Newnham’s 2022/23 team, from left to right: Bethan Holloway-Strong, Hannah Bowen, Roma Ellis and Zhiyu ChenBBC Archive with permission for Varsity

Bethan Holloway-Strong greets me with the same beaming smile that TV audiences know well from the current season of University Challenge. Bethan and her teammates, captain Roma Ellis, Hannah Bowen and Zhiyu Chen are representing Newnham. They are proving formidable competitors. Having become one of the highest-scoring losers after their 160-175 loss to the Courtauld Institute of Art, and then beating the Universities of Sheffield and Cardiff, Newnham are now into the quarter-finals.

How did Bethan get into quizzing? “I had a fair bit of experience, but not as much as some people [on University Challenge] do.” Her experience started in school, first as part of the House Quiz team, and then in her school’s Quizbowl in Year 11. When Bethan started university, she diligently attended Quiz Society practices and The Mitre’s weekly pub quiz. She “had the most formal quizzing experience” out of her teammates, but once Newnham started practising as a team, they realised they “worked really, really well together.”

University Challenge is a dream for many students, and appearing on the beloved show has always been in Bethan’s mind — she laughs as she tells us “my mum always used to joke with me when I was doing quizzing at school that I should go on University Challenge.” In fact, Bethan has been competing for Newnham twice; in her second year she also made the team, but they didn’t make it onto TV. It was only in her final year that Newnham were successful — the first time the College’s team has made it onto University Challenge since the 2010-11 series.


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The Newnham team worked hard to prepare for the show, through weekly practices, watching old episodes and going through quiz books. Newnham also quizzed with Caius, Christ’s and Jesus, the other Cambridge teams from this season. As Newnham practised more together, they picked up on each other’s specialties: “Zhiyu was our scientist [and] knew so much about China […] and Hannah was so great on culture, films, languages, international relations.” Captain Roma was adept at the buzzer: “not only were they quick, they were accurate.” Bethan jokes that her vocal power was her strength — “I just like to shout” — but she also worked on memorising lists, from Booker Prize winners to the shipping forecast areas. “My mum says I’ve always had quite a good memory.”

Bethan admits that the show was “genuinely the highlight of my degree.” She mentions how accommodating the team behind the scenes were, “because I’ve never been in a TV studio, and it’s kind of overwhelming.” Another bonus of filming was getting to meet people from other universities. Bethan acknowledges, however, that it was “quite a high pressure environment,” which was probably the hardest part of the process, “but the more you do it, the easier it gets.” The support of her teammates, as well as reserve Eve Canning, and getting to play so many rounds, was what made the show so enjoyable for her.

The Newnham team’s love of the show and rapport with each other has been undeniable to viewers, with an outpouring of support on social media after each round. Bethan reckons the positive reception comes from the fact that “we are all genuinely friends, and we went into it with the knowledge that Newnham hadn’t been on it for [11] years… we were just so pleased to get on TV.” She remembers a pep talk that Roma gave before the first match, reminding them that they had done so well already, and deserved to be proud.

“The face of University Challenge is changing”

Any show that lasts for 52 series sees its fair share of changes, and University Challenge is no exception. Though the days of consistently all-white, all-male teams are no more, every recent winning team has had either three or four men on it. The last time a winning team had more than one woman on it was in 2002.

Despite this, Bethan remains optimistic about the show. “There are still issues that need to be addressed. But the face of University Challenge is changing,” she says, “it’s something that the production studio’s very aware of, both in terms of disabilities but also different identities.” Newnham have also made efforts to open up the show. “Roma and Eve ran sessions for people who didn’t have experience [...] Eve ran a session specifically for people from minority ethnicities.”

Bethan and her teammates’ efforts show that university quizzing is a welcoming and accessible environment — anyone can get involved. So where can they start? Bethan’s first port of call would be the Cambridge University Quiz Society, which runs “informal and approachable” quiz sessions multiple times a week, and The Mitre’s pub quiz. Wherever you start, Bethan’s fundamental advice is to just go for it: “If you want to get involved with quizzing, get involved with quizzing!”