Rivalry between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge is a phenomenon going back many centuries. During most of that time, they were the only two universities in England and Wales, making the rivalry more intense than it is now.
The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge, sometimes collectively known as Oxbridge, are the two oldest universities in England. Both were founded more than 800 years ago, and between them they have produced a large number of Britain's most prominent scientists, writers and politicians, as well as noted figures in many other fields. Yet for many of these centuries the two universities were unrecognisable as universities in the modern sense, as they were largely institutions for producing clergymen and were thus strongly tied to the Church. Competition between Oxford and Cambridge also has a long history, dating back to around 1208 when Cambridge was founded by scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford.
Similarities between Oxford and Cambridge
In 2012 the Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings, based on a survey of 13,388 academics over 131 countries which was then the largest evaluation of academic reputation to date found that both Cambridge and Oxford belonged to the elite group of six universities touted as the 'globally recognized super brands'; The other four were Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.
Institutions and facilities
Oxford and Cambridge both have:
- well-regarded publishing houses (Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press)
- botanical gardens (University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Cambridge University Botanic Garden)
- museums (the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam)
- legal deposit libraries (the Bodleian and the Cambridge University Library)
- debating societies (the Oxford Union and the Cambridge Union)
- business schools (the Saïd Business School and the Judge Business School)
- science parks (Oxford Science Park and Cambridge Science Park)
- theatrical societies and groups (the Oxford University Dramatic Society, The Oxford Imps and The Oxford Revue; the Cambridge Footlights, The Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club and the Marlowe Society)
Oxford and Cambridge also share a common collegiate structure: each university has more than 30 semi-autonomous residential colleges (see Colleges of the University of Cambridge, Colleges of the University of Oxford), which provide the environments in which students live, work and sleep.
Applicants must choose a specific college when applying to Oxford or Cambridge, or allow the university to select one for them, as every undergraduate and graduate student must be a member of one of the colleges. However, all colleges are part of the university and students studying the same subject attend the same lectures and exams, irrespective of which college they belong to. Degrees are also awarded by the central university and not by the individual colleges.
Colleges within each university regularly compete with each other in a variety of sporting and other events (e.g. rugby, rowing, athletics and chess), but will pool their talent to form university teams for inter-university contests.
The principal method of undergraduate teaching (other than lectures) is the "supervision" or "tutorial": terms used at Cambridge and Oxford respectively, though the meaning is the same. These are typically weekly or more frequent hour-long sessions in which small groups of students – usually between one and three – meet with a member of the university's teaching staff or a doctoral student. Students are normally required to complete an essay or assignment in advance of the supervision/tutorial, which they will discuss with the supervisor/tutor during the session, along with any concerns or difficulties they have had with the material presented in that week's lectures. Students typically receive one to four tutorials/supervisions per week.
Neighbouring universities and other institutions
Within the cities of Oxford and Cambridge are campuses of other universities, respectively Oxford Brookes University and Anglia Ruskin University. In addition, various English language schools, secretarial and other non-university colleges are based in the two cities.
Production of educational materials
Both Oxford and Cambridge have lent their names to educational materials and institutions associated with the two universities. In addition to their printing houses, the Oxford English Dictionary is a prominent English-language dictionary worldwide, while Cambridge Assessment provides a number of widely recognised qualifications for students (including GCSEs, A-levels and English-language proficiency certificates such as the Certificate in Advanced English). Various earlier examinations boards linked to Oxford, Cambridge or both have now been merged within OCR, part of Cambridge Assessment.
Differences between Oxford and Cambridge
The city of Oxford is larger (having a population about 30 per cent greater than Cambridge's in 2007) and has historically been more urban and industrial, whilst Cambridge more closely resembles an agricultural market town. Oxford is associated with the motor industry (BMW currently produce the Mini in Oxford, and several Formula One teams are based in Oxfordshire and neighbouring counties), whereas the area surrounding Cambridge is known as Silicon Fen—one of the most important technology centres in Europe—that has presence of large companies like Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, ARM, along with many medical technology firms.
Both cities were built near rivers. However, the river is slightly more prominent in Cambridge, flowing closer to the city centre than the two rivers (Isis and Cherwell) which flow around the centre of Oxford. Punting is especially popular in Cambridge along the famous stretch called 'The Backs', which features a number of bridges and 'the backs' of several colleges that abut the River Cam (punting is also popular at Oxford).
Despite many ancient buildings in both Oxford and Cambridge, there are also distinct differences in architecture. Oxford has a uniformity of building material, as a large proportion of the buildings are in the local sandstone. Cambridge, on the other hand, has little local stone, so the building material has been brought in from many different sources, resulting in a greater variety of character. The contrasts in architecture in Cambridge are more pronounced, as can be seen when comparing King's College with the neighbouring Senate House.
Oxford is featured more often in literature and the cinema; films with scenes shot in Oxford include Shadowlands and the Harry Potter movies, while Radcliffe Square was used in the filming of His Dark Materials: Northern Lights. The television series Inspector Morse and Lewis are also set in Oxford. Cambridge may be best known in film as the real-life location of the court race scene portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire (although the scene was filmed at Eton College instead), or for the television series Porterhouse Blue.
There are differences in the terminology traditionally used at the two universities. For example:
- At Oxford, the three terms of the academic year are called Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity, whereas at Cambridge they are Michaelmas, Lent and Easter (the Easter term is sometimes called "Exam term").
- The large enclosed squares of grass found in most colleges are referred to as "courts" in Cambridge and "quadrangles" (or "quads") in Oxford.
- College cleaners in the two Universities go by different names: in Oxford they are 'scouts' and in Cambridge they are 'bedders'.
- A Doctor of Philosophy degree is referred to as a "Ph.D." in Cambridge and a "D.Phil." at Oxford.
- The regular teaching meetings between student and tutor are called "tutorials" at Oxford and "supervisions" at Cambridge
- College staircases in Oxford are typically numbered whereas those in Cambridge are assigned letters or double letters when there are more than 26 staircases in a given college.
It is still compulsory at Oxford to wear formal academic dress (sub fusc) for all university examinations, although this is not the case at Cambridge. During Hilary Term 2006, the students of Oxford voted 81% in favour of keeping formal academic dress at university exams. In general, however, traditions and the seriousness with which they are taken tend to vary widely amongst the different colleges within each university, showing more variation than between the two universities as a whole.
Admission of women
For most of their history, only men were permitted to study at and receive degrees from Oxford and Cambridge. Starting in the late 19th century, both universities saw the establishment of residential colleges exclusively for women students: Girton College, Cambridge, was founded in 1869, and Somerville College and Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford both opened in 1879. Although Cambridge was the first to accommodate female students, women were not permitted to become full members of the university until 1947, whereas at Oxford this had occurred in 1920.
There are still three colleges at Cambridge which only accept women: Newnham, Murray Edwards and Lucy Cavendish. In 2008, Oxford's last all-female college, St Hilda's, admitted men and became coeducational.
The "Oxford for humanities, Cambridge for sciences" belief
There is a common impression that Oxford is stronger in politics and the humanities, while Cambridge is stronger in the sciences and engineering. Despite both universities' stressing that there is no significant difference between them in either the sciences or humanities today, this disparity in the popular imagination has existed since at least the late 1820s, when The Times newspaper reported on the appointment of Oxford and Cambridge academics to the newly established professorships of University College London: "it is known to be the intention to choose classical professors at Oxford, and mathematical at Cambridge", although in the event both the classical and mathematical professors were eventually chosen from Cambridge.
In his book, The Decline of Privilege: The Modernization of Oxford University, Joseph A. Soares, an American sociologist, suggests that Oxford developed a superior political and literary reputation because of its unparalleled connections to England's governing class, its status as the oldest and most traditional university in England, and the greater romantic appeal of Oxford to writers:
...in British cabinets in the twentieth century, Oxford men and women outnumbered Cambridge graduates nearly two to one ... Of eleven prime ministers counting back from Tony Blair, eight were undergraduates at Oxford, and none were at Cambridge ... Oxford has been second to none as a gatekeeper to the political elite...
Academics and novelists have viewed Oxford as the quintessential English university ... authors who portray universities in their novels, as Ian Carter's definitive study of British university fiction since 1945 demonstrated, have been attracted to Oxford by a huge majority. Of the 204 novels written between 1945 and 1988 that featured British academic life, 119 depicted Oxford; Cambridge, with 26 appearances, came in a distant second place ... Carter showed that fictional Oxford signified those values thought to epitomize English society: tolerance, civility, pluralism, and democracy ... To judge from novels on academic life, one would surmise that England's soul dwelled in Oxford.
Because of its relation to the power elite and its hold on the middle-class imagination, Oxford often provided the mental landscape for national self-examination ...
[A] major charge against Oxford was that ... it was anti-science and unconcerned with contributing to economic growth. As we shall see ... there was substance to this criticism before World War II, but there has not been since then.
Despite Oxford University having been the home of almost 60 Nobel prize winners, Cambridge has been associated with an even larger number of Nobel Prize-winning breakthroughs (ca. 90) and a greater fraction of Britain's most culturally significant scientists, including Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. The authors of Oxford Figures also suggest that Cambridge's unrivalled intellectual reputation in England, especially although not exclusively in technical fields, could be partly attributed to the emphasis it placed on mathematics for many years:
Cambridge developed, from the mid-eighteenth century onwards, a highly competitive examination culture geared towards ranking students on a mathematical examination, after prolonged coaching. Furthermore ... no student could go on to [study classics unless they had already done well in mathematics]. This system produced ... many of the best mathematicians and scientists of the nineteenth century, as well as some of the best lawyers, clergymen, and other professionals...
Although the Cambridge system in its most competitive form was dropped in the early twentieth century ... [the effect it had on the quality of Oxford applicants] can be seen in the rueful reflections in 1912 of Arthur Joliffe, Fellow and tutor at Corpus Christi College from 1891 to 1920, upon the evidence presented by candidates for Oxford entrance scholarships:
it is undeniable that the average candidate [at Oxford] is not as good as the average candidate at Cambridge. The genius from the small grammar school, the promising student from a provincial university, the ablest boy at the large public school, all are sent to Cambridge in preference to Oxford as a rule. Some of the candidates sent to Oxford from large public schools are occasionally so bad that one can only suppose that their masters think that a willingness to come to Oxford is a sufficient qualification for a Mathematical Scholarship there.
Notwithstanding the above, significant changes have occurred at both Oxford and Cambridge over the last century, including Cambridge's diversification away from intense mathematical study and Oxford's renewed emphasis on ground-breaking scientific research, such as its influential work in the development of penicillin. Oxford offers the course of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, while Cambridge offers Human, Social and Political Sciences. Software tycoon Bill Gates gives scholarships to Cambridge, while Oxford is home to what is the oldest and arguably the most prestigious academic award for graduates, the Rhodes Scholarship instituted by Cecil Rhodes. US News and World Report rankings support this stereotype; Cambridge tends to rank higher in the sciences, and Oxford in the humanities.
Undergraduate admissions criteria
Entrance to Oxford and Cambridge is academically competitive. According to the 2011 Universities Guide from The Guardian newspaper, the five top universities in the UK based on undergraduate students' performance in public examinations while at high school (as measured on the UCAS tariff scale) were Cambridge (546), Oxford (530), Imperial College London (500), the London School of Economics (493) and Durham University (466). Depending on which subject an applicant wishes to specialise in, there are often compulsory subject-specific entrance tests as well.
After an initial screening of submitted applications, short-listed candidates at Oxford and Cambridge are invited to a series of tests and interviews with the academics who may eventually be teaching them. Oxbridge interviews have acquired something of a mythical status in the British media, becoming a source of various humorous anecdotes and urban legends due to the perception that the interviews themselves are bizarre, intimidating and/or frequently involve unusual questions and requests. Interview prompts reportedly used in the past include "Do you think you're clever?" (from a Law interview at Cambridge) and "Talk about a light bulb" (from an Engineering interview at Oxford). Admissions staff have said that there are no correct answers to such questions, but that applicants are assessed on their ability to approach unfamiliar, open-ended problems and discuss them articulately, incorporating new ideas and evidence as the discussion progresses. Candidates are also expected to show a willingness to challenge their own preconceptions about the topics under discussion, as well as the preconceptions adopted by their interviewers. This is essentially a test of whether the student would do well under the tutorial/supervision system at Oxford and Cambridge, and a poor performance at interview may negate an otherwise strong application.
In recent years, Cambridge has placed slightly more emphasis than Oxford on public exam results during the selection process. Cambridge routinely asks applicants who take A-level exams to report their exact scores, not just letter-grades; this is partly to distinguish between high A-grades and borderline A/B grades. In contrast, disclosure of exact scores for Oxford applications is voluntary. In 2010, the new A* grade for A-level exams (an A* indicating a high A) was introduced. Cambridge started requesting that its applicants achieve at least one A* grade if they were taking A-levels, letting students earn a place through their performance in public examinations; Oxford initially stated that it relies more on its own internal aptitude tests and waited to see how effective the A* grade is at highlighting the best candidates, before deciding to implement it as a requirement for most courses starting in 2012.
Due to the similarities between the two universities, and to ease the burden of interviewing so many applicants each year, secondary school students are not normally allowed to apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same application cycle. This restriction does not apply to potential organ scholars or students who already have a degree and are applying for a second undergraduate degree or a graduate degree at Oxbridge.
Direct competition between the two universities
Many annual competitions are held between Oxford and Cambridge, including the annual Boat Race. First contested in 1829, the race pits Cambridge University Boat Club against their Oxford counterparts over a four-mile (6 km) stretch of the River Thames. The very first Boat Race was won by Oxford, but Cambridge lead the overall series with 83 wins to Oxford's 80, with one dead heat in 1877. Recent races have been closely fought, with Oxford winning by the shortest ever margin of 1-foot (0.30 m) in 2003 and Cambridge winning in 2004 despite Oxford's claims of a foul.
The other major Oxbridge competitions are the Rugby Union and Rugby league Varsity Matches: The Varsity Match is a rugby union game played annually in December at Twickenham stadium. Cambridge currently has 60 wins, Oxford has 55 (including the most recent win in December 2014), and 14 games have ended in draws. The Rugby Football Union chose to advertise the 2006 match with a campaign promoting inter-university rivalry: their advertising agency Lowe London produced posters showing the number of Prime Ministers produced by the universities (Oxford 26 – Cambridge 14), with the tagline "It's time to get even".
The Rugby league Varsity Match is a rugby league game played annually in March at The Stoop. Whilst not having the history of its Union counterpart, the fixture has been contested for over 30 years, and is broadcast live on Sky Sports. Cambridge currently lead the series 16–14, with one draw in 1994.
The Boat Race and the two Varsity Matches are notable in the UK in that they are the only university sports events that have any public profile outside the universities themselves; all three are screened live on national television and are widely covered in the national media.
All other significant sports have their own varsity match at some point during the year; some of these, such as the cricket fixture, the Ice Hockey Varsity Match and the Varsity Polo Match have attracted significant attention in the past. The results of all the varsity matches in The Varsity Games are aggregated and each year one university wins the Varsity Games title. Sportsmen who have competed at a Varsity Match in the prestigious Full Blue sports are eligible for an Oxford Blue or Cambridge Blue respectively.
Over the last few years, British universities have been subjected to the increasing popularity of national university league tables, which rank universities based on criteria such as their student-staff ratio, drop-out rates and spending on services and facilities. Oxford and Cambridge have been a constant presence at the top end of the tables, never appearing outside the overall top three and rarely not holding the first and second places, but their dominance in individual subjects has been challenged by other institutions.
As of 2012, Cambridge has been ranked above Oxford in three out of the four major UK university league tables. Cambridge has been ranked 1st and Oxford 2nd in the tables compiled by the Guardian, and The Sunday Times, and 3rd behind the London School of Economics in The Complete University Guide, whereas Oxford is ranked 1st and Cambridge 2nd in The Times Good University Guide.
International league tables of universities across the world, which use a variety of different criteria (often research output in the sciences and reputation among peer institutions), generally ranks Cambridge and Oxford almost equally; for example the 2010 U.S. News & World Report's World's Best Universities ranking placed Cambridge as 1st in the world and Oxford the 6th while in the International 2013 Times Higher Education rankings, Oxford is ranked second globally and Cambridge seventh.
Despite the impassioned rivalry between the two universities, there is also much cooperation when the need arises. Most Oxford colleges have a sister college in Cambridge. Some Oxford and Cambridge colleges with the same name are 'sisters': for example, Jesus College, Cambridge, and Jesus College, Oxford. However, namesakes are not always paired up: for example, St John's College, Oxford, is the sister college of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, while St John's College, Cambridge, is the sister college of Balliol College, Oxford. Arrangements between sister colleges vary, but may include reciprocal offers of accommodation to students from the other university when they are visiting. Furthermore, a significant proportion of academic staff has at some point been a member of the "other place".
Concerns are often raised that Oxford and Cambridge do not project a socially inclusive image to potential applicants from state schools, and thus Oxbridge students are disproportionately from wealthy backgrounds. The two universities have made individual and combined efforts in recent years to promote themselves to potential applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds. Each year, the Universities spend around £8 million on access schemes and there is a designated Access Officer in every JCR and students' union.
- College rivalry
- Golden triangle (universities)
- King's College London–UCL rivalry
- The London Varsity
- Russell Group
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