When it comes to comparing Oxford and Cambridge (universities, not dictionaries), it is probably only when you talk about the famous annual boat-race between the two universities that you can say with certainty who is leading.
At the event that was first introduced in 1829, Cambridge is ahead of its rival by 84 to 80 in the men’s race and 44-30 in the women’s, including the triumphs in the 2019 race held on April 7.
So, assuming that you are faced with the most agreeable dilemma of which university to go to, having been offered seats in both, which should you choose between Cambridge and Oxford University?
Even in the matter of which university to visit, suppose you are on a quick trip to London, opinions differ, and the answer depends on whether you’re speaking to an Oxford or Cambridge acolyte.
While some would say Cambridge is prettier, some others would say that Oxford is a livelier place, with more to see and do.
If you can manage a trip to both, there are train and bus connections between the two. You can also drive or take a Rideshare cab.
Both Oxford and Cambridge are only an hour’s journey from London. Oxford is technically a city and Cambridge a town, but both are navigable on foot and by cycling.
Oxford and Cambridge both have historical architecture, pubs, and shops, and similar geographical features with the Thames and Cam rivers and monastic-looking open spaces encircled by chapels and libraries.
Both have the collegiate system with colleges around them that contrast with secluded single-campuses of US universities.
The campus atmosphere varies from college to college under the universities. Both universities have overly studious-looking colleges and also ones that seems more laid-back.
While for some students an “all work and no play” environment with some historical architecture would be ideal, modern colleges might be more to the liking of others.
Just slipping in one truth that must be told: Oxford is not more conservative than Cambridge, and Cambridge is not more liberal than Oxford.
Some colleges may be more conservative or liberal than the rest, but the universities as a whole have nothing to do with conservative vs liberal talk.
The undergraduate male-female student mix is 53-54 percent at both universities. Cambridge has some women-only colleges, too. International students make up over 20 percent in both.
Some of these similarities melt into academics, too, and this makes the student’s task of choosing one over the other even more difficult.
Oxford and the younger Cambridge are ranked 1 and 2 in the THE World University ranking, 5 and 6 in the QS World rankings, and 5 and 7 in US News Global 2019 Universities list.
Employers rank Cambridge second and Oxford third.
While Oxford is ranked among the best for 38 subjects (it is in the top ten in all but three), Cambridge takes this credit for 39 subjects (in the top ten in all but one). Oxford and Cambridge even have the same teaching methods.
But a student faced with the above-mentioned predicament will encounter a few differences between the two that will make her task a little less difficult. One is that Oxford and Cambridge don’t have identical courses.
For example, if you want to study science, you need to take the Natural Science Tripos at Cambridge, a framework that includes physical sciences to biology.
A student cannot pursue just one science discipline but should study at least three and also maths. Oxford, on the other hand, teaches single-subject science courses.
Another example: While Oxford makes it compulsory to study Early Medieval Literature (650-1350) as part of its undergraduate course in English, Cambridge doesn’t go as deep as that, and focuses on late medieval or early modern literature in the first year.
There may not be much substance in the claim that Oxford is better for humanities and politics and Cambridge is stronger for science and engineering. Both are equally good in both disciplines.
You only have to take a look at their lists of alumni to see that this is true (to mention but three scientists from Oxford and three arts people from Cambridge): Albert Einstein, Edmund Halley, and Tim Berners-Lee (Oxford); Robert Frost, Rupert Brooke, and E. M. Forster.
However, Oxford’s appeal to novelists and its status as the alma mater of 28 British Prime Ministers (compared to Cambridge’s 14) may have something to do with this reputation for arts, humanities, and social sciences.
Meanwhile, Cambridge has always had the reputation as the greater contributor of path-breaking scientific achievements, thanks to such scientist alumni as Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, resulting in the university being considered as the better of the two for science, technology, and engineering.
A prospective applicant would do well to examine the courses structure and content carefully and perhaps talk to students at the departments to see whether he would be able to follow his interests and have the freedom to choose modules.
Oxford and Cambridge both have reputed publishing houses, theatrical societies, debating clubs, libraries, museums, botanical gardens, and science parks. They have their own business schools too—Oxford Saïd and Cambridge Judge.
The two universities both have a collegiate structure, which means that they consist of many colleges under each of them. Students are members of their department, college, and university.
The university is in charge of course content, core teaching (lectures, seminars, practicals, and projects), exams, and awarding of degrees. Students pursuing the same subjects attend the same classes and write the same exams.
The teaching method used at Cambridge is the “supervision” system and at Oxford it is the “tutorial” system.
Although the terms differ, the systems are essentially the same, with small groups of (often three) students meeting their tutor, often from another college, for an hour-long session every week.
Students prepare for the sessions beforehand by writing an essay and discuss their difficulties with their tutor.
Students are not formally evaluated during the sessions, which are only used to assess their progress. Formal assessment is done only through examinations at both universities.
How can you make a wise choice between the two universities?
The first step is to research the details of your favourite subject or courses at the universities thoroughly, using Undergraduate Prospectus on the universities’ websites (www.cam.ac.uk/courses and www.ox.ac.uk/courses).
Do the content and structure seem suitable? Will pursuing your major at one of the universities inspire and motivate you more than at the other?
You are about to make an important decision, so it is worthwhile to do some painstaking research.
Remember that you cannot apply to both universities in the same year. Your choice should depend on your major/course as both offer excellent resources and facilities.
Don’t just go by the course names as two courses with the same name may have different content.
The parameters that you can use to find out which university is more suitable are:
Keep in mind that Oxford offers some opportunities for part-time work but Cambridge discourages it.
Obviously, both universities admit only the best and brightest of applicants, but they can come from any background.
An applicant’s academic achievements and ability to make the best of the resources made available to her are the top-most criteria.
You can indicate your choice of college in your UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) application. If you are unable to decide, you can send in an “open application,” and the university will allot a college that has relatively fewer applicants for your course that particular year.
As each college admits the best applicants, you may be interviewed by more than one college, and you may get an offer from a college different from the one you have applied or allotted to.
At both universities, candidates need to apply using the UCAS. Applicants to Cambridge need to submit a Supplementary Application Questionnaire (SAQ) additionally, and some students also the Cambridge Online Preliminary Application (COPA). Oxford doesn’t require any additional forms.
Candidates are required by both Oxford and Cambridge to take a written test or other assessment and submit written work.
Oxford applicants are shortlisted (usually three per place) based on their applications and their performance in the test and interview.
Cambridge interviews about 75 percent of its undergraduate applicants. Applicants are expected to achieve the required A levels or IB qualifications.
At both universities, the pattern and objectives of the interview are more or less the same. Applicants are asked to write a passage or given a small problem to solve, and the passage/solution is discussed at the interview.
The aim is to see how the applicant applies acquired knowledge and skills, not whether he arrives at the correct answer. The thought process of the applicant is what is evaluated.
At Oxford, the annual tuition fee for undergraduate non-EU students is £24,750-£34,678 (about $32,000-$44,750) and at Cambridge, £19,197-£30,678 ($24,750-$39,500).
The graduate non-EU fee at Oxford is £22,600-£26,290 ($29,200-$34,000) and at Cambridge £20,424-£29,343 ($26,300-$37,850).
In addition, overseas UG students pay £7,110-£9,500 as college fee at Cambridge and £7,570 at Oxford per year.
Cambridge recommends a minimum of £11,000 ($14,000) per year for living expenses (accommodation, food, study resources, socializing, etc.) and Oxford £12,000-£18,600 ($15,500-$24,000).
At Oxford, residents of many nations, including India, are considered for the Clarendon Awards, Rhodes International Scholarships, Reach Oxford Scholarships (formerly Oxford Student Scholarships) and for the Simon and June Li Undergraduate Scholarships.
At Cambridge, the Cambridge Trust awards scholarships to international students, most of them studying graduate courses.
The Oxford and Cambridge Society of India Scholarships are part-tuition awards (maximum Rs. 40 lakh) from the University of Cambridge for Indian students pursuing graduate or postgraduate degrees.
In a list topped by MIT, the “QS Graduate Employability Rankings 2019: Global Top 10” puts Cambridge at the seventh position, ahead of Oxford at tenth. Their positions were sixth and eighth, respectively, in the 2018 list.
QS based its list on graduate employer reputations, alumni outcomes, partnerships with employers per faculty member, employer-student connections, and graduate employment rate. Stanford, UCLA, Harvard, and the Universities of Sydney and Melbourne all trump Oxbridge in this aspect.
However, surveys give both universities an employability rating of over 93 percent.
Clearly, it’s difficult to decide. Choosing is easy only if you are a big fan of boat race (Cambridge, then) or you prefer Oxford blue to other shades of blue.
Or you are hoping to have a shot at being the main resident of 10 Downing Street (Oxford, in that case) or think you’re destined to be a 21st century Newton (Cambridge).
Of course, like a certain Stephen Hawking, you may opt to go to Oxford for UG and to Cambridge for graduate school!