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4 March 2019updated 16 Aug 2022 12:37pm

Why are most University Challenge contestants white men?

Watching the often testosterone-fuelled Oxbridge elite engage in a battle of the intellects under the watchful eye of Jeremy Paxman has its charm for about a minute.

By Josie Cox

Ok eggheads, here’s your starter for ten. How many female contestants are taking part in this year’s season of University Challenge?

Twenty-eight, you say, representing just a quarter of all players? Then you’ve earned yourself a set of bonuses on the dire lack of diversity on one of the UK’s most iconic quiz shows, and its dismal misrepresentation of the admirably heterogeneous nature of our higher education community. Ready? Fingers on buzzers.

How many all-white teams participated in this year’s competition? Eighteen. The proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic contestants across the board? A smidgeon under 9 per cent. And for the perfect score, which will earn you an approving, albeit palpably patronising, Paxman nod: any all-white, all-male teams on this year’s list? Indeed! Edinburgh, York and Darwin College Cambridge, please take your bow.

I love University Challenge. Though the programme, first aired in 1962, never fails to make me feel academically inadequate, especially when I consider the average age of the starring brainiacs, it’s got an addictive quality that’s hard to explain.

Perhaps it’s the prospect of feeling sweet, sweet satisfaction if I happen to be able to reel off the countries that border Burundi faster than that geography PhD (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania), or maybe it’s just the modesty of the game’s concept in a world where media is constantly jostling for the next vulgar edge in reality TV.

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It feels familiar. The jovial “College Boy” opening theme performed by the Balanescu Quartet conjures images of family time in front of the TV; affectionate competition with a glass of wine or bowl of ice cream after dinner on a Monday. A humble half an hour of glorious escapism from headlines, deadlines and the washing up.

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But the time has come for change: in fact, the time came about twenty years ago. University Challenge is anachronistic and elitist, both qualities that our higher education system should strive to abolish and most certainly not showcase on prime time TV.

Over half of all UK students identify as female and around a fifth describe themselves as either black or Asian and yet, as soon as you tune in you’d be forgiven for thinking our lecture halls and seminar rooms are as pale and stale as the boardrooms we’re endeavouring to change.

It’s hard to know where the blame lies. Student unions are invited to select their own teams, which then apply for a spot on the BBC show. It may be a case of union presidents choosing their mates for superior banter on the road to Salford.

But there’s an argument that the producers should step up. Their selection criteria are reportedly lengthy, ranging from trivia scores to ability to stay cool under pressure – so why not include something on diversity? I’m not asking for hard and fast quotas, which threaten to fuel tokenism, but a perhaps just a general awareness.

I’m not the first to bemoan the programme’s surplus of white men, but as the state of corporate Britain has taught us, homogeneity breeds homogeneity. We’re instinctively primed to surround ourselves with the people who think, speak and look like us. But being aware of our natural tendency to do this should help us to consciously avoid it.

I get it, women’s appetites for appearing on shows like University Challenge hasn’t exactly been whetted by the cruelly critical eye of certain media outlets. A couple of years ago Hannah Rose Woods, a former winner of the competition, eloquently reminded us of her fellow female competitors, whose brainpower became wildly irrelevant in national coverage because the phrase “overnight sex symbol” just tends to get more clicks. Abuse of other non-male students has ranged in inappropriateness from gently mocking to nauseatingly vulgar.

It’s hard to know how to encourage female students to ignore the noise, but I wish I could. For we need them to apply to be on shows like University Challenge to start a virtuous cycle and haul this stalwart of British television into the year 2019.

As for the BBC, it would be foolish for it not to take note. Watching the often testosterone-fuelled Oxbridge elite engage in a battle of the intellects under the watchful eye of Paxman has its charm for about a minute. To a non-Brit it might even seem like a hilarious pastiche of old England’s enlightened high society. And then you realise this isn’t, in fact, meant to be comedy.

[See also: Salman Rushdie shows us that free speech is life itself]

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