Saturday, 5 May 2012

The University Challenge - Open University Question

During the last series, after one of the shows Des made a comment regarding the lack of an Open University team in recent years. Lance Haward, a winner with the OU, saw this and although he found he couldn't leave a comment on the site he emailed me a few days ago, with this, which I reproduce with his permission : -

"To answer your doubt about the O.U.: no, it has not withdrawn. I happen 
to have been in touch with others (Mastermind Club, e.g. - such as
Peter Richardson who expressed himself as narked that he hadn't thought
of the idea first) eminently well qualified to participate, who have
put in and not got beyond the University team-vetting stage. No
question about it : Jeremy DID NOT ENJOY our success, having been
reduced to public grumbling at the Bookfest at Hay-on-Wye at the time
of transmission . The Beeb, who commissioned it from Granada, had no
problems, and the O.U. itself, by contrast, loved it, and employed our
win to run a recruiting advert with team photograph, the day after it
went out. The obvious conclusion can be drawn. Does make something
of a travesty of the programme's implicit vaunt of being a championship
between all the British universities.

But then, of course, it has been
going downhill in another blatant respect since its golden era under
Bamber Gascoigne. Namely the staggering imbalance between questions
on the Arts/Humanities side, all such as anyone with pretensions to be
grounded in such general knowledge as the Reasonably Educated Man can
make a stab at (75% of them, at least), and those on the
Science/Mathematics side, a good two thirds of which these days go on
for five minutes in what could well be Esperanto and require a
postgraduate qualification in the specific subject concerned even to
have the haziest idea what the hell the questionmaster is on about."


Food for thought, certainly. I don't know if you recall, but back in the day when Lance's OU team won in 1999 there was a bit of a fuss, with JP certainly reported as grumbling about it - I quote this directly from a report which appeared on the BBC's own news website ""What is more, one of the Open University guys had only signed up for a course at the OU so he could be on the team." I don't have a great amount to add to the debate. although if there IS a policy at the Beeb to exclude the OU, then they should at least come clean and admit it.

It's interesting that this arises now. Only a few days ago I had a lesson observed by the Headteacher. Let me tell you, it doesn't matter how long you've been doing it, you still worry like hell when someone is coming in to watch your lesson. Thankfully all went well, and we were discussing the lesson afterwards, then widened the discussion somewhat. One of the things which he asked me was whether I have any other TV appearences lined up. I replied that no, I hadn't, and I don't know when, if ever , I will appear in another broadcast quiz. Basically it's unlikely that I'll ever get on to a money prize quiz again, and of the 4 really good, hard quizzes - Mastermind, Only Connect, Brain of Britain and University Challenge I've been on 3, and frankly exceeded my expectations on all of them. As for UC, well, I'm afraid I missed the boat on that one while I was at Uni and that's that. Except - well, IF the OU became a regular fixture in the series again, and IF I suddenly found that I had the time to do another degree in my own time - which there is no guarantee I ever would be able to find the time for - then would I go for it ? Make no bones about it, if the producers rang me up or emailed me and said - we're doing a special , we'd like you to be on one of the teams, then I'd do it like a shot. Hell, I'd even pay for my own petrol to Manchester. But as regards actually doing a course with the sole purpose of getting on ? Gotta be honest, I'd be tempted. 

26 comments:

Andrew B. said...

I couldn't disagree more with the first section of this, and wholeheartedly agree with Jeremy Paxman's apparent views. The point of UC is to be a quiz for *students* aged 18-23 or so (and no, I don't like it when other teams have significantly older members either).

As for the second section - I can't see any reason why teams in *University* Challenge shouldn't expect to get science questions which require a university level of education. As someone who studied sciences at A Level, I don't think the gap between the difficulty of the Arts questions and Science questions on the show is anything like as wide as is made out (if this were a fair summary, the "Reasonably Educated Man" [sic] would evidently be familiar with the whole of Shakespeare but not understand elementary calculus...). It *is* quite often clear that (at least some) question setters/adjudicators on the programme don't know much science, and there have been some ludicrous questions/judgments as a result, but that's a different issue.

HughTube said...

I find myself disagreeing with everything he's said.

I believe the rules for OU students have changed so that they have to be enrolled on a course with a minimum number of modules required rather than just taking a single module. I think this makes sense as a precaution against people just signing up in order to enter 'University Challenge' which would make as much "of a travesty of the programme's implicit vaunt" as excluding an institution.

They're not excluded from entering. The main criteria for getting on the show is how well the team does at the audition, for borderline teams they choose the ones who interact well as a team and things like that. I believe the OU students attend individually not having met each other so are at a distinct disadvantage in that regard.

I have never understood people complaining about questions that they might find difficult. There are plenty of areas where I'm weak but I don't object to them being included. University Challenge is for students so they ask more academic questions and fortunately there are still lots of science students in this country. I would be surprised if there was much of a difference between the number of science and arts or humanities questions answered. Having these sorts of questions is what makes the show what it is and as it remains one of the most popular quiz shows (the most watched, maybe?), perhaps including proper science questions is no bad thing.

joe said...

The obvious problem about the mathematically-based questions is that they are uniformly deadly dull to the non-specialist viewer. There's no blinding flash of appreciation - "Well, that's interesting! I didn't know that." - which you regularly get with the humanities questions.

The UC viewers merely heave a collective shrug of the shoulders - and for any quiz show, that's surely a bad thing. Arguably, mental arithmetic should have no place in a Q&A quiz show.

joe said...

The Open University has 250,000 students (and they're all mature). That's over ten times the size of the average redbrick university in the UK. The largest college at Oxford has only 809 students.

The OU has no place in UC.

drgaryegrant said...

Yep, its an utter nonsense to suggest that you need a postgraduate degree to answer the science questions. I took the three school sciences no further than Scottish Higher level but find that I'm able to answer a fair few of them. Its a prejudice I've noted from certain quizzers before - somehow the works of Gunter Grass constitute 'general knowledge for the layman' but knowing what the Golgi Apparatus does is something only a specialist would or should know. Utter rubbish, that only highlights the complaining party's lack of knowledge.

In any case, the OU offers science degrees - they are at no disadvantage.

But as Andrew B points out, the ethos for the quiz is that it is for young people. No, it isn't in the rules, but it was designed to showcase the learning of the bright young things at Britain's unis. That's why we started getting the team's 'average ages' before each show. Is it therefore fair to have a rag-tag team of four 40-somethings who've never met each other and have far more life experience competing against four 19 year olds? I'd say not.

As far as appearing on the show though, Dave, I live in hope of another 'Professionals' series. You could play for a 'Teachers' team, whereas I'd quite fancy a 'GP' line up of me, Katie Bramall-Stainer, Paul Sinha and AN Other - perhaps the Mastermind finalist bloke from last year. Hey, I can but dream.

Londinius said...

Hi All

Erm . . . what DOES a Golgi Apparatus do, then ?

AaronW said...

What is a "Reasonably Educated Man"?

I agree with all the responders. UC has plenty of obscure arts questions and some very approachable science ones (with answers such as 'Venus', 'cholosterol', and 'part of the brain'). No bias i could detect other than that of the commentator himself.

If there is an O.U. team, it would be much more in the spirit of the competition, for at least two of the competitors to be aged 25 or below.

What is impressive in university challenge is seeing how much knowledge YOUNG people have.
To demand an equal amount of respect for winning when you have had an extra 15 years in which to revise is laughable.

Something that shouldn't need to be pointed out to a Reasonably Educated Man since a Reasonable man would know all that.

Imagine a parent competiting against their own offspring in the local primary school sports day. It would be absurd. This is only different by degrees but not in principle any different...

AaronW said...

PS And yes, Dave, if there's a UC professionals series, you should definitely give it a go.

Would David Edwards be eligible for your team as a (former?) teacher?

Londinius said...

Hi Aaron

I fancy that The Professionals has had its day, which is a real shame. Immediately after the last series of it Mark Labbett and I did discuss putting a South Wales teachers team together for the next series , but alas, there was no next series. A man can dream, though.

Londinius said...

I've just googled Golgi apparatus. This is the intro to the wikipedia article : -

"The Golgi apparatus, also known as the Golgi complex or Golgi body, is an organelle found in most eukaryotic cells.[1] It was identified in 1898 by the Italian physician Camillo Golgi and named after him.[2]

Part of the cellular endomembrane system, the Golgi apparatus packages proteins inside the cell before they are sent to their destination; it is particularly important in the processing of proteins for secretion."

So now we know.

drgaryegrant said...

Ah come now Dave - ask your Biology counterpart what ages he teaches that to....that's basic Biology! I would have thought that at UC level they should be asking about N-linked glycosylation in the rough endoplasmic reticulum....though, er, I concede that I might be getting into a bit of a minority now.

But the point is - my poor eukaryotic cell component examples aside - the science asked in UC isn't difficult. The OU doth protest too much, with the sourest of grapes (as I think it says in 'Othello' or 'Hamlet', or to be frank, who knows? These Literature quotations might as well be in Esperanto and require a
postgraduate qualification in the specific subject to make head nor tail of, after all)

Andrew B. said...

Regarding Joe's first comment, I can sympathise with his dislike of "arithmetic" questions (even if I don't share it); I don't think they're as common now as in the first few Paxman series.

Incidentally, the questions about "sexy" (and similar) primes in the last series I regard with contempt :-)

dxdtdemon said...

I had thought that the British educational system was supposed to be vastly superior to the American one, and I think I first learned about the organelles in a cell in fifth grade or so. Basically, a Golgi apparatus turns protein and fat into mucus, although it sometimes makes other things. I also vaguely remember that there something special about its different faces, and that it looks like a stack of pancakes.

The science in University Challenge seems to be very weird. At times, they ask about extremely esoteric units of measurement like the Jansky, which one of my professors said you would only use if you were doing astroseismology. There's also often way too much stuff about the lives of the scientists and not enough about the important discoveries that they made. But I guess the question company thinks that real science questions would turn away viewers. Wouldn't the ratings actually be higher if people tuned in to see Jeremy Paxman stumble over the word phosphoryllate? He'd probably think it's the name of a Welsh battlefield.

Londinius said...

Hi dxtdemon

"I had thought that the British educational system was supposed to be vastly superior to the American one, and I think I first learned about the organelles in a cell in fifth grade or so."

Red rag. Bull.

Comparative superiority of one educational system over another is a complicated matter . I work within the British educational system. I would never claim that it is better OR worse than another system without knowing and agreeing with whatever criteria were being used to assess it. I don't know whether your comment was a joke, but I can't help bristling a little at your suggestion that MY ignorance about the golgi apparatus is a sign of the fact that I have somehow been failed by the British Education system.

You learned about organelles in the fifth grade ? I'm very happy for you. I didn't. Mind you , it was so long ago for me that they probably hadn't been discovered yet.

Londinius said...

Actually I am doing a disservice here talking about the BRITISH educational system. There is actually no BRITISH Educational system. Along with it's legal system Scotland preserved its own independent education system - and many educationalists believe it to be better than that of England and Wales, although this will always be a matter of debate. I've never worked within the Scottish system, so I have no personal experience upon which to make a comment. Might explain why you're suprised that I didn't know what a golgi apparatus was, though, Gary.

AaronW said...

Just to demonstrate that 'basic' questions can sometimes be missed by extremely clever or knowledgeable people...

Pat Gibson got the chemical symbols for arsenic and astatine muddled up the other day on eggheads. And Daphne Fowler late in 2011 had 'never heard of Mitt Romney'!

I can't imagine a person that would know literally all the basic information from every subject, although there are many people that know a huge amount about a lot of subjects.

Besides, why would one want to know everything? Part of the fun is in always being able to learn interesting new things.

So a toast...to the golgi body, the spokeshave, to the Jansky, and to sexy primes...and to all new things yet to discover!

HughTube said...

I disagree with some of the other commenters in that I don't think that there should be no mature students on the show. It reflects the current make-up of universities to include people who aren't just typical 18-21 undergraduates. I think it would be a bit odd if the team was mostly mature students though for that very reason.

For what it's worth, when I was at school, which wasn't so very long ago, we definitely did the Golgi body at GCSE. We did some organelles at Key Stage 3, but I can't remember if the Golgi Body is one of them. Like Gary, I favour the inclusion of some actually hard science questions, not that I do especially well on them, to test students in their specialisms. Have a look at the science questions in a quiz bowl tournament like ACF nationals or the Chicago Open. Now there are some tough science questions.

AaronW said...

I agree with Hugh that it would be a loss to have no mature students at all...it would go against the grain of educational philosophy which says you are never too old to start to learn.

There could be a contestant who had left school with nothing but discovered the joy of learning later in life and it would definitely be unfair for them to be unable to display that in (and enjoy the fun of) UC.

But the chances of 4 such innocently well-meaning contestants constituting a team would be minimal.

In some respects age is not an advantage, either for buzzer reaction speed, or for solving puzzles such as anagrams, and other word or number play. Presumably bulk quantity of knowledge is the more important factor though.

The current flexible approach of the BBC seems absolutely right, but it does rely upon 'professional' quizzers not deliberately exploiting the spirit of the show, and doing degree courses, not because they want to do degree courses, but purely in order to try and qualify for and win the show. It's not what the audience is watching the show to see and they would be very disappointed to see it happen regularly.

People should take a leaf out of Ian Bayley's hat. He deliberately chose some very broad topics in Mastermind because he felt it would 'appeal to the audience' at home. It's true, it is more fun and exciting to watch someone tackle a big subject. To go into a competition considering the audience's enjoyment ahead of ones chances of winning shows a lot of good grace i think!

The crusty OU team of 1999 didn't really show much good grace it's fair to say.

AaronW said...

Ps Apologies for the term 'crusty'. I'm sure no one hear is even showing remote signs of crustiness though...

...it was more a spiritual observation than a physical one lol.

Gruff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gruff said...

University Challenge is an anachronism. It is rooted in an early 1960s pre-Robbins view of Higher Education. To view University as an experience for 18-21 year olds, with Oxbridge being the shining pinnacle is to fail to appreciate all of the changes that have happened in the 50 years since the show was created.

University Challenge needs to reform, and in doing so could move to greater heights. It needs to ditch its love affair with Oxbridge. Oxbridge is grossly over-represented and there is little justification for accepting poor quality teams from colleges with around 200 students whilst rejecting large metropolitan universities (even if their teams are equally poor).

I have heard the argument that having a united Oxford team and a united Cambridge team would lead to an Oxbridge duopoly. The success of Manchester in recent years would tend to indicate that this would not be the case. If larger universities were afforded the opportunity to compete as regularly as Oxbridge colleges (and Manchester) do, then you would see the growth of a strong quiz culture in hitherto barren land. What hope does a University of Kent student have of getting on the show when since its return to our screens in 1994 it has not made a single appearance? How does a quiz culture grow at a university when there is nothing to aspire to? It may sound counter-intuitive, but University Challenge is holding back the development of quizzing in our country’s universities.

University Challenge needs to acknowledge that the old paradigm of student life has shifted, and with the advent of 9k fees will shift further in the coming years. Full time student numbers are capped, part time numbers aren’t. Mature and part-time students, living at home rather than in halls are fast becoming the norm.
It’s uncomfortable for many, but University as you remember it, is not how it is for most nowadays.

So if University Challenge is to avoid going down a heritage cul-de-sac akin to the Boat Race (popular but irrelevant) it needs to properly reflect the 21st Century Higher Education system. That means teams with mature students and arguably part-time students. People may claim that viewers like to watch Selwyn v Keeble, colleges with combined student numbers of under 1,500, but in the era of mass higher education they are more likely to have studied elsewhere than Oxbridge and would probably rather see their own alma mater on tv. For better or worse there are 118 Universities in this country. There can no longer be any justification for having 11/28 teams from Oxbridge, leaving 17 slots for the remaining 116 Universities. The privileged will defend their privileges but that doesn’t make them right.

Some might claim that the current UC selection process is entirely on merit, but can anyone seriously contend that the producers would countenance a series with no Oxbridge representation? It simply would not happen.

Here is my brief manifesto for reform:
- Make entry to UC based on merit alone
- Allow one entry per degree awarding institution
- Allow final year undergraduates to take part (even if they won’t be students at the time of broadcast)
- Allow part-time and mature students (registered and paid up at the institution) to compete with no black mark against teams including them

Failing that rebrand it:
Challenge Between Clever Mainly Middle Class Youngsters At A Small Selection of Universities and Colleges

HughTube said...

"Some might claim that the current UC selection process is entirely on merit, but can anyone seriously contend that the producers would countenance a series with no Oxbridge representation? It simply would not happen."

Are you saying that the Oxbridge teams aren't good enough to appear on the show on merit? This seems a little odd seeing as they (particularly Oxford) have dominated the show. In fact the number of Oxbridge colleges that can appear is capped, I fear if it were selected solely on the scores at the audition, there would be more.

"What hope does a University of Kent student have of getting on the show when since its return to our screens in 1994 it has not made a single appearance?"

Every university in the country is invited to submit a team and most of them do. If the University of Kent were to get a score high enough at the audition, they would be chosen. Among the borderline teams there is actually a bias towards teams that haven't appeared before, that's why 137 different institutions have competed on the show since its relaunch.

Here is my brief manifesto for reform:
- Make entry to UC based on merit alone
- Allow one entry per degree awarding institution
- Allow final year undergraduates to take part (even if they won’t be students at the time of broadcast)
- Allow part-time and mature students (registered and paid up at the institution) to compete with no black mark against teams including them"


1. It is selected first and foremost on merit.
2. This would mean that the Universities of Wales and London would also be restricted to one place each. It would also ensure Oxford won every year. They have a much larger and better organised Quiz Society than anywhere else in the country and completely dominate non-broadcast competitions.
3. Final year students can compete. The rules were changed and the last two seasons have been filmed in a single academic year.
4. Mature and part-time students are allowed to appear, there have been many on the show.

Gruff said...

Wow, I clearly touched a nerve. At Oxford or an alumnus perhaps ;)

1, Of course I am not saying Oxbridge teams per se are not good enough, but some Oxbridge teams patently aren't.

2, Oxford might win most years (though I doubt it) but it wouldn't win every year. Manchester for example would have something to say about it. And as I stated, by freeing up more slots for other universities to compete regularly you will almost certainly find the overall standard of competition rise. Why does Oxford have such a thriving quiz scene? It is because there is something for even the smallest college to play for.

3, Fair enough, I'm a couple of years out of date on that point. It was certainly the case when I managed to get teams onto the show 10 years or so ago.

4, This was addressing a)comments above about mature students and the OU b)the reticence recently of UC to let teams like the OU (13 years and counting) and Birkbeck (9 years) on. Part-time students were always barred, do you know for certain that this has changed in practice (it may have changed in the rules but that's not the same thing)?

There haven't been 137 institutions on the show. There have been 137 teams. 61 Oxbridge colleges (44.53% of the 137) are amongst those 137 bringing the total down to 78. I would further reduce it as you suggest to group together other federal universities. That's why I specified institutions with degree awarding powers.

36.5% of the slots on University Challenge since its return have gone to teams from Oxbridge. If multiple teams from an institution is acceptable, why can't Manchester put in a B team?

But if I may add an addendum to my 'manifesto'.

- create a transparent applications process so that we can be confident the best teams have got on.

I realise that this isn't going to happen, because in tv land such things are not their priority.

All in all I guess which side of teh fence you sit on depends on where you went to Uni. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas so I don't expect Oxbridge alumni to yield their privileged position.

Gruff said...

Other than all that Hugh, I find myself by and large agreeing with your other posts.

HughTube said...

You didn't touch a nerve, I was at Sheffield! I just disagree with you on a couple of points.

Oxford really would win every series, or at least it would take a massive upset to beat them. You were at the Oxford Open, right? Well there have been 7 tournaments like that over the last two years (and one on Saturday) just for students. Oxford has won all of them, frequently fairly comfortably, and sometimes with a 'B' team finishing second. This is despite never fielding all the best players in one tournament, and often not having fielded a clear 'A' team. Manchester has attended all of these with really good teams made up of their best players from UC of recent years. If Oxford put out an 'A' team for UC, it would be very unlikely that it would be beaten.

The Oxford teams that haven't done well just reflect that doing the written quiz is very different from the format on the show. Many other teams haven't done well on the show. I auditioned twice (appearing on the 2010-11 series) and helped select Sheffield's team for the last series, though sadly it didn't get on. They assured us that the first selection criterion was how well the team did on the test. After that, they wanted telegenic teams (good chemistry etc), a geographic spread, a range of types of institutions and, yes, new teams. Oxbridge colleges aren't really at an advantage, except that they appear separately. I believe Durham could appear as colleges if it wanted, but decides against it.

Having read the application forms several times I know that part-time students are allowed, indeed there was one on the team I first auditioned with. As I said above, I'm in favour of having all kinds of students appearing. I think that OU students have to be enrolled in a minimum number of modules (maybe 6?) as a precaution against quizzers enrolling just to win.

More than anyone, I would like there to be more academic quizzing at universities in this country. I don't know whether changing UC would make any difference, but I think the current selection process is very effective, and really about as fair as any TV show can be.

AaronW said...

'Challenge Between Clever Mainly Middle Class Youngsters At A Small Selection of Universities and Colleges'

Are you suggesting that the cleverness of the students on UC is a problem?

Or their youth?

Or the proportion that have middle-class background. Perhaps UC should it have more 'working class' questions????

They could possibly reduce the number of Oxford and Cambridge college places. There are some rubbish ones. I don't think that would change the feel of the show very much.

But i also wonder whether adding in extra 'metropolitan' universities' to make it, erm, 'more 21st century', would improve or worsen the average quality of teams. If these new teams end up doing incredibly badly, will the next step be to change the questions to fit the areas of interest of less academic students better?

In other words revamp a test of knowledge in order to advance a social cause. Any equality achieved will only be an illusion thanks to having to rig the system to achieve it.

I agree there would be no harm in slightly reducing the number of Oxbridge colleges, though!