Weaver's Week 2004-04-03

Universities Challenged

"You have to accept defeat even if you feel it undeserved."


---> Magdalen Oxford -v- St Andrews
Gonville & Caius Cambridge -v- London Metropolitan

Before we begin, the best personal buzzers after the quarter finals. The top scorers are the 2004 Dream Team:

Wilson, St Andrews, 267.4
Walkingshaw, Jesus, 267.3

Urquhart, Jesus, 261.7
Horton, London Met, 233.2
Holdcroft, Magdalen Oxford, 193.1
Souag, Gonville & Caius, 178.4
Fletcher, St John's Oxford, 176

Dawid, London Met, 169.2
Manifold, Royal Northern College of Music, 162.9
MacDonnell, London Met, 158.6

Magdalen hasn't been at all impressive so far, but victories against Nottingham, Sussex, and the RNCM are all victories. The side has yet to score more than 200 points. St Andrews has been quiet but industrious, knocking out City London, Queens Belfast and St Edmund's Cambridge by increasing margins. Has all this bumph enabled us to ignore Thumper's Tedious Triple Tripe Talk? Phew.

The show starts in the traditional manner, with Magdalen conferring for an inordinately long time over simple bonus questions, then getting them wrong. This tactic runs down the clock, preventing the opposition from scoring, but also runs down interest in the show, and neutral support for the side. Interest isn't helped by tediously, buttock-clenchingly long bonus questions to which the answer is "Work."

After the first picture round (on Titian pictures,) the sides have an aggregate score of 65 points. Last week's teams made 120.

Magdalen gets a set of bonuses on the Daily Mail's finest moments. This column declines to comment, save to point out that this set of questions made the bitter rival Express, and that fact made the equally bitter rival A Demi Grauniad. Magdalen also gets very easy sets of bonuses on words with opposite meanings, and common medical abbreviations. SARS, A&E, and ENT wouldn't be out of place on daytime giveaway BEAT THE NATION.

What Are They Blithering On About Starter Of The Week:

Q: The last words heard by which bivalve molluscs came from a speech by a bewhiskered pinniped which began, "The time has come to talk of many things, of shoes and ships and sealing wax, of cabbages and kings"? [1]

The audio round is musical theory, and Magdalen has been helped to rather a big lead and is rather rowing away with the race. Hmm. Oxford rowing away with the race. Has a certain ring to it.

Magdalen is further helped by Thumper accepting "Pauling" for "Pauli" in questions about theoretical physics. He's declined slighter similar slips of the tongue in the past. In spite of the slow pace, we still pass 250 just before the second picture round, identify the inventors.

There's a starter on Irish geography. Magdalen has the only Irish native on the team. This question almost boils down to "What's the town on the other side of the province?" And a question on the pH value of neutral, going to Magdalen. Goodness, if these questions get any easier, we'll be having Antan Dec popping up to shout a phone number at us, or Mukka imploring successful contestants to

"Give yourself a shiny!"

Was that the gong? It was the gong. St Andrews never quite hit their stride, and for UC to have to resort to Astoundingly Easy questions in the semi-final shows that something's up. For reference, this column claims 280 points, exactly 80% of the screen total. Last week, it claimed barely 52%, and its average over the knockout stages has been around 70%.

Still, Magdalen are the winners, and they've finally put up what is - on paper, at least - the one decent performance that a finalist should show. That said, both of the other semi-finalists have put up at least two really good performances already, and without resorting to questions along the lines of "What is your name?"

Cox 72.7 Holdcroft 71.9 McClements 51.3 Spero 69.1
MOX 40 105 70 50 [265] 27/43 4X
STA 30 15 25 15 [ 85] 6/18 1X
Rainey 24.6 Fotheringham 5.4 Wilson 38.2 Bulmer 16.8

[1] Oysters

Eliot Wilson was St Andrews' top scorer, buzzing for 305.6 points over the four rounds, fully 43.4% of the side's total. This week's poor show means the Scottish side has a bonus conversion rate of 46.4%, and an overall strike rate of 50.94%. St Andrews' total of 705 from four games is the same as Jesus Cambridge made in three.

To overtake Magdalen at this stage, Gonville & Caius needs 245 points, London Met 220. Both sides already have a better bonus conversion rate (61.9% and 58.7% to MOX's 56.6%), G&C a higher strike rate (57.9% to 55.2%), and should London Met win, they'll surely lift their 54.5% ahead of Magdalen's rate. Most tellingly: Magdalen has now chalked up 13 missignals. G&C has 5, London Met 4.


The success of London Metropolitan university has made us think about the position of the "new" universities. In 1992, the former polytechnics were made into universities. These institutions had delivered degrees, just like universities, but were funded in different ways, and gave their degrees through one national body. Teams from the "new" unis haven't had a strong record on UC - London Met is the first side to make the semi finals. Here's the record in full

1995: North London* - lost to New Oxford.

1995: Robert Gordon Aberdeen - lost to Bristol.
1996: Liverpool John Moores - beat Surrey, lost to Exeter.
1996: South Bank - beat Lucy Cavendish Cambridge, lost to Newcastle.
1997: Glamorgan - beat Charing Cross Hospital, winning draw with St Andrews, lost to Manchester.
1997: University of Western England - beat Surrey, lost to Magdalen Oxford.
1998: Oxford Brookes - beat Warwick, lost to LSE.

1999: Portsmouth - lost to De Montfort.
1999: De Montfort - beat Portsmouth, lost to Bristol.
2000: North London* - beat Durham, lost to Nottingham.
2001: Sheffield Hallam - beat Bristol, beat Warwick, lost to Univ Oxford.
2002: De Montfort - lost to Imperial London.
2003: Liverpool John Moores - lost to Leeds.

2004: London Metropolitan - beat St John's Oxford, beat Durham, beat Jesus Cambridge.

  • North London merged with London Guildhall in 2002 to form London Metropolitan.

The record of all "new" universities: Played 27, won 12, lost 14, with 1 winning draw. Scored 4450, conceded 5015.

The statistics show that there have never been more than two new universities in the televised draw; since the contest expanded to 28 sides in 1999, there has never been an opportunity for more than one side to make the second round. Why might this be?

The obvious theory: teams from new universities are, generally, very much weaker than those from traditional universities. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can't rule out this supposition. It's further supported by the long-standing and well-organised tradition of quizzing at Oxford and Cambridge universities. The Magdalen team comprises three-quarters of a recent winning team in Oxford, while Gonville and Caius and Jesus did battle for the Cambridge title.

A closer examination of the sides in the televised contest makes for interesting reading.

Oxford comprises 40 colleges, and Cambridge 31. Over the past six years, since the televised contest expanded to 28 teams, Oxbridge has sent 10 or 11 teams each year.

The University of London has 19 colleges; every year, it sends 2 or 3 teams.

Old Scottish universities: 4 such institutions, two appear most years.

Wales: 6 colleges, one appears every year.

Between 1800 and 1950, 16 "redbrick" universities were founded. For convenience, Durham is included in this group, which has around 5 teams per year.

Ten further general universities were founded in the sixties; three or four from this group (usually including Warwick and York) appear most years.

Also in the sixties, ten technological universities were founded, and the military research unit at Cranfield awarded its own degrees. Two or three from this group appear each year.

The Open university appeared in 1999, and hasn't been seen since; the independent University of Buckingham has not appeared on screen in the revival. Specialist colleges, such as this year's quarter-finalists the Royal Northern College of Music, appear from time to time.

Following the London Met merger, 38 institutions became universities in 1992. They collectively send exactly one team per year.

It is possible that the sides sent by the new universities are of such a poor standard that they do not deserve a place on the series, and that the producers only give a slot because they know they would get bad publicity from the press. However, given the poor standard of some of the teams that do make the televised contest, it's not exactly clear that teams from new universities could do any worse.

Instead, we begin to suspect the dull hand of old-fashioned snobbery at work. There's a clearly defined social ranking of universities in Britain. Perhaps we might name it the Producers' Ranking of Independent Centres of Knowledge. Oxbridge at the top; London, Scotland, Wales and the redbricks below; the 60s unis beneath them; and the new universities right at the bottom. The analysis shows that, whether it's intentional or not, the producers of University Challenge are repeating that hierarchy in their choice of teams. Oxbridge colleges are grossly over-represented proportional to the number of students they have - by sheer number of students, exactly one Oxbridge college would appear each year. Oxbridge is probably over-represented even when we remember their high academic intake and practice at quizzing.

Given the bias towards Oxbridge, there's less of an obvious bias towards any other sort of university. Only Scotland, where two of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St Andrews and Aberdeen appear each year, has a guaranteed over-representation. However, this breaks down completely when we consider the new universities.

Usually, this column asserts that television only reflects society. University Challenge is the exception that tests this rule: it represents one of the very few opportunities for students to appear in a positive light on national television, and does help to shape the general viewer's opinion of students. Is it right that students of the new universities should be denied that moment in the sun because of the pre-conceived ideas of television producers? Indeed, how do they expect the new universities to improve their game if there's no goal to aim for?

The obvious solution would be to reduce the Oxbridge representation to eight colleges, increase the new universities to three teams. Alternatively, the producers could simply pick the 28 best sides in the qualifying round; or the 20 best sides and eight other good sides who would make cracking television.


Highlight from this week's Takeaway: "I'll have a P please, Dec," as the duo bring back Blockbusters (including host Bob Holness) for one night only.

The second annual gathering of STAR ACADEMY winners took place this week. With Alex Parks busily writing her second album in the USA, runner-up Alistair Griffin was the UK's representative. According to fansites, he stunned the audiences with a better-than-the-original rendition of "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)," and wowed the crowd while working with Phil Collins. That man's worked with all the stars - Robin Gibb, Alex Parks, Daniel Bedingplant, Peter Brame - and no-hopers like Dogsby and Kielty... Sadly, the international judges didn't see things in quite the same light, and Ali placed sixth of the ten contestants. Even more sadly, this night of top-quality entertainment was not shown on BBC3, as Stuart Murphy won't let anything in a foreign language air on his channel. Indeed, such is his devotion to quality programming that Stuart Murphy won't let anything in the English language air on his channel without the greatest of fights.

A Romanian TV station has been handed a record fine for broadcasting live sex on its version of BIG BROTHER. Prima TV was given a £9,000 fine after two contestants had sex in front of hundreds of thousands of viewers. Producers of the show said they will appeal against the ruling.

New shows in development for the US include their version of LIAR, in which people pretend to be something they're not. D L Hughley is the transatlantic equivalent of Paul Kaye, apparently. 30 minutes on the BBC will probably translate to an hour on CBS. A version of ANTAN DEC'S TAKEAWAY is under consideration by Fox, who are also looking at not-quite-game-show THE SKETCH SHOW, but it might give Tim Vine his big break.

This column is not quite sure why a picture of a man holding a large chocolate easter egg displayed for ten seconds during last night's Without Prejudice?, but is sure that Dr Cockup will not be in the house for the S4C repeat.

Next week: Tiny And Mr Duk's Huge Show and Raven both come to the CBBC channel. Something even huger, Nicky Campbell's Ego, hosts the absurdly long Come and Have a Go If You Think You're Smart Enough from 1855 tonight - look for that show dissected here next week. UK People airs all the HIGNFYs from 1990, there's a new run of All or Nothing and repeats of Catchphrase.

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