The UK is home to many university rivalries. From the University of York and the University of Durham rivalry, through to centuries-old conflict of Edinburgh vs. Glasgow.
However, one stands alone from the crowd. One stands apart as possibly one of the fiercest rivalries in UK education, maybe even worldwide. The fabled Oxford vs. Cambridge debate.
What is Oxbridge?
Oxbridge is the colloquial name given to the two universities of the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. It is a portmanteau to refer to the two universities as one as they tend to operate outside of the norm for most UK universities. Both are part of the Russell Group of Universities and have a long history of being two of the most sought-after universities in the UK. They are both also collegiate universities.
There is also, of course, the prestige of both universities. Oxbridge is internationally recognised as being two of the most difficult universities to gain admission to in the world.
How do I apply for Oxbridge?
When applying for Oxbridge, you go through the UCAS system just as with other university applications. However, the deadline is much sooner. In fact, the deadline for those looking to study at either university for 2024 is Monday, 16th October 2023.
You cannot apply for both in the same admissions cycle. It is not possible to apply for both in the same year. If you fail to get into one, then you will need apply for the other the following year, which is also when you can re-apply for the one you didn’t get into first time around!
Contrary to popular belief, you can have either Oxford or Cambridge as your insurance choice. The urban myth that neither university accepts not being the firm choice of students applying to university is completely unfounded.
But that is not all. You will likely need to sit a university admissions test, and will also likely need to attend a university interview before you are accepted.
Not all courses require you to study an admissions test. This may vary depending on how many people are applying for a course that year and its specific subject.
Oxbridge is known for its exceptionally high bar for admissions. Both universities are exceptionally difficult to apply to, and both are known for setting high standards for those who are looking to apply.
It is extremely common for students to have to sit a university admissions test before being accepted.
The university admissions tests asked for by Oxford are:
- Philosophy test
There is also a new Geography admissions test called the GAT, which was introduced this year. All of Oxford’s admissions tests are managed by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS). Previously, they were managed by Cambridge Assessment Centre.
The admissions tests needed to attend the University of Cambridge are:
Students looking to go to either university must apply in October. This is a very unusual time to apply to university, as all other university deadlines are in late January; however, Oxbridge, and all dentistry courses, must be applied for before then.
In 2021, Cambridge introduced an over-subscription clause for students. This basically means that the university holds the right to withdraw acceptances if too many students meet the criteria of the course.
Both Oxford and Cambridge are collegiate universities. That is to say that both universities have colleges that form up the main part of the student body, providing accommodation, common rooms, libraries, meals, sporting and social facilities, as normal universities do, however, both universities are a little different in how they handle the college system.
At both Oxford and Cambridge, colleges provide tutorials for students based on their subjects. These tutorials are overseen by fellows or tutors (academic staff employed by the university working for a college). They will also provide additional help for students who require it.
The colleges of the University of Oxford are:
- All Souls College (fellows only)
- Balliol College
- Brasenose College
- Christ Church College
- Corpus Christi College
- Exeter College
- Green Templeton College
- Harris Manchester College (mature students only)
- Hertford College
- Jesus College
- Keble College
- Kellogg College (postgraduate only)
- Lady Margaret Hall College
- Linacre College (postgraduate only)
- Lincoln College
- Magdalen College
- Mansfield College
- Merton College
- New College
- Nuffield College (postgraduate only)
- Oriel College
- Pembroke College
- Queen's College
- Reuben College
- Somerville College
- St. Anne's College
- St. Antony's College (postgraduate only)
- St. Catherine's College
- St. Cross College (postgraduate only)
- St. Edmund Hall College
- St. Hilda's College
- St. Hugh's College
- St. John's College
- St. Peter's College
- Trinity College
- University College
- Wadham College
- Wolfson College (postgraduate only)
- Worcester College
Each college is ranked. The colleges’ performances in the annual Final Honour Schools examinations are ranked and then totalled up with a weighted score in the Norrington Table, which is published annually by the university.
The colleges at the University of Cambridge are:
- Christ's College
- Churchill College
- Clare College
- Clare Hall College (postgraduate only)
- Corpus Christi College
- Darwin College (postgraduate only)
- Downing College
- Emmanuel College
- Fitzwilliam College
- Girton College
- Gonville and Caius College
- Homerton College
- Hughes Hall College (mature students only)
- Jesus College
- King's College
- Lucy Cavendish College
- Magdalene College
- Murray Edwards College (female only)
- Newnham College (female only)
- Pembroke College
- Peterhouse College
- Queens' College
- Robinson College
- Selwyn College
- Sidney Sussex College
- St. Catharine's College
- St. Edmund's College (mature students only)
- St. John's College
- Trinity College
- Trinity Hall College
- Wolfson College (mature students only)
As with Oxford, there is a ranking table that is released for the college every year. In fact, Cambridge has two rankings tables, called the Tompkins Table and the Baxter Table, both of which use mathematical modelling methods weighted against the degrees achieved by the college and then give them an overall score.
Oxford, unsurprisingly, boasts some of the best facilities in the world. As Oxford is a city university, therefore, it doesn’t have a main campus. This means all the different facilities and campuses of the university are spread out around the city.
The university’s Science Area is generally considered to be the unofficial main campus. The university also houses many iconic buildings such as the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre, as well as their own examinations centre, called the Examination Schools.
The Sheldonian and the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, house the university’s main ceremonies. The university also has a number of parks and botanical gardens.
The facilities at Cambridge are considered to be world-leading. Each college has its own library facility, however, the Cambridge University Library is generally considered to be the primary library of the university and is also the largest.
Students who are studying law degree courses have access to Squire Law Library. The university also boasts the School of the Biological Sciences, the School of Clinical Medicine and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.
The University of Oxford has a vast amount of societies. Some of these university societies will focus on sport, such as the annual and infamous Boat Race, quidditch and Octopush.
There are religious societies, as well as the Oxford University Dramatic Society and Oxide Radio. The most well-known societies at Oxford are the weekly student newspapers, Cherwell and The Oxford Student. Other newspapers such as Oxymoron, a satirical newspaper similar to The Onion. Others also include Oxonian Review, The Oxford Blue and Oxford Political Review.
Cambridge is also famous for many of the societies that form part of the student experience. Footlights is perhaps one of the most famous, producing a near endless supply of comedic talent throughout the years.
The university also has its own debating team, called the Cambridge Union. The Union is of such renown that many high-profile political figures have come to the Union to give speeches or pass motions. There is the Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC), and the university’s Chamber Orchestra.
Oxbridge is a little different than most other universities. As a result, there is rather more emphasis on pomp and ceremony compared to other universities and will often look a little strange to those who do not attend the university.
Some of the traditions associated with Oxford include:
- Academic dress: Academic dress is usually reserved for specific events. Generally, this is worn by students who are attending graduation, however, Oxford insists that students wear academic dress for examinations, matriculation, disciplinary hearings or when visiting university officers.
- Trashing: Ever seen an F1 drama douse the winner’s podium with the most expensive alcohol on the market? You’ve basically just imagined trashing. At Oxford, students who finish their final exam of the year are sprayed (or trashed) with confetti, alcohol or flour.
- Formal hall: This is more of a college tradition than a university tradition. Some colleges insist upon all students eating together in a big hall. (We won’t make the Harry Potter reference if you won’t!) These usually require students to wear gowns and to say Latin grace before eating.
- Balls: These are formal major events held by the university. The most common is held every three years in the 9th week of Trinity Term, called the commemoration ball. There will also be summer balls, winter balls and other parties.
- Punting: Punting is very common in both Oxford and Cambridge. They both are excellent for local tourism and many students often carry out a number of tours.
Many of these traditions are also adopted by Cambridge. This is not a definitive list and many traditions of the university are best left as a secret until you join!
The main traditions of the University of Cambridge are:
- Wooden Spoon: Probably not the award you want to be picking up, if we’re honest. This is the prize given to the student that has the lowest passing honours grade for the university’s Mathematical Tripos. Hey, don’t worry too much - you still passed!
- The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols: While it may sound like a very low-budget George R.R. Martin novel, it’s not. This is sung by the Choir of King’s College and is broadcast on the BBC World Service, performed on Christmas Eve.
- College married: It is a tradition at Cambridge to get “hitched” in your first year. This is not an actual legal wedding, rather just a jokey way of starting a college family. Students can actually adopt freshers to become part of their family. Weird.
- Unemployment: Students are not allowed to have a full or part-time job during term time. If you want to work, you must work outside the usual term time.
- Eight week terms: All terms at Cambridge are eight weeks long. No exceptions.
- C-Sunday (or Caesarian Sunday): Basically, the chance to have a massive drunken slosh in the park. This originally started as a wrestling match, but now it’s just a chance for everyone to drink as much alcohol as possible on Jesus Green.
- You can attend any lecture: Seriously, doesn’t matter if you're doing the course or not. Why you would want to attend a lecture that isn’t your own, when you’re likely missing your own is anyone’s business, but, hey, why not!
Some older traditions have been abandoned. There are many traditions associated with Oxbridge that have simply never existed! Put that down to 800 years and a lot of “Pass it on” over the centuries.
There are one or two famous people who have attended Oxbridge. Major understatements aside, the list is so long, that there are two different Wikipedia articles that detail just how many alumni they have!
Some famous Oxford alumni include:
- Bill Clinton
- Clement Atlee
- David Cameron
- Dudley Moore
- Hugh Grant
- Indira Gandhi
- J.R.R. Tolkein
- Margaret Thatcher
- Michael Blomquist
- Oscar Wilde
- Richard Herring
- Rishi Sunak
- Ronald Dworkin
- Rosamund Pike
- Rowan Atkinson
- Stephen Hawking
- T.E. Lawrence
- Thomas Hobbes
- Tim Berners-Lee
Oxford boasts 70 different Nobel prize-winners. There have also been thirty different British prime ministers who have attended Oxford as well.
Some of the famous alumni of the University of Cambridge include:
- Alan Turing
- Bertrand Russell
- Charles Darwin
- David Mitchell
- Deng Yaping
- Edward VII
- Emma Thompson
- Francis Bacon
- Hughe Laurie
- Lord Byron
- Oliver Cromwell
- Robert Walpole
- Robert Webb
- Stephen Fry
- Stephen Hawking
- Thomas Cranmer
- Vladamir Nabokov
There have been at least 70 Nobel Prize winners at Cambridge. 14 British prime ministers and at least 30 foreign heads of state/government.
The rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge
It’s probably fair to say that there is more than a bit of an intense rivalry between the two universities. Both regularly compete against one-another, be it on TV in University Challenge or in sports and academia.
The rivalry itself dates back to the very start. In 1208, Cambridge was founded by scholars who were taking refuge from hostile Oxfordians.
In terms of academics, the two are constantly trying to best the other. While this rivalry, in particular, is perhaps not as intense as other inclusions on this list, but they are still pretty competitive.
The Annual Boat Race
The most common rivalry is the Annual Boat Race. This race is so fiercely competitive and is competed on so many occasions that it is occasionally broadcast on television (usually on ITV, though the BBC previously showed it prior to that), and has become a part of British folklore in its own way.
There has only ever been one “dead heat” (or tie, to the rest of us) over the years. In the current standing, as of 2023, Cambridge has won five more boat races than Oxford. The race was first held in 1829 and continues to this day.
Varsity matches are matches competed against other universities. All universities in the UK will likely have a varsity match of their own, but the rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge, usually makes this the standout game, even ahead of fierce rivalries such as when the University of Durham and the University of York.
The varsity matches at Oxbridge are:
- Basketball (The Varsity Game)
- Boat Race (also including the Women’s Boat Race and the Lightweight Boat Races)
- Cricket (The University Match)
- Ice Hockey
- Rugby Union (The Varsity Match)
- Yacht Race
At each university, you have what are known as “blues”. These are essentially colours that are awarded to students for competing in various sports for the university. However, to achieve “full-blue”, the highest honour at university-level, a student must compete in the varsity match against the other. Even if you have appeared in every other match prior to that, you will not receive your full blue without competing in the varsity match of your sport.
Long-standing history: which university is older, Oxford or Cambridge?
It’s a close-run thing, but ultimately, Oxford is the older of the two universities. In fact, Oxford is the oldest university in the UK, with Cambridge being the second oldest.
With both universities, it is unknown what the exact date of their founding is. It is believed that Oxford was founded in 1096, whilst Cambridge was thought to have been founded in 1209, though historians dispute both of these dates.
So which is better, Oxford or Cambridge?
This, ultimately, comes down to you and your opinion. To say that it’s a close-run thing is pretty fair, but the decision comes down to you and what you want to study.
Think of the course you want to study and see which of the two universities are best suited to teaching it. You may even find that Oxbridge isn’t the university for you in the long run!
There are other things to consider too. Do you want to attend the more lively university or the quieter one? Make the choice based on what you want.