The format of University Challenge was criticized as “elitist” and BBC was asked to defend it.
A protester has urged BBC executives to support the “exclusive” structure of University Challenge in a public discussion, stating that the program’s favoritism towards Oxbridge is even more apparent in its Christmas episodes.
Professor Emeritus of Education, Frank Coffield, has called for more equitable regulations for university entries. He suggests limiting Oxford and Cambridge to only one team each, in accordance with the other universities. Through a year-long effort, he has asserted that the current structure unfairly favors Oxbridge colleges, which he believes goes against the impartiality guidelines set by the BBC.
He recently invited Tim Davie, the CEO of BBC, and Amol Rajan, the presenter of the show, both of whom studied at Cambridge colleges, to a discussion about the matters at Durham University, where Coffield was previously a professor.
He has also brought up the matter with the incoming BBC chair, Samir Shah, who obtained a PhD from St Catherine’s College, Oxford.
Coffield brought to the attention of Davie and Rajan that the show’s favoritism towards Oxbridge was most noticeable in its Christmas episodes, where former students compete on behalf of their respective universities.
Since the inception of Christmas specials in 2011, it has been discovered that Oxbridge colleges have emerged victorious in nine out of the 12 annual competitions. Furthermore, a significant portion of the 168 participating teams in Christmas contests have been represented by Oxford or Cambridge colleges.
Coffield has requested that the BBC reveal all the information about every participant in a program that aired on ITV from 1962 to 1987 and then moved to the BBC in 1994, covering a span of 61 years.
He stated that the requests had been denied multiple times. In his correspondence with Davie and Rajan, he stated: “What was the BBC trying to hide? The fact that they are still manipulating this quiz to benefit those who are already privileged. The higher-ups responsible for the show have disregarded critiques and persist in showing unjustified favoritism towards their own Oxbridge colleges.”
He stated that the purported prejudice reflects the way this nation is governed – catering to a select group of individuals who strive to maintain their privileged status for their schools and offspring.
He challenged Davie and Rajan, questioning their decision to let this program damage the BBC’s reputation for neutrality. He wondered if they were part of the privileged class, using their positions to uphold these privileges.
According to Coffield, the high number of Oxbridge colleges featured in Christmas specials goes against the impartiality requirement stated in the BBC’s Royal Charter.
He wrote to Rajan three times after he became the new presenter of the quiz, expressing concerns about its flaws. However, he received no response to his emails, leading him to believe that Rajan supports the current format. As a result, he is now challenging Rajan to a public debate regarding this controversial issue.
Coffield proposed that the debate be held at Durham University, the previous year’s winning team. However, the university’s college system limits participation to only one team, similar to that of Oxford and Cambridge.
Davie, Rajan, and Shah have not replied yet. The BBC complaints department received his messages and responded via email, stating that all universities and colleges offering Bachelor’s degrees or higher are eligible to participate in University Challenge. Additionally, there are approximately 230 colleges in the UK that do not have the authority to award degrees but still offer courses at the university level.
Coffield responded by questioning why a large percentage of teams, ranging from 30% to 40%, originate from Oxbridge colleges when there are only 230 institutions that can apply.
A representative from BBC stated: “We strongly deny this accusation. For the past 12 years, the University Challenge Alumni series has aimed to accurately represent the UK’s graduate population and has showcased a diverse selection of universities in each series.”
In November, the BBC had to remove a Christmas special episode due to concerns about inadequate accommodations for participants with disabilities. The episode featured a competition between two colleges from Oxford and Cambridge.
The decision to remove the episode will not impact the remaining episodes in the holiday series. The Christmas University Challenge, featuring fourteen teams in seven initial matches, will continue to air on Monday evenings.