Deputy Viewpoint Editor, Jessica Burt, discusses her thoughts on this year's University Challenge and how it has lead her to consider the class and gender biases present not only within the show, but in tertiary education and academia itself.
The victory of the St Andrews team can’t drown out the sneering voice of Jeremy Paxman’s “incorrect, minus five points” ringing in my ears, making me question the very purpose of University Challenge itself. Though the appeal to contestants and the universities they represent is clear, why viewers would want to subject themselves to half an hour of indecipherable questions, Paxman insults, and that poncey theme tune is less obvious to me.
The intelligence of the contestants is beyond doubt, with their knowledge ranging from art history to quantum physics. What is questionable is why this knowledge is somehow superior to any other: why is it intrinsically more valuable to recognise a Mozart symphony than a Madonna hit? Or a Broadway musical? Despite show-tunes being deemed acceptable and scraping onto the show this series, in St Andrews’ first round their ability to recognise the songs was met with a sarcastic “what a learned fellow you are” from Paxman. This demonstrates a clear hierarchy of knowledge, both on University Challenge and in society, whereby knowledge of some subjects is prioritised over others. Some knowledge is just more honourable, it appears.
One glaringly obvious issue with University Challenge (and the myth it peddles of the objectivity of general knowledge) is that it is exclusionary. There are many weeks watching the show when you would be forgiven for assuming women still aren’t allowed to attend university. With women making up 56.7% of the student population in the UK in 2018 ‒ 2019, it is shocking that in the 2019 ‒ 2020 series just 30% of contestants were female. There are many reasons behind this such as the level of online abuse female contestants receive, but there is also an underlying structural issue at play. Hannah Rose Woods, captain of the winning team in 2015 ‒ 2016, referred specifically to the “deeply gendered connotations” of general knowledge. So the saying goes, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’, and female students just don’t get to see themselves on University Challenge often enough. We need to recognise the subjectivity of general knowledge in order to avoid judging people by the same biased criteria. Indeed, the very notion of knowledge as a competition is deeply gendered; when we choose the masculine notion of triumph over actual understanding we devalue the very topics that people claim to be experts on.
Notions of class and cultural hierarchy are also deeply embedded in University Challenge. It is a display of the cultural capital that it takes to get into university and further alienates working class students who feel they won’t be able to fit in with these titans of intellect. Though universities have become more accessible in recent years, the culture of the institutions themselves remains at best exclusionary and at worst classist. On the show itself the arts questions focus on ‘high-brow’ culture of classical music, Renaissance art, Latin and Greek. Generally, these subjects are offered in very few comprehensive schools in comparison with the private sector, meaning that most are left clueless unless they had the initiative to take them up as hobbies. Though this is not impossible, these forms of knowledge are also not easy for people who don’t grow up with the middle and upper class culture of rigorous learning to access. The world of general knowledge has an entrance exam that can’t be passed without a background that taught you that these skills might be a valuable commodity. Gilded gates keep the general knowledge world safe from outsiders and the longer we prioritise this knowledge, the longer it will continue.
University Challenge is obviously popular with universities. It provides them with the perfect opportunity to present their finest minds. But this kind of culture around knowledge is limiting diversity in university, not just in demographic terms but in terms of ideas themselves. If we expanded what counts as valuable knowledge, universities would be able to embrace further new and insightful perfectives. One fictional example is the character of Rita in Willy Russell’s stage stage comedy (and film) Educating Rita. The story details the main character Rita, a working class hairdresser, as she starts studying English literature at the Open University. Feeling inadequate and inferior in comparison to her classmates, she attempts to become more ‘cultured’ and enhances her essay writing with traditional viewpoints. However, her attempts result in her essays losing their heart and she begins to fail. In imitating what she sees as the intellectual ideal, she loses her unique style, based on her own experiences and opinions. In universities today, it is too easy to feel like your intelligence, though it has gotten you this far, is just simply not meeting the standard. It often feels like other people have a secret handbook of general knowledge that they revise at night that makes them sound good in tutorials. It leaves you wondering where your guidebook is, as you guiltily scroll through yet another Wikipedia page.
Universities (and society as a whole) would benefit from the incorporation of different types of knowledge and new perspectives. Discussions about diversity are vital in every discipline but knowledge as a whole seems to have escaped scrutiny. Too often people feel forced to conform to a tried and tested model of university education, when ideally universities should be a place for developing new ideas. Universities render themselves obsolete if they confine themselves to an academic bubble and University Challenge further isolates them from the everyday experiences of ordinary people whose knowledge is vast and wide-ranging, just not on the topics currently deemed worthy by mainstream academia.