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 openlink.org 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).

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Sport
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballArsenal vs QPR match report
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
i100
Sport
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Recruitment Genius: MIS Officer - Further Education Sector

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Operating throughout London and...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: Project Manager

£35000 per annum + Pension+Bupa: The Jenrick Group: We are recruiting for an e...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all