“What short word can mean frost formed from freezing fog and is also an archaic term for a poet?”
“Er, you’re going to lose five points I’m afraid.”
So went the unfortunate exchange between Jeremy Paxman and Jamie Perriam, captain of the St Andrews team, on last week’s episode of University Challenge. Something like this was bound to happen. Blame it on Murphy’s Law, but it was the kind of mistake that you could only make while representing your university on television in front of 2.6 million viewers. To clarify, it was a genuine error: Perriam was guessing “hoar”, which is indeed a type of frost. (He explained his split-second reason-ing to Buzzfeed, which eye-rollingly called it “the best description of the intense pressure generated by tel-evised quizzing you will ever read”; but I digress.)Anyway, it earned Perriam and the team a well-deserved ribbing in the media.
It was quite funny, to be fair, and at least it distracted from the fact St Andrews scored a meagre 100 points. Considerably less deserved, how-ever, was the merciless bullying the team had to endure on social media regarding their attitudes, upbringings and appearances. “Posh”, “pretentious” and “smug” were common complaints on Twitter. Some called them “insufferable” and “irritating”. One viewer, without a hint of irony, ventured that Perriam was “oleaginously loathsome”. Alright, I know: it’s the internet. It’s to be expected. But three of the team were Scots and the fourth a Geordie. Three of the four went to state schools.
Is it really right that winning a place at the UK’s third-best university – an accomplishment that requires intelligence and hard work – should also bring you abuse and assumptions about your background? Perhaps the team didn’t help themselves. Choosing to wear their gowns was, as one blog put it, “destined to be disastrous”. It’s the sort of thing that, however traditional and however quintessentially St Andrean, will just never play well in the national media. (Although it did give the Daily Mail a nice head-line when the team lost: “We were robed!”)Still, it’s hard not to see the insults being hurled last week as representative of a wider issue.
For St Andrews does have a rather intractable im-age problem. “Rich, elite, Tory and English” is how Louise Richardson, the principal, put it recently in an interview with The Irish Times. She and plenty of others are working on this, and headway is slowly being made, but it feels like a war of attrition. Why is our posh reputation so difficult to shake? Some of the blame has to be laid with the media. “Rich students do outrageous things at fancy university” is a great line for lazy reporters to peddle to their news desks: easy to write and guaranteed to play well with readers. It doesn’t matter how true it is (no-one mention champagning) – we, Oxford, Cambridge and similar universities will always suffer from this to a greater or lesser extent.
There’s no smoke without fire, though. In the recently published Good University Guide 2015, we scored exceptionally poorly for state school admissions and students with working class backgrounds. Clearly, as my colleague Rebecca suggests today, for all the University’s progress to date there is plenty to be done. I also wonder whether, like our University Challenge team, we as students don’t really help our-selves. We might joke about it but the St Andrews stereotypes – cash-mere sweaters, red trousers, Hunter wellies – aren’t exactly far from the truth. Ours is a community where VIP tickets to after-parties can cost £85 and where it’s not unheard of to spend £2,000 at auction for a table at Oktoberfest (yes, that happened).
Exclusive events aside, consider that all of us were willing to spend £120 on a gown we’ll barely wear or that most of us will feel obliged to buy a tuxedo or equivalent during our time here. Wine and cheese evenings are our favourite social mixers. And only in St Andrews could the student paper publish an article titled “In praise of black-tie dressing” and get away with it.
Any quiz team would have earned laughter for shouting “whore” at Jeremy Paxman, but with most universities it would have ended there. We shouldn’t have to accept that being St Andrews students automatically qualifies us for cruel insults about being posh, rich or elitist. The media should up its game and rid itself of its prejudices, and the University will have to try harder when it comes to widening access. Most of all though, we students ought to take a long look in the mirror and wonder why our stereotypes are what they are. There’s your starter for 10.