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).

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Tradewind Recruitment: KS1 & KS2 Teachers Required

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Tradewind Recruitment are currently working...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Experienced Cover Supervisor

£12000 - £14400 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Experienced Cover Supervisor...

Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea