Forget Rita, we're educating Jade

April 27, 2007

An Indian reality TV show reveals just how much academe is now in thrall to celebrity culture, laments Maria Misra

For those of us who enjoy both The Apprentice and University Challenge - and who doesn't? - there is a great viewing opportunity to be had this July. The Indian TV station NDTV, in co-operation with BSkyB, will be airing Airtel Scholar Hunt Destination UK . This is an intriguing new TV talent competition sponsored by the Indian mobile-phone group Airtel, in which India's top students compete on TV for the opportunity to study at one of five British universities: Leeds, Sheffield, Middlesex, Warwick and Cardiff. Spokesmen for these institutions have suggested that this is an opportunity not only to promote their profile in the growing and lucrative Indian higher education market, but also to lift the tawdry world of reality TV to a higher plane. As Warwick University's publicist put it:

"Reality TV programmes are very popular in India. This is an opportunity to give reality TV more integrity. It's an opportunity for reality TV to raise its game."

The universities insist that all prospective contestants will be screened to ensure their academic suitability. And Scholar Hunt's producer, Arun Thapar, insists: "Our aim is to mix academic excellence and the competitive spirit to create an intelligent, thought-provoking show." But the shortlisted 20 candidates will have to compete in quizzes and "tasks" of an unspecified nature. Experience of reality TV suggests that it is those with "big" personalities who tend to shine in this milieu, especially those unhindered by considerations of dignity or sanity in their pursuit of attention. It is highly unlikely that TV producers will put quiet scholarly dedication ahead of eye-catching antics in the selection of the final shortlist.

Doubtless Leeds, Warwick et al consider that the admission of a few egregious exhibitionists is a price worth paying for the publicity it brings. But this does seem to be another sign of the creeping surrender of academe to the values of celebrity. We have the phenomenon of the celebrity academic who is flown in to give a couple of crowd-pleasing lectures and boost the faculty profile; now we are to have celebrity students to go with them. Is this not a dubious way of raising the profile of an academic institution? This preference for publicity-hungry methods of differentiating between academically able candidates might even dilute the British university brand. Far from raising the integrity of reality TV, are the participating institutions not in danger of squandering their own?

This development suggests that the culture of universities has changed radically since the last rebranding of the 1950s. In the postwar era, anxious to shake off the taint of Brideshead-Oxbridge privilege, British universities developed the serious-minded, rather grey identities parodied by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim . Such an image change originated in intolerance for the class-based inequalities of the past and in an attempt to make higher education accommodate the new meritocratic values of the postwar world.

But in the post- Big Brother world, intellectual merit has to bow before charisma among lecturers and now even students. Soon, doubtless, seminars and classes will be populated by Apprentice -style cheeky chappies and Jade Goodyesque termagants being lectured by a star-studded galaxy of Maurice Zapps and TV dons. These will certainly be more entertaining, though perhaps less edifying, than the dreary, tweedy ghettoes of serious academic endeavour.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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