If you ask people about the most famous British universities, they will most likely come up with two: the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. This is because they are widely represented in culture and they are also considered the benchmark of the British education system and the English language. But why do we need a compound word - Oxbridge - to describe both universities together?
The two are collectively called Oxbridge because there are so many similarities between them. First of all, they are the oldest British universities. Oxford is slightly older than Cambridge and was established approximately in 1096, whereas Cambridge was established approximately in 1209. In that year, scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford migrated to Cambridge, settling there and helping to establish the University.
Both universities are also national leaders in education and research. The most recent league table compiled by The Guardian newspaper shows that Oxford is the number one in business, management and marketing, chemistry, materials engineering, geography, mathematics, medicine, and music and Cambridge is the number one in architecture, biosciences, building studies and town and country planning, classics and ancient history, computer science, economics, education, chemical engineering, history, law, modern languages and linguistics, religious studies, and sociology.
But that’s not all. They also operate a unique system of teaching. All students at both universities are allocated to a college, which is their place of living, studying as well as socialising. Some colleges are older and more famous than the others - for example, if you have seen any of the Harry Potter films, you may remember the dining hall scenes at Hogwarts. These were shot at Christ Church College at Oxford.
However, not all of the colleges accept all students. Some colleges accept students studying specific subjects or students of certain demographics. For example, Newnham College at Cambridge only accepts women and Harris Manchester College at Oxford only accepts students aged 21 or older (these are called mature students).
As we mentioned earlier, the collegiate system is also an important aspect of teaching. The colleges arrange weekly 1-on-1 or 2-on-1 classes for which students are required to prepare essays or other pieces of coursework. At Oxford, these classes are called tutorials, and at Cambridge, they are called supervisions. The point of these special classes is to discuss the studied topics in depth and provide detailed feedback on the student’s work.
In a number of ways, both universities seem to be perfect places to study, but they are not immune from criticism. One of the most frequent issues associated with both universities is their supposed elitism. Although private school students account for 7% of all students in the UK they make up 41.5% of accepted applicants at Oxbridge. Some argue that Oxbridge universities simply pick the best students, but others argue that private schools just have better resources to coach their students for admissions.
Another issue lies within the tutorial or supervision system. Unlike other universities in the UK, terms at Oxbridge are considerably shorter, with 8 weeks each, whereas other universities run 10-week terms usually with a mid-term break (called Reading Week). Plus, count in the weekly tutorials or supervisions. This means that Oxbridge students are under greater pressure than other students.
With all that being said, Oxbridge is and inevitably will be a dream destination for many academically bright students. Some of the Oxbridge alumni and alumnae will assume top leadership positions, whether in academia, politics, business, journalism or elsewhere. This means that both universities will continue to shape everyday life in the United Kingdom and beyond.