Question: Which BBC quiz programme thinks Oxford and Cambridge are so much better than every other university in the country they’re allowed to enter as many teams as they fancy?
Answer: University Challenge.
Thanks to Obama – and the American people – change is the buzzword of the day, so surely it must be time for the BBC to examine a long-running and deep inequality?
Simply put, this is the idea that all universities are created equal, except for Oxford and Cambridge.
These two elite institutions are each allowed to enter multiple teams into the intellectual battlefield that is the popular and long-running BBC quiz programme.
Other universities are limited to just one set of geeky students, or competitors if you will.
In the interests of fairness, the 21st century, and the Obama presidency it is time for us to challenge that bastion of privilege, and ask the BBC to clean up its act, and give every university in the country the same treatment. It’s right, it’s fair, and you know Mr Obama would approve.
Through the years there have been challenges to the established UC system and attempts to overthrow it. Famously in 1975 a truly doughty Manchester University team – that included journalist David Aaronovitch – chose to come on to the programme, and register its disgust for the Oxbridge rule by answering every question with the answer “Karl Marx”, “Trotsky” or “Lenin”.
Their rebellion was not successful. And University Challenge carried on regardless of fashion for that hippy thing, you know, giving everyone a fair go or – as we might put in the modern age – the level playing field.
Nothing would change the mind of those BBC bosses. This was a point of principle and they were prepared to fight on for their great tradition of letting Oxbridge make it to virtually every single semi and final.
But what can the justification be in this meritocratic age?
Oxford and Cambridge get to have repeated entries because, well, they’re just better?
They have to let every single tiny college of the Oxbridge variety enter their own team because they just do, or – maybe – because that’s where controllers of the BBC go to study?
Perhaps the Oxbridge student is just easier on the eye?
Or maybe it is because Oxbridge students have better haircuts or they have more likelihood of getting into the Civil Service faststream or getting jobs on the telly, like our very own Mr Paxman.
Let’s face it none of these add up to a compelling argument for the BBC’s legendary fairness.
There is some sort of odd rule that has been used to justify this very strange system decade after decade.
This is to say that Oxford and Cambridge have a very special collegiate system, so every single college should be allowed to enter a team. But most other universities which also have colleges do not get this privilege – for there is something about them not being proper colleges in an Oxbridgy kind of way, which means they don’t qualify. So tiny little Corpus Christi with its 85 undergraduates per year can submit its own team, and so can Sheffield University with its 24,000 students. Just one each.
Now there are those that might argue that University College London or the London School of Economics get to enter separate teams – and they are both part of the wider system of the University of London network.
I say, nitpicking indeed. We all know that UCL and LSE are in fact proper standalone universities with thousands of students. So pouf to that defence.
So let’s hear it for change, for hope, for fairness and a new era at every university throughout the land, where students can celebrate being separate but equal to Oxford and Cambridge.
Let the winds of change blow through the bastions of privilege and may the BBC reach out and show it is not giving favours to the establishment.
It’s time to change the rules of University Challenge to give everyone a fair chance, wherever they studied.
It may very well be that Oxford or Cambridge will still have a winning team every few years, but at least no-one will mind, or not so much.
And to quote that very positive hip-hop star Dizzee Rascal in conversation with Mr Paxman “everything takes time”, but dear reader that time is here.