02 March 2009

Challenging Universities

I realise that with the world collapsing around us, the outcome of a British quiz show ought hardly to be the most important thing on the news. For all that, though, it does seem there's some hoohah about the legitimacy of Corpus Christi, Oxford's victory over Manchester in University Challenge as televised last Monday.

Apparently Sam Kay, the only member of the Corpus team with a background in anything other than the Classical World, had left the college and was no longer a student by the time Corpus took part in the Quarter Finals. In case you don't remember or didn't know, that was the stage in the competition where Corpus demolished Exeter by 350 points to 15, before going on to conclusively beat St John's, Cambridge 260 to 150, and finally stage a spectacularly comeback against Manchester, ultimately beating them 275 to 190.

The rules are utterly clear on this sort of thing, stating that all contestants must be students for the duration of the competition -- both its filming and its broadcasting -- so it seems perverse of Kay to come out with nonsense of the order of 'I was a student when I applied to be on the show and on the day when we filmed the first two rounds, so I don't think I've done anything wrong.'

Well, if the rules are that all contestants must be students for the competition's duration, then he has. Sorry. There doesn't seem to be any wiggle-room here. You'd think he'd be able to see that, as you need to be pretty bright to compete in University Challenge, even if the show's questions are biased more towards crystallised rather than fluid intelligence.

To be fair, it does look as though this started as a genuine error, in that he initially applied and competed in the early stages of the competition when planning on doing a PhD at Corpus; unfortunately for him his funding fell through, hence his going to work for PricewaterhouseCoopers, to whom he'd evidently applied in case the PhD had proved unfeasible.

For all that, though, surely he ought to have recused himself from the competition once his status changed, or at least raised the issue? The problem here, surely, is that it seems highly unlikely that his team-mates were unaware of this, which rather suggests that the entire team were knowingly breaking the rules.

And the thing is, leaving aside the moral question, why would they bother? This is like Putin fixing elections when he's so absurdly popular that he'd win by a landslide anyway. Good grief -- did you see Gail Trimble trounce all opposition? Sure, she was less prominent in the final against Manchester than in earlier rounds, but even so, look at her record. Coming into the final she'd scored 825 of the 1,235 points that Corpus had clocked up to that point, which rather begs the question of why you'd field somebody alongside her who could actually cause the Corpus victory to look fishy?

I mean, sure, Kay got two vital starter-for-ten questions right at pivotal points in the final, opening the gap that Trimble smashed through, but there's a fair chance that any number of Corpus students could have done just as well. I mean, it's not as if they'd have been fielding just three contestants on the day!

The Observer and the BBC report the Mancunian reaction rather differently, with the former having the Manchester team keen on a rematch, and the latter reporting that they have no such desire. Granted, given that University Challenge is a BBC show, you might think they'd be inclined to play down any such desire, but I'm inclined to believe the BBC on this, especially given defeated captain and Manchester historian Matthew Yeo's fine and magnanimous column in the latest New Statesman.

Whatever way you look at it, last Monday was a good night for historians and classicists, anyway.


Tom said...

Sorry that's just an absurd rule. What on earth is this guy supposed to have done? Quit the competition mid-series? Nobody can guarantee at the start of a competition like this that they'll be a student at the end of it, despite the best of intentions (which this guy obviously had).

Disqualifying the entire team post-final like this is a massive overreaction by a very overreactionary BBC (see also the Gaza appeal nonsense, the sacking of Carol Thatcher, etc).

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Tom, I'm starting to think that if you ever formed your views based on things that don't appear on your computer screen your head might burst.

Absurd rule or not, and I don't think it is absurd, it's the one every contestant signed up to.

Is he supposed to have quit the competition when he ceased to be at the College he was representing? Yes. And why not? That's presumably why the teams have substitutes, to cover eventualities like this. Are you saying that he ought to have lied about being a student when he wasn't one? That that's okay?

I think it's a shame, all told. Corpus would surely have won the competition with someone else taking Kay's place, and for them to have lost the trophy because of their breaking the rules in a way that was - apart from everything else - utterly unncessary, is rather sad.

And Manchester can really only say that they won on a technicality. There were no winners on this one.

As for your comment, this is just another example of your incessant whinging about the BBC, I'm afraid, just because you disapprove of there being a national broadcaster. You might consider moving for a while to somewhere where there's no such institution... I'm pretty sure you'd swiftly find yourself getting rather nostalgic.

Neil said...

When I appeared on University Challenge, in 2002-3, I knew full well about this rule, and yes, if I had failed to get my MSc place for that year, I would have withdrawn from the competition before the second round. (The first round was filmed well in advance.)

Interestingly, each team is only allowed to have one reserve, but I imagine there are further provisions if someone has to completely drop out (which didn't happen in our case); even if there are unreasonable aspects to the rule, though, that wouldn't give anyone the right to just ignore those rules...

Manchester have been left feeling that they aren't the real winners. There are no winners if the rules aren't followed.