What does it take to win a place on a University Challenge team? Education Correspondent Kat Keogh joins University of Birmingham students as they audition for the next series
For many, university life passes by in a haze of happy hours, convenience food and all-night exam cramming sessions.
But for others, the goal is achieving academic excellence – and that dream doesn’t stop at getting a first.
Earlier this month, more than 100 students packed out two lecture theatres at the University of Birmingham in the hope of winning of a place on the 2012-13 University Challenge team.
Despite being on our screens for nearly 50 years, the high-brow quiz show still remains a mecca for the nation’s brightest students, with the likes of Stephen Fry, David Starkey and Clive James all taking part during their university days.
Unlike other programmes, there’s no cash prize, only the prestige in being crowned the cream of the academic world.
With the rest of the University campus winds down for the day, 100 hopefuls headed to the University of Birmingham’s first-round auditions for the programme.
Every seat is taken as students of all ages and interests, with pens poised and brows furrowed, eagerly await the start of the written test.
All that stands between the students and a chance to pit their wits against host Jeremy Paxman is a short general knowledge exam.
But Family Fortunes this isn’t, with just 30 minutes to answer 40 questions to bag one of four team places, plus a reserve member, to represent the university.
Waiting patiently outside while his friend takes part in the team auditions is Eliott Rhodes, a fourth-year maths student from Sutton Coldfield.
As one of the university’s 2011-12 team to make it onto the programme, the 21-year-old knows all too well what those inside the audition rooms are going through.
He said: “One of my friends was auditioning for last year, so I thought I’d come along and try my luck and I ended up on the team. I felt really lucky to make it.”
Eliott and his team-mates made it to the televised stages of the programme, beating Trinity College Cambridge in the first round thanks to a furious one-way attack during the opening 10 minutes.
The current series is still on screen, but Birmingham’s journey is sadly over already, after the team lost 220-80 in a second-round tie against the University of Newcastle.
But despite their early exit, the side’s progress is being credited with a surge in interest in University Challenge on campus.
“This is definitely more than we expected to come tonight,” said Zuki Majuqwana, a student guild official who acted as official quizmaster for the audition.
“We had a lot of interest beforehand but we had to spill out into an extra room to accommodate everyone. Having a team on the show this year has really helped.”
As well as asking the questions, it’s also Zuki’s job to sift through the answer sheets and find the five top-performing students to join the 2012-13 team, which will then go on to take part in two further tests with the show’s producers to see if they can make it on screen.
Among the first to emerge from the audition was Jono Wylie, a second year law student.
The 19-year-old said: “I saw the team on the TV and thought it was worth a go.
“Some of the questions could have been more straightforward, but I like the idea if you go on University Challenge and then become famous, they’ll show clips of it like they do with Stephen Fry.
Also auditioning is Gemma Bridge, an 18-year-old human biology student who is only in her first term at the university.
She said: “I enjoy watching the programme but this felt very different, I felt nervous but I tried to treat it like I was watching the TV, which helped.”
Gemma was followed by Rob Sassoon, a third-year business management student who fits in his quiz hobby around his studies.
“I went on Eggheads a few years back, so I do like my quizzes,” said the 21-year-old.
“Its not like I rush home for them, but I’ll watch one if they are on TV. I suppose quizzes like Eggheads and University Challenge are different to Who Wants to be a Millionaire, it’s not the value, but the kudos.”
Whoever makes the university’s team will have a lot of hard work ahead of them, but former contestant Eliott said the main thing was to “enjoy the experience”.
He said: “It is nerve-wracking but we all had different strengths on the team which helped.
“One of the best things was having my family come and watch the recording up in Manchester, they absolutely loved it.”
And what of the formidable Mr Paxman?
“He’s actually really nice, really approachable,” Eliot reveals.
• How would you fare on University Challenge? Test yourself with these starter for 10 questions:
1. Named after the scientist by whom it was supposedly invented, what is the function of an Archimedes screw?
2. Its exponents include James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, what three-word term denotes a literary style in which a character’s thoughts, feelings and reactions are depicted in a continuous flow uninterrupted description?
3. Its ethnic groups include the Fang and the Eshira, what country is bordered by Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo and became independent from France in August 1960?
4. In the criminal justice system, for what do the letters TIC stand for?
5. To what part of the human body does the adjective “plantar” refer?
Answers on next page ?
Answers to the University Challenge question on previous page:
1. Transfers water from a low-lying body of water into irrigation ditches.
2. Stream of consciousness.
4. Taken into Consideration.
5. Sole of the foot