University Challenge — Highest Scores

When we got 390 in the final in 1995 Bamber Gascoigne commented that it was one of the highest scores he could remember since the show began in 1962. This was then overtaken by Open's 415, beating their previous 395. Similarly, when Manchester won by 320 points, Jeremy Paxman declared it was the biggest winning margin in the show's history, a claim backed up in the ensuing newspaper articles.

However, neither of these claims are true. In the first round of 1987, the final series before the show was cut by Granada, University College, Oxford beat Reading by 520 to 35. Bamber said that he thought that they had broken the previous record (held by a Leeds team from the 1970s) when they passed 440.

In 1977-8 Sidney Sussex, Cambridge beat Leeds by 400-170 and were told that this was the first time that 400 had been reached. Later, in the 1984 series Birkbeck, London notched up 430 in beating Exeter College, Oxford, which Bamber referred to as the second highest score of all time. Moreover, in the same series Magdalen College, Oxford scored 405 during their quarter final match. Bamber commented that this was only the fifth time that the 400 barrier had been broken in the show's 22 year history.

The following year Open beat St Andrew's in the final with a score of 425, and Bamber stated that they were only 5 points off the record score.

Note that during the Bamber Gascoigne era, bonuses were often worth up to 40 points rather than the usual 15, meaning that higher scores were possible. Also, unlike under Paxman, during Bamber's series incorrect interruptions resulted in the opposing team being awarded five points instead of the offender's team losing five.

I've also discounted the 1986 and 1987 'pass-the-baton' games in which a different format was used and the scores for the day started at the final scores from the previous day. Thus the day after their record 520 score, University College, Oxford increased this to 930 by the end of their 'pass-the-baton' game, certainly the highest score that a University Challenge scoreboard has had to display.

So in addition to the table below, I may conjecture the following all-time high scoring table:

Highest scores of all-time
1University, OxfordReading187520
3Birkbeck, LondonExeter, Oxford184430
4OpenSt AndrewsF84425
5?LeedsUniversity, Swansea183415
5?OpenCharing CrossSF97415
7?Peterhouse, CambridgeSt Anne's, Oxford164410
8St John's, Cambridge?1?78?>405?
9University, OxfordOpenSF87405
10Magdalen, OxfordUWISTQF84405
11Sidney Sussex, CambridgeLeeds178400

Thanks to John Authers and Roger Mortimore of the 1987 University College team, members of Sidney Sussex, 1978, Philip Beagon of the 1984 Magdalen team, Stephen Pearson, captain of Manchester's 1996 team, Norman Hammond of Peterhouse, 1965, and Peter Cartwright for this info.

At the moment, I can also conjecture that the highest losing score, and the highest aggregate score were both scored in the same match in 1987. In the semi-final match University College, Oxford beat the Open University by 405-335 giving a total score of 740!

Highest Scores, 1994-2024
1OpenCharing Cross HospitalSF97415
3Trinity, CambridgeNew, OxfordFinal95390
4Magdalen, OxfordCardiffQF98375
6ManchesterBirkbeck, London1st97360
7DurhamKing's Medical School, London2nd00360
9Corpus Christi, OxfordExeterQF09350
11ManchesterLincoln, OxfordSF09345
12Corpus Christi, OxfordLancasterQF05345
13St John's, CambridgeKing's, Cambridge2nd09345
14Magdalen, OxfordDurham1st11340
16Magdalen, OxfordQueen's, BelfastQF97335
17Trinity, CambridgeSt AndrewsQF95335
18Lincoln, OxfordQueens', CambridgeQF09335
19Oriel, OxfordLeicesterQF99335
21NottinghamNew Hall, Cambridge1st98335
22University, OxfordHeriot-Watt2nd96335
23EdinburghJesus, Oxford1st11335
24University, OxfordMagdalene, Cambridge1st01335
25Magdalen, OxfordChrist's, CambridgeQF11330
27Corpus Christi, OxfordDurham1st09330
28University, LondonEmmanuel, Cambridge2nd03330
29Imperial, LondonExeterQF96325
30DurhamTrinity, CambridgeQF99325