Friday, 26 April 2013

Bonus Question
University Challenge: an age-old problem?

In an 'exciting' new venture for The ones that got away, here's my first attempt in what will hopefully become a semi-regular feature, currently operating under the working title of Bonus Question. Having spent a rather large proportion of my life watching (and occasionally competing in) game shows, I have something of a back-catalogue of quiz-related topics I've wanted to get down in writing. This is where I'll be (slowly, and with a lot of parentheses) getting them off my chest.

Thumbs up if you think UC is super cool

Monday sees the final of the 2012/13 series of University Challenge, where University College London take on Manchester for the big metal book thing. The smart money is on the London team who, having bested Manchester in the quarter-finals, are the only unbeaten team left in the competition. More importantly, however, they also have my full-throated support.

I have a number of reasons to root for the lads from that Godless institution in Gower Street: UCL is one of my alma maters, being a Londoner they're my 'home' team, and Manchester are slowly becoming the, er, Manchester United of University Challenge (which in the finest traditions of 'anyone but United' should be reason enough by itself). However, I have what may seem a somewhat unfair rationale as well: like their winning team last year, Manchester have a mature student.

The debate over teams fielding older players is of course nothing new. In 1999 the Open University (in)famously won the title with a team who, with an average age of 46, featured at least one member who had signed up for a course just to get on the show. While this precipitated predictable rumblings from outraged of Tunbridge Wells, even the show's host spoke out about it not being in the 'spirit of the game'. (And we all know how hard it is to earn Jeremy Paxman's displeasure...)

On face value, the arguments on either side are fairly straightforward. Those (myself included) who feel uncomfortable seeing older competitors argue that the show caters to a unique contestant demographic: young adults who haven't had the time, not just due to their age but also thanks to a life supposedly spent largely in study, to simply amass knowledge through a lifetime's experience. The counterargument usually goes that older students have just as much right to represent their university and that to deny them as such amounts to nothing short of age discrimination. (I heard of one instance where, after initially deciding on their team of four plus a reserve, the individual in charge realized they might have a better chance of getting on the show if they swapped the oldest member of the team with the much more sprightly reserve. The chap in question supposedly threatened to take up this 'discrimination' with the university and the suggestion was quickly dropped.)

The problem of discrimination certainly raises an awkward question: if for the sake of argument we subscribe to the 'no old fogeys' rule then how could this work in practice? Insist contestants are all below a certain age? Only permit those who are studying their first undergraduate degree? Exclude anyone who has taken a gap yah? Obviously it's not a trivial problem. After all (and in the interests of full disclosure), I was a relatively ancient 24 when I took part as a PhD student representing the exclusively postgraduate London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine team. My partner meanwhile, who captained UCL to the semi-finals last year, was in his final year of medical school and so of a similarly advanced age. Would I find our participation objectionable if watching at home?

While it's impossible not to sound biased on this one, I think the answer is no, and it's this observation which informs my own personal preference for what constitutes an 'acceptable' University Challenge team. In an ideal world where I am the Lord of Quizzing (what do you mean that's not a thing?) I would insist that all University Challenge contestants satisfy one fairly straightforward inclusion criterion: they must have no 'real world' experience. In other words, they should have left school, gone straight to university, and still be doing some sort of course of study when they compete. (Maybe there could be one year's leeway for people who really must spend 12 months swimming with elephants, or whatever it is humanities students do these days.)

This simple rule would essentially introduce an age limit but in a way that is arguably not directly discriminative (after all, you could just keep doing degrees until you were 50 if you really wanted...), but also maintain the 'this is what I know despite spending all my time studying/drinking' ethos. Some might argue that this would just lead to teams full of PhD students to maximize the age advantage, but that strikes me as unlikely: you won't find many 'perpetual student' PhD candidates over 25, and they're probably the least likely section of a student body to want to waste time on a TV quiz anyway.

Of course, it seems unlikely that we'll see any sort of change to combat what, for the most part, is an almost non-existent problem. The guys who make the show know what they're doing and, most importantly, have the editorial control to minimize the risk of another OU-gate. As they say, if it ain't broke don't fix it, and University Challenge remains one of TV's premier quizzes.

Still, comments on a recent Guardian article about the man behind Manchester University's success demonstrated that the debate is still alive for some, and it would surely only need a slightly more experienced team to lift the trophy for the argument to resurface in the public's imagination. That certainly won't be the case whoever wins on Monday, but I've got my Jeremy Bentham head ready, just in case.

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