are several measures the production team could put in place right now that would make the show far more diverse.

Firstly, stop letting Oxbridge colleges compete individually. This provision has existed since the very beginning of the show, but there’s next to no justification for it. Oxbridge colleges aren’t separate institutions, and even if they were, Oxford and Cambridge aren’t the only universities that have colleges – Durham, York and Kent are just a few others that do. The show justifies itself by arguing that teaching takes place within Oxbridge colleges, unlike at other collegiate universities, which is true – excluding, of course, lectures, labs, supervisions with external Fellows or Directors of Studies, and the actual exams that count towards your degree, all of which take place outside your college.

Forcing Oxford and Cambridge to compete as single institutions wouldn’t just limit the number of Oxbridge students, who are disproportionately richer, whiter, and more male than those at other universities; it would also allow more space for universities with more diverse student bodies to appear on the show. If you want to see how this would look in real terms, look at the teams from last year’s series. Oxbridge teams were just 15 per cent female that year, while non-Oxbridge teams were 28 per cent female – almost double.

The Oxbridge bias isn’t the only feature of the show that seems archaic. University Challenge questions are often rooted in an outdated perception of academia, one that focuses on subjects like British history, philosophy, classical music, hard science – subjects that tend to be dominated by men. Subjects that tend to female-dominated, however, such as art history, sociology, or psychology, are often sidelined to a question or two per episode.

There are far more things going on in academia than just those traditional, male-dominated subjects, and on some level I think University Challenge question writers recognise this – I’ve seen questions on everything from the history of dance to Studio Ghibli to Dorothy Parker, so it’s obvious that they aren’t restricted to just those subjects. It’s not as if they’d have to dumb down their questions either – the answers to these questions are still just as obscure, they’re just more accessible to people who’ve historically been kept out of the traditional academic spaces that informs most University Challenge questions.

Both of these are indirect fixes, however. The most direct thing that University Challenge could do to make sure there are more diverse teams on our TV screens would be, well, to pick more diverse teams in the first place. We know from the Class of 2014 documentary which aired a few years ago that teams aren’t cast simply on their quizzing abilities, but on whether or not they will be entertaining to audiences. If that’s the case, why not consider casting teams based on how many women or people of colour they have as well? Or refuse to cast any teams without at least one woman?

Arguments like this are often castigated as promoting reverse discrimination, but there’s more at stake here than just individual contestants. University Challenge is watched and enjoyed by millions of people all around the country, and it is in many ways symbolic of the UK academic establishment. If that establishment is only being represented by white men, is only accessible to white men, and continually celebrates white men, where does that leave everyone else? As a major cultural institution, University Challenge has a responsibility to showcase the full breadth of knowledge at UK universities, from all backgrounds – and right now, it’s failing.

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