News writer Daisy Roberts reports on accusations that BBC University Challenge favours Oxbridge teams
University Challenge, a BBC television programme which tests the knowledge of university students, has recently been accused of showing favouritism towards Oxbridge teams. The main reason for these claims is that there are a disproportionate number of Oxbridge teams being allowed to enter the game show compared with other university teams.
Every university in the UK that enters University Challenge is allowed one team made up of four students. However, Oxford and Cambridge are exceptions to this rule. Both universities are not limited to one team each, but rather enter multiple teams drawn from their colleges instead of the university as a whole. This has led to a disproportionate number of Oxbridge teams being entered, with them accounting for about a third of the teams competing.
This disparity between Oxbridge versus all other universities has triggered criticism towards the BBC. Lillian Crawford, an ex-university challenge contestant representing Cambridge, claimed that the BBC has made no changes to the ‘archaic entrance process’ since its airing in 1962, despite criticism.
Other people, who have also experienced the privilege of being part of the Oxbridge teams, have acknowledged the bias shown towards them. Bobby Seagull, a broadcaster and maths teacher who represented Cambridge, agreed that the entry rules were biased in favour of Oxbridge.
This controversy has led Frank Coffield, a professor of education at UCL, to try and hold the BBC accountable. Calling out the ‘shameful snobbery’ at play, Coffield noted how non-Oxbridge teams are being treated as ‘second-class’ by University Challenge. Coffield claimed that the BBC was ‘rigging’ the show to allow Oxbridge students to win, as their singular colleges of 300-400 people can enter a team just the same as big civic universities like Manchester and Birmingham, with upwards of 40,000 students.
On top of the rules which have been criticised as favouring Oxbridge, the three hosts that have been chosen have been Cambridge alumni. It has been suggested that University Challenge is sending the message that, as Crawford puts it, ‘attending Oxbridge is the key to success’.
Despite the criticism that favour has been shown towards the Oxbridge teams, neither university has taken home the trophy since 2018, and in 2022 University Challenge saw its first final without an Oxbridge team since 2013. The argument has been that if Oxford and Cambridge were allotted only one team each, this would result in a ‘two-horse race of ‘superteams’’. But despite having won 27 out of 51 series to date, if Oxbridge teams are losing a hold on their winning title, it may not be the case that making the rules the same for everyone would result in repetitive Oxbridge victories.
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