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. Subsequently, the records were checked, and it was discovered they had amassed this with the help of 15 extra points from their opponents for buzzing early. As the rules were later changed to deduct points rather than add them, this meant their score was revised to 425.

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. Thus if Leeds' 440 was recalculated as 425 then Birkbeck's score was in fact the record at that 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. 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
Pos'nTeamOpponentsRoundYearScore
1University, OxfordReading187520
2Birkbeck, LondonExeter, Oxford1?84430
3Leeds??70s425
3OpenSt AndrewsF84425
5?OpenCharing CrossSF97415
6?Peterhouse, CambridgeSt Anne's, Oxford164410
7St John's, Cambridge?1?78?>405?
8University, OxfordOpenSF87405
9Magdalen, OxfordUWISTQF84405
10Sidney 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, 1994-2019
1OpenCharing Cross HospitalSF97415
2OpenSwansea1st97395
3Trinity, CambridgeNew, OxfordFinal95390
4Magdalen, OxfordCardiffQF98375
5ManchesterBirkbeck, London1st97360
6DurhamKing's Medical School, London2nd00360
7DurhamStrathclyde1st19360
8DurhamGlasgow2nd99355
9OpenLancaster1st99350
10Corpus Christi, OxfordExeterQF09350
11Corpus Christi, OxfordLancasterQF05345
12ManchesterLincoln, OxfordSF09345
13St John's, CambridgeKing's, Cambridge2nd09345
14DurhamAberystwythQF00340
15Magdalen, OxfordDurham1st11340
16Trinity, CambridgeSt AndrewsQF95335
17University, OxfordHeriot-Watt2nd96335
18Magdalen, OxfordQueen's, BelfastQF97335
19NottinghamNew Hall, Cambridge1st98335
20Oriel, OxfordLeicesterQF99335
21University, OxfordMagdalene, Cambridge1st01335
22Lincoln, OxfordQueens', CambridgeQF09335
23EdinburghJesus, Oxford1st11335
24SouthamptonBangor2nd14335
25University, LondonEmmanuel, Cambridge2nd03330
26Corpus Christi, OxfordDurham1st09330
27Magdalen, OxfordChrist's, CambridgeQF11330
28ManchesterNewcastleQF12330
29AberdeenBrasenose, Oxford2nd95325
30Imperial, LondonExeterQF96325