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The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge in England, collectively known as Oxbridge, are highly ranked among universities around the world . Both were founded around the 11th to 13th centuries, and between them have produced a large number of Britain's most prominent scientists, writers and politicians.
The competition between Oxford and Cambridge also has a long history, dating back to the days when Cambridge was founded by dissident scholars from Oxford. In the United States, Oxford is perhaps more famous because of the Rhodes Scholarships, and the fact that former US president Bill Clinton went there. However, the Cambridge in England lends its name to another well-known university town: Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Similarities between Oxford and Cambridge
Both universities have a collegiate structure: each has over 30 autonomous colleges which provide a social environment for groups of students to live, work and sleep in. The colleges are all part of the greater university however, and students studying the same subject are given lectures together, irrespective of their college. Choice of college at Oxford is more important than at Cambridge, since no Oxford college admits students to study every single subject available at the university, whereas most Cambridge colleges do give their students the choice to study any subject.
Colleges within each university regularly compete with each other in a variety of tournaments (e.g. rugby, rowing and chess), but will happily pool their talent to form university teams for competitions against the greater "enemy" (Oxford or Cambridge as the case may be). This attitude is reflected in the fact that Oxford and Cambridge both refer to each other as "the other place".
Differences between Oxford and Cambridge
The city of Oxford is slightly larger, busier and more industrial than Cambridge. Oxford is associated with the motor industry (BMW currently produce the Mini in Oxford), whereas Cambridge has aeronautical engineering and more high technology manufacturers.
Oxford is more often featured in the cinema; recent films with scenes shot in Oxford include the Harry Potter movies, and there are plans to use Oxford for the movie His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass. The well-known British detective series Inspector Morse was also filmed there. Although Oxford appears more popular with makers of movies and television programmes, Cambridge also has a number of major tourist attractions, including the King's College Chapel, one of the most famous buildings in England, and punting, which is a more popular activity in Cambridge than Oxford because of the proximity of more university colleges to the river.
There are differences in the language used at the two universities. For example, the undergraduate student body is referred to as the "JCR" in both universities, but in Oxford this stands for Junior Common Room, whereas in Cambridge it is Junior Combination Room. Cambridge calls its student kitchens in the halls of residence "gyp rooms", whereas Oxford simply calls them "kitchens". Another difference in terminology involves the terms used for the direct contact time that students have with faculty members of their subject. In Oxford, students have a "tutorial" with their "tutor", whereas Cambridge students attend a "supervision" with a "supervisor".
Traditions also vary between the two universities. For example, it is still compulsory at Oxford to wear formal dress to all university examinations, although this is not the case at Cambridge. However, traditions and the seriousness with which they are taken tend to vary widely amongst the different colleges in each university, more so than between the two universities as a whole.
Indirect competition between the two universities
There has been much direct and indirect competition between the two universities for a number of years. Indirect competition can perhaps be measured by the success of the alumni of each university. Oxford has a greater political heritage: all but two of the British Prime Ministers since Winston Churchill have been Oxford graduates (the exceptions are James Callaghan and John Major, who did not receive university educations). Oxford is also famous for its dictionary, which is generally regarded as the definitive guide to modern English. (Cambridge is well-known for its EFL qualifications rather than its dictionary).
Cambridge's reputation is much more impressive in the sciences and technology: it has been associated with the majority of Britain's most famous scientists, including Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell. Cambridge alumni have been involved with developing some of the most important scientific ideas of the last few hundred years, including the theory of gravity, the theory of evolution and the structure of DNA, as well as technological innovations, including the construction of the EDSAC (one of the world's first computers), and Frank Whittle's jet engine.
It is easy to stereotype the two institutions as having different strengths, and specifically associate Oxford with politics and Cambridge with science. However, Cambridge has also produced distinguished politicians like Prime Ministers Balfour, Baldwin and Campbell-Bannerman, and Oxford graduates include noted scientists such as Edmond Halley, Robert Hooke and Richard Dawkins.
There is of course no winner of the "alumni battle", as graduates from both universities have been successful in many different walks of life (not just politics and science, although these are two areas where Oxbridge graduates have traditionally dominated Britain), which is only to be expected from institutions so old, and many students have been associated with both Oxford and Cambridge in any case.
Direct competition between the two universities
Many annual competitions are held between Oxford and Cambridge. The most famous of these is the Boat Race: a rowing event that started in 1829, although it has not been held on some years. It was first won by Oxford, but Cambridge currently lead the series with 78 wins to Oxford's 72, with one dead heat in 1877. Recent races have become extremely intense: Oxford won by the shortest ever margin of 1 foot in 2003. Cambridge won the 150th Boat Race in 2004, with the umpire turning down an Oxford claim of a foul arising from an incident early in the race, in which Oxford steered into Cambridge resulting in a clash of oars and the unseating of Oxford's bow-man. Oxford won the Boat Race in 2005.
The other major Oxbridge competition is the Varsity Match, a rugby union game played annually at Twickenham. Cambridge currently have 57 wins, Oxford have 52, and 14 games have ended in draws. All other significant sports have their own varsity match at some point during the year. The vast majority of varsity matches (in particular those of minor sports) are played on the same weekend in mid-February, under the title of 'The Varsity Games'. The results of all the varsity matches in The Varsity Games are aggregated and each year one university wins the Varsity Games title. Recently however 'The Varsity Games' has had problems raising necessary funds and it looks unlikely that they will take place in 2005. All of the individual varsity matches will be played, however, but each match will be funded by the individual sports teams.
A lesser known aspect of direct competition is the annual chess match, where colleges compete against their counterparts and the number of accumulated wins/draws determines which of the two universities is the winner. Cambridge currently lead with 54 wins to Oxford's 49 (18 matches have resulted in draws), but the overall winner in 2004 was Oxford.
Over the last few years, British universities have been subjected to the increasing popularity of university league tables, which rank universities based on the inspected quality of their teaching and research, as well as other criteria, such as spending on facilities and dropout rates.
Cambridge has been the big winner of these league tables, having consistently topped almost all of them since they were first published in the early 1990s. The accuracy of the tables is disputed however, since some rely on research assessments that are several years old. In 2004, The Guardian league table put Cambridge above Oxford, whereas The Times placed Oxford in first place. The position in The Times was because the newspaper's league table put a greater weight on the amount spent on facilities, which is higher at Oxford. Cambridge led in terms of research, graduate employment, degree results, and came top in more individual subject league tables.
Students at the two universities have coined a variety of insults for each other. Oxonians (Oxford people) refer to Cambridge as "the Fenland Polytechnic", whereas those from Cambridge refer to Oxford as "Cowley Polytechnic" (Polytechnics in Britain were considered to be an inferior higher education institution; the surrounding countryside of Cambridge is fenland, and Cowley is an industrial area of Oxford). Oxford students refer to their Cambridge counterparts as "Tabs", short for Cantabrigians (Cambridge people).
In turn, Cantabrigians refer to Oxford as being "a complete dump", a quotation from a Blackadder episode: interestingly, the line was uttered by a character played by Stephen Fry, himself a Cambridge graduate. Cambridge has no term for Oxonians that parallels the popularity of "Tabs".
The official colour of Oxford is dark blue, whereas Cambridge's is light blue. Since Cambridge is younger than Oxford, Oxonians sometimes refer to Cambridge as a "pale imitation of the real thing" while Cantabrigians refer to Oxford as "the Dark Side".
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 (but because Oxford has more colleges than Cambridge, not all colleges have a "sister"); Oxford and Cambridge have several colleges with the same name, and some of these are sisters: for example, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Jesus College, Cambridge and Jesus College, Oxford. However, Trinity College, Cambridge is the sister college of Christ Church, Oxford, while Trinity College, Oxford is the sister college of Churchill College, Cambridge, so namesakes are not always paired up.
An old Oxbridge myth about the individual colleges' wealth has it that one can walk from Oxford to Cambridge without leaving land owned by either Trinity College, Oxford or Trinity College, Cambridge (some versions of the myth use the two St John's colleges).
Oxford and Cambridge are both seen by many in Britain as socially elitist, and this reputation has discouraged able students from applying. The two universities have worked together on public relations exercises to dispel their reputation as bastions of snobbery, with the aim of increasing the number of state school-educated students. The results of these efforts is mixed. While the overall numbers of state school pupils has remained roughly constant at about 50%, the number of schools sending pupils to the two universities has increased.
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