Oxford Colleges can look from the outside like monastic retreats and, while this helps to provide strong internal community, it can appear as though they simply wish to evade the public gaze.
Little, though, could be further from ivory-towers privacy than University Challenge, the student quiz show (now run by the BBC) which first aired in 1962 on a temporary run but survived thanks to viewing figures sometimes exceeding 10 million. Taken off the air in 1987, the show returned in 1994 under the machine-gun delivery and withering stare of a new presenter, Jeremy Paxman.
Somerville College has won the contest only once in its history (in 2002) but even that is more than most Oxbridge Colleges. Overall, the University of Oxford remains significantly ahead of the University of Cambridge for overall wins (16 to Cambridge’s seven), with the University of Manchester in third place.
Somerville College’s team has just progressed from its quarter-final limbo, having won both its quarter-final bouts (190-165 against Clare College, Cambridge and 215-95 against Southampton University). The College’s semi-final bout will appear on BBC2 in a few weeks.
The rise of Somerville’s fab four has not been uncontroversial, because the 2013-14 team comprises four men – and no women. Fortunately, this does not happen every year (and the year Somerville won the team was an even split), but the JCR selection process was test-based and this year, men scored all the top results. A number of alumni wrote in to express their disappointment, true to the participative nature of Somerville’s alumni. Although the Junior Common Room had considered allocating places to women, it took the view that this would communicate the wrong message about women, and therefore chose to offer a level playing field.
“Everyone agrees that it is unfortunate that we didn’t have any women on our team, we would have loved for there to have been a few,” said Marsha Sudar, who was JCR President while the selection process for the current team was taking place. “It just so happens that this year, the best four candidates were men, but this should not be allowed to overshadow the many other fronts on which Somerville women are taking the lead, within both the College and the university.
“The last two JCR Presidents were both women, last year’s editor of the Oxford Student newspaper was a Somerville woman and more than 60% of first-class degrees attained by Somerville students in the last academic year were obtained by women, including the very top degree in Experimental Psychology. “There is no need to worry that Somerville is no longer a place where women are given the opportunity and encouragement to rise to a great number of challenges.”
Despite the debate, the support that the Somerville team has won on its quest through the early rounds of the competition has grown and grown. Congratulatory messages have come through from alumni and students alike, who have celebrated the success with increasing volume. Both the numbers and the enthusiasm can be witnessed in a video taken of Somerville students watching the team’s first quarter-final contest in The Terrace, Somerville’s new bar and social hub. The team captain, Michael Davies, has certainly been impressed.
“We were thrilled to have the chance to represent Somerville on the show, and watching the matches back in the college bar with hundreds of cheering Somervillians has been the best way to relive the experience,” said Davies. “We’re chuffed with and incredibly grateful for how much support we’ve had from everyone in college and indeed, as the only Oxford team left, from members of the wider university.”
The toughest stages of the competition are yet to come, but the team has already clocked up some impressive wins and one variable at least is certain. They won’t be lacking for supporters.