BBC accused of ‘hiding’ Oxbridge bias on University Challenge in deepening elitism row

The BBC has been accused of “hiding” the extent of its Oxbridge bias on University Challenge in a deepening row about alleged elitism on the show.

The Guardian revealed that Frank Coffield, a Durham-based emeritus professor of education at University College London, is campaigning for fairer entry rules for the show for what he says is a rigged contest.

As part of the campaign, he asked the corporation to reveal exactly how many teams from Oxbridge have appeared on the show since 1994, when the BBC revived the competition with Jeremy Paxman in the chair.

Now his freedom of information (FoI) request has been rejected by the corporation.

In reply, the BBC said: “If held, the information you requested is held for the purposes of ‘art, journalism or literature’.” As such, it said the BBC is not obliged to supply the figures.

Coffield, who says all universities should be limited to one entry each, told the Guardian he is suspicious of the BBC’s refusal to disclose the information.

He asked: “What has it got to hide? Quite a lot, I suspect. The director general, Tim Davie, said that ‘impartiality is the cornerstone’ of the organisation, so why does it keep chipping away at it with a rigged format?”

Coffield pointed out that the BBC created a mock-up of the quiz in 2012 that pitched Lords College-Oxbridge v Redbrick College-North. “It stinks of social class and academic snobbery,” he said.

He added: “I call upon Davie to disown this shameful snobbery, to take down the mock-up, provide me with the information requested and allow Oxford and Cambridge one entry each from now on. I’ve learned from, been entertained by and stoutly defended the BBC all my life, so that surely permits me to ask for the boil on a much-loved face to be lanced.”

The show’s website reveals that on average more than 10 of the 28 teams to have competed in the quiz in the last nine series were Oxbridge colleges. The current series, the 52nd since it was first broadcast in 1962, has the fewest Oxbridge colleges with just eight. The previous seven series had 10 or 11 entries from Oxbridge and in the 2013-14 series there were 13 Oxbridge teams. Information on entries from earlier series is not available.

A BBC spokesperson said: “We actively encourage a variety of educational institutions to apply to University Challenge and welcome greater diversity on the show. There’s no secret as to who’s been on University Challenge over the years, as the programme has been televised.”

He said that the corporation’s response to Coffield’s FoI request was bound by FoI rules.

Bobby Seagull, a broadcaster and maths teacher who represented Emmanuel College, Cambridge on the quiz and coaches current teams, agreed that the show’s entry rules were biased in favour of Oxbridge.

Speaking on BBC 5 Live, he said: “If you were to design University Challenge as a new gameshow now, in 2023, you would find it hard to justify that rationale. It’s just a quirk from the 1960s. I’ve got friends at Durham University, which has individual colleges, why can’t they enter separately? The BBC really needs to try and explain properly why we still have this historical bias.”