Open Eye: The university challenge: How do we know?

From The Vice-Chancellor

Within the Open University promoting debate is a virtue - although some debates come as surprise, like the arguments sparked by the OU victory in this year's TV quiz, University Challenge.

I comment on these controversies with an important disclaimer: the recruitment and training of teams for this contest are the responsibilities of the student associations of the competing universities, not the universities as corporate bodies - still less their vice-chancellors.

The Open University Students Association, OUSA, has done an excellent job over the years in identifying potential members for a University Challenge team among our large, diverse and dispersed student body.

Over the many years that this quiz has been broadcast there is only a handful of universities whose students have matched OU student prowess in getting to the final and winning.

The OU win has sparked discussion of several issues. First, there is the criticism that the OU recruits professional quiz players. This is surely a misuse of the word professional, since playing quiz games must be a pretty thin and unreliable living.

That said, I expect that students who put themselves forward for the University Challenge team at any university are people who enjoy such games, from Trivial Pursuit on up.

Student associations also look for their soccer and hockey teams among people who like playing those sports.

Although some students join particular universities in the hope of being chosen for the rugger team, anyone who becomes an OU student in the expectation of selection for the University Challenge team is making a bet against long odds. More than 30,000 new students join the OU every year and many respond to OUSA's invitation to compete for a place.

In the end the final choice of four is made by Granada. OUSA simply submits a list of ten names.

The second accusation is that the OU has an unfair advantage in University Challenge because its students are older.

I am pleased that this argument has surfaced because it suggests that the national drive towards lifelong learning is finally making headway.

Two years ago the OU team, which included a member aged over 70, set several records.

Commentary at that time was condescending: "Isn't it touching that these older students can do much better than the youngsters?" captures the style. This year the attitude was different: "Isn't it unfair that the young students should have to compete against these older people who have had so much more time to learn?" catches the tenor of the remarks.

I find this encouraging. For too long we have assumed in Britain that our intellectual prowess declines from about age 25 but that this doesn't matter very much because it's not what you know it's who you know that is important for success.

The third issue is not directed at the perceived intellectual edge of the Open University in the contest but at the nature of University Challenge itself. The point made is that the purpose of university education is not to gain factual knowledge but to develop critical thinking.

It's a fair point, although it is hard to imagine how you could design a competition in critical thinking that would make riveting television.

A real university education is indeed about reasoning, assessing evidence, making testable hypotheses in short, inculcating an attitude of systematic scepticism. This is what the OU takes pride in doing.

I judge our success by students like the one who commented, with a mixture of satisfaction and exasperation, that after doing an OU degree he couldn't see fewer than six sides to any question. Nevertheless, you have to learn and reason about a topic. I do not believe that you can learn how to learn entirely in the abstract. "Knowledge is important" is a fundamental academic dogma that is not in conflict with critical thinking. Knowledge, to be usable, must be set in a framework.

That is why University Challenge is a perfectly legitimate intellectual activity and why I encourage readers of Open Eye to test their own knowledge on the frequently up-dated quizzes on the website, and also to test it and to support a good cause by entering the Imperial Cancer Research Fund's Christmas Quiz (details of which will appear here, nearer the time).

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