Martin Hannan: A challenge for our universities

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IT WAS while watching University Challenge last week that I realised that the old Scottish term “a lad or lass o’ pairts” might now be redundant.

The very poor showing last week by Strathclyde University saw them lose by 70 points to Durham University’s 245. It was a humiliating thumping, and I felt ashamed to be Scottish because our team was so obviously second best to that of the English university.

Glasgow’s second university is the third largest in Scotland with 26,000 students. In the past with other Scottish universities, some of the contestants were from outside Scotland, but the four from Strathclyde came from Kilmarnock, Campbeltown, and two from Glasgow.

That means they went through the Scottish education system and all I can say is that if they were in any way representative of the knowledge base of Scottish students then heaven help us – note that I said knowledge base, as I have no doubt that the four Strathclyde students are very intelligent and brilliant at their own subjects, but as the result showed, they were clearly miles behind the English in terms of breadth of knowledge.

The team didn’t seem to understand the questions at times. Jeremy Paxman asked “what symbolic figure was addressed by Madame Roland before her execution in the Place de la Revolution”. The Strathclyde captain jumped in with “Marie Antoinette” – the hapless Queen was many things, but a symbolic figure, – ie a statue – she was not.

The correct answer which, to be fair, Durham did not get either, was a statue representing Liberty – on her way to the guillotine, Madame Roland addressed the statue and made her famous remark: “Oh liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name.”

That miss took the Strathclyde score to minus five, and for a long time it looked as though they would never rise above the lowest score in the modern series, the 15 achieved by the University of Exeter in 2009. Strathclyde finally got above the zero mark more than halfway through the programme, and rallied late to get their score up to 70, but Durham were quicker on the buzzer and correctly answered questions on everything from foreign currency to the ingredients of a Long Island Iced Tea cocktail.

At the end Paxman – never happier than when the Scottish universities get beaten – correctly said: “There’s not much of a way of sugaring the pill . . . that was a resounding defeat.”

Now I know we shouldn’t take University Challenge as a way of comparing education systems, not least because Oxbridge colleges which have dominated the titles since the show began in 1962 – they have 22 titles out of 41 – often featured Scots.

But it is a startling fact that in the original series under Bamber Gascoigne’s chairmanship, Scotland only won twice through the University of St Andrews and Dundee University in 1983 and 1984 respectively. In the re-born series which began in 1995, no Scottish university has even reached the final. Before you all say “well, no wonder, it was only Strathclyde” be aware that Edinburgh’s universities are probably not much better. It’s a bit depressing that for all our vaunted education system here in Edinburgh, none of our universities have ever won the Challenge.

So are our Scottish students getting thicker? Like the English brouhaha over the exam results last week, is there evidence that the younger Scottish generation isn’t cutting the mustard intellectually? I don’t think so. I am absolutely sure that a brilliant bright new generation is coming along, but my concern is that they are more and more being led into specialisations as a way of securing a career, though those who have just left university for the dole will tell you how unsuccessful that policy has been.

The key to winning University Challenge and, for that matter, being able to get on in life, is to have a good intellect and a genuine breadth of knowledge. We used to pride ourselves in Scotland on the creation of that “lad o’ pairts” and in the 18th century Robert Burns and his colleagues in a rudimentary school paid for by their parents were coached in English literature, Latin, French, history, and arithmetic. I studied Latin at school and I am absolutely sure that is the reason why I can get by in French, Italian and Spanish – put it this way, I can order beers in all three languages and won’t ever get lost in those countries. Yet Latin is seen as a dead language, and Classics generally are sneered at.

It’s all modern studies and the internet, but without the basic knowledge of things, even the internet will not help you become a rounded person. Quite the opposite in some cases, as it can actually produce damaged individuals.

School pupils are still encouraged to take a broad range of examination subjects, but I often wonder if their accrual of knowledge stops dead when they go to university. No doubt the discovery of sex, booze, drugs and rock ’n’ roll expand their minds in pleasant ways but I would like to think that other forms of relaxation could include finding out facts and figures and enjoying quiz nights.

Otherwise no Edinburgh or Scottish university will ever win University Challenge. Pity that, as it would be worth it just to see old Paxo’s face when the Scots won.