Oxbridge is a portmanteau word referring to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in England. They are among the most famous and prestigious universities in the world. Both were founded circa the 11th to 13th centuries (the exact dates are unclear), and between them they have produced a large number of Britain's 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. Oxford is perhaps more famous in the United States because of the Rhodes Scholarships, and the fact that former US president Bill Clinton went there. However, Cambridge lends its name to the pre-eminent American university town: John Harvard having been a Cambridge man. These are of course generalisations, as the names Oxford and Cambridge have different meanings to different people.
Similarities between Oxford and Cambridge
The two universities share a collegiate structure: both are composed of 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 all given lectures together, irrespective of their college (however, 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 at Cambridge, most 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 was previously associated with the motor industry, 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 Iris and the Harry Potter movies. Oxford was also one of several British cities competing for the title of European Capital of Culture 2008 but lost to Liverpool. However, although the city of Oxford appears more popular with tourists, Cambridge boasts the famous King's College Chapel.
There are also 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 Cambridge has Junior Combination Rooms.
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's reputation is much more impressive in the sciences and philosophy, and arguably literature as well: it has been associated with most of Britain's historically famous scientists, such as Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and James Clerk Maxwell, as well as the philosophers Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittgenstein and G.E. Moore; the poets Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Sylvia Plath all studied at Cambridge. Cambridge alumni have been linked with some of the most critical scientific ideas and breakthroughs of the last few hundred years, including the theory of gravity, the theory of evolution, the structure of DNA, experimental evidence of the electron, neutron and proton and the splitting of the atom. Cambridge also claims many technological innovations, including the construction of the EDSAC: one of the world's first computers, as well as Frank Whittle's jet engine. In addition, Cambridge currently has more Nobel Prize winners associated with it than any other university in the world.
It is easy to stereotype the two institutions as having different strengths (for example, Oxford for politics and Cambridge for science), but Cambridge has also produced distinguished politicians like the Prime Ministers Balfour, Baldwin and Campbell-Bannerman, as well as famous actors, including John Cleese and Ian McKellen; Oxford graduates include the noted scientists Robert Hooke and Stephen Hawking (though he is now based at Cambridge), while the well-known fantasy authors C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Philip Pullman were all at some time Oxford fellows.
There is of course no winner of the "alumni battle", as graduates from both universities have been successful in many different walks of life (which is only to be expected from institutions so old), and many of them 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 71, 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.
The other major Oxbridge competition is the Varsity Match, a rugby union game played annually at Twickenham. 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.
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 these tables is disputed however, since some rely on teaching and research assessments that are several years old. Oxford has been placed first in a few league tables that put more emphasis on the amount of facilities spending rather than the teaching/research assessments. In 2004, The Guardian league table put Cambridge above Oxford, whereas The Times placed Oxford in first place. It should be noted however, that this placing was solely because The Times's league table takes into account the amount spent per student which at Oxford is higher. Despite this higher spending however, Cambridge still came top in terms of Research, Graduate employment, degree results, and came top in more individual subject league tables.
Many students at the two universities do not take part in Oxford-Cambridge rivalry, but those that do have coined a variety of insults for each other.
Oxonians (Oxford people) sometimes 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 derogatorily to their Cambridge counterparts as "Tabs", short for Cantabrigians (Cambridge people).
In turn, Cantabrigians sometimes 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, Magdalene College, Cambridge and Magdalen 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 some 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 at the universities. The results of these efforts can be described as 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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