Starter for ten: why does a quiz show matter?

June 13, 1997

Is the TV quiz show University Challenge just a game or an important shop window for universities? Phil Baty reports

It's just a bit of fun," insists Peter Gwyn, producer of Granada Television's University Challenge. But vice chancellors, university admissions officers, and prospective students could be forgiven for believing that the -year-old quiz show is a little more important than that. Whether rightly or wrongly, the programme plays a key role in shaping the public's perception of a university, and in defining the state of British higher education.

"We have about three million viewers, so a victory can serve an institution very well," says Gwyn, "just like a poor performance can have a negative effect. But we want to make a programme that is enjoyed both by the people taking part and by our viewers."

Last December, Birkbeck College suffered the worst defeat in the show's history, when it lost to Manchester University. Never mind Birkbeck's stars in the research assessment exercise, and its long list of extenuating circumstances, the college's students were demoralised by headlines like: "Who put the berk in Birkbeck", and "Universthicky Challenge". Birkbeck is still shaking from the aftermath. "Oh no, don't bring that up again," moans Christine Mabey, secretary at the London University college. "It's like jokes about my name. People are always making some kind of remark, thinking they're very original and clever, but we're all bored.

"We don't think our University Challenge result reflects on the institution. All the attention has been tiresome, and people have used it to knock us. It is too early to say if it will have an effect on our recruitment."

At the other end of the scale, successive and record-breaking victories for last week's beaten finalists, the Open University, were met with loud media applause and the OU championed its own success with full-page recruitment adverts in The Times.

The champions, Magdalen College, Oxford, a team made up entirely of ex-state school students, was still enjoying phenomenal media attention as The THES went to press.

The Birkbeck experience sparked significant debate about the dubious validity of trial by quiz show. Birkbeck's apologists said you cannot put a group of mature students against a team of 19-year-old undergraduates. You cannot play a bunch of part-time learners against a well-oiled education machine. But in University Challenge you can, and in the sound-bite age of education league tables, people will make sweeping judgements.

"I think the extraordinary media interest may show that people are worried about the educational standards of younger people," says 50-year-old Harriet Courtney, captain of this year's OU team. "But just because they do badly at a quiz show does not mean that they are badly educated. I have two children who have both been through university and they worked extremely hard. I'm good at quiz shows, but it is not the same as being erudite at a particular subject. There are people who are extremely clever but can't do quiz shows. It is not a fair way of judging."

Peter Gwyn is less comfortable acknowledging the show's importance to the public, but will concede that the spoils of victory seem to be increasing, while the cost of defeat is ever more harsh. "I'm sure when Birkbeck was trounced, the team thought 'good grief, why did we do it?' The Birkbeck coverage was extremely unfair - it was excellent that they got as far as they did, with the bright lights and Jeremy Paxman barking difficult questions at them. Perhaps there is a little student bashing involved - non-students like to make comparisons. The OU is always our most popular team because it's seen as a university for everybody, not just the elite."

As the stakes get higher the official involvement in what has traditionally been a student-run selection process has increased. "The importance of winning in the eyes of the institution has certainly intensified recently," says John Needham, president of the OU Students' Association, who is responsible for putting the team together. "Ten years ago we won three times in a row. The university was pleased, but did not see it as a major PR opportunity. At the OU the university plays no part in the selection procedures, it is left entirely to the students' association. But it has become much more interested in what we do. It has been suggested to me that we ought to have a team manager but that's going too far. It's supposed to be a bit of fun."

A team manager may be going "too far", but the Open University's team selection is already extremely rigorous by most institutions' standards. The OU team is pooled from a student body of 150,000, explains Needham. "First we get students to apply to join. This year we've been inundated, although last year we only had about 400 volunteers," he says. "Then we set the applicants a quiz under exam conditions, then we sift them into faculties and age, so we get a good representative profile of the OU."

Such professionalism may come as a shock to rival institutions. "I thought it was just a bit of a muck around," says Lloyd Bradley, a finalist at King's College London School of Medicine and Dentistry, whose team beat Keble College, Oxford to reach the quarter-finals. "We chose from about ten people who just turned up in the union bar. We're all medics and there's only about 400 of us at the college, and we were all spread out at different hospitals.

"Someone had a University Challenge quiz book so we had a pub quiz. Even the night before we all had beer and curry on expenses. I couldn't even turn up to the second round, because I was on an elective in the south Pacific and Granada wouldn't pay for my flight back. I suppose there was a certain degree of weight on your shoulders when suddenly you were behind the cameras representing your college. But at the end of the day it's just supposed to be entertainment. The most the producers were concerned about was that we remembered to smile."

Nevertheless Gwyn is keen to preserve the show's academic rigour, perhaps fuelling the arguments of those who may hold it up as something more than a game. "We do throw in more populist questions than in the past," he says. "We do want to touch on popular culture, but not in a witless fashion."

The questions, he insists, are no easier now than on the first show years ago. Students do not know less in 1997 than they did in 1970, though they may know different things. "The questions are tough for students of 19, 20, 21," he says, revealing an apparent lack of understanding of the difference between today's student profile and that of 30 years ago.

Questions Now...and Then

1997

1) Name the American Minimalist artist, born in 1930 and often seen as a precursor of the Pop Art movement, whoproduced a series of paintings based on the American flag?

1987

2) Who is said in the Bible to have been the third son of Adam and Eve, born as a replacement for Abel after he had been killed?

Answers: 1 Jasper Johns; 2 Seth

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