Cambridge vs Oxford: Which University Should I Choose?

5 min read
Cress Warnell

The Cambridge vs Oxford debate has been going on for hundreds of years. To be precise, it began in the year 1209, when a group of scholars left Oxford during the turbulent reign of King John. They settled in Cambridge and set up a new university. As the only two universities in Britain at that time, they began a rivalry that's as strong today as it ever was.

At first glance, Oxford and Cambridge universities look remarkably similar. They're Britain's most prestigious universities, they're deeply historic and traditional and they're both modern centres of world-class research. The similarities run deep - they're even an almost identical distance away from London (although in different directions). The university names have been combined to describe those who study at either - they're referred to as Oxbridge students.

So how do you choose when it comes to Oxford vs Cambridge? Here are some factors you'll want to consider as you make your choice.

Oxford vs Cambridge in University Rankings

When considering where to study for a degree, one of the first things to look at are the university rankings. These tables list universities in order of performance across various areas, such as teaching, research and quality of student life.

Here's how Oxford and Cambridge compare in the top three ranking systems of global universities:

Times Higher Education

  • Top - University of Oxford
  • Third - University of Cambridge

QS World University Rankings

  • Second - University of Cambridge
  • Third - University of Oxford

Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities

  • Fourth - University of Cambridge
  • Seventh - University of Oxford

Both Cambridge and Oxford are consistently in the top few places. They're not only some of the oldest universities in the world, they're also some of the very best for academic excellence.

Oxford vs Cambridge in Teaching Methods

The two universities both use similar teaching methods, based around the tutorial system. This teaching style places students in very small groups, typically no more than four, usually led by a college fellow.

One difference is that they are called tutorials at Oxford, and supervisions at Cambridge. These weekly sessions are highly interactive and are the main method of teaching. This sets both universities apart from others in Britain, which rely more on teaching through lectures.

Not only do both universities apply similar teaching methods, they both operate these methods through the collegiate system.

Colleges at Oxford and Cambridge

Colleges are a vital part of the education and student experience at Oxford and Cambridge universities. This is a significant difference from other universities. All Oxbridge students choose a college when they apply. This college is their home, where they sleep, eat and socialise during their undergraduate or postgraduate degree.

The residential colleges are prestigious institutions, often with long histories and rich traditions. They have their own libraries, dining halls, sports facilities and bars. Many clubs and societies are based in individual colleges.

While each academic department at both Oxford and Cambridge is part of the main university, and there are central libraries and lecture halls, much of the learning takes place in colleges.

Colleges at the University of Cambridge

  • 31 colleges
  • 2 are women-only
  • 3 are for over 21s only (mature students)
  • 29 admit undergraduates

Colleges at the University of Oxford

  • 36 colleges
  • 1 for over 21s only (mature students)
  • 32 admit undergraduates

All Oxford colleges now accept both male and female students.

While colleges are a vital part of life at the two universities, the university retains overall control over several key functions, including:

  • Organising lectures and seminars.
  • Providing central learning resources.
  • Setting and marking exams.
  • Awarding degrees.

Oxford University is divided into four academic divisions: Humanities Division, Medical Sciences Division, Social Sciences Division and Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences Division.

Cambridge University comprises six Schools: Arts and Humanities, Biological Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Humanities and Social Sciences, Physical Sciences, Technology.

Oxford vs Cambridge Degrees and Academic Performance

Oxford and Cambridge are just two of many educational institutions that offer degree courses. As with all universities, the content of each course is unique to each institution, and the list of courses offered is not identical.

Every undergraduate degree is technically equal as an academic qualification, within the final degree classification. However, employers and others usually look more favourably on graduates from institutions nearer the top of world university rankings. Degrees from either Oxford or Cambridge are highly regarded.

Most of the 30 or so undergraduate degree courses at Cambridge University are in single subjects, such as Architecture, Law or Music.

Many of the around 50 undergraduate degrees from Oxford University are joint courses, with academic offerings such as Classics and English, History and Politics, or Philosophy and Theology.

When it comes to academic performance, the three ranking systems we've already mentioned show that the two universities closely match one another. There will always be more graduates with degrees from the University of Oxford, because it's the larger of the two.

Oxford vs Cambridge - Size, Location and Costs

There are over 26,000 students studying at the University of Oxford, compared to over 20,000 at the University of Cambridge. These numbers include overseas students from well over 100 countries.

The city of Oxford is larger and busier than Cambridge. Both universities have colleges and facilities in the city centre. The bustling city of Oxford lies in the hills west of London, while Cambridge lies in flat fenlands to the north. Both universities are about 60 miles from London.

The cities of both Oxford and Cambridge have rivers running through them. This has led to a strong tradition of rowing and punting. The Oxford and Cambridge rivalry is exemplified by the annual Boat Race, which takes place every spring. It began in 1829 and of the around 190 recorded results, Cambridge has a handful more wins than Oxford.

The educational and living costs for the two universities are high compared to most other institutions. The tuition fees for both Oxford and Cambridge are the same for UK undergraduates.

Many students use some form of financial support to cover tuition fees and living costs. These can be student loans, scholarships or other grants. The cost of living in both cities is broadly similar, although it’s higher than most other places in the UK.

Oxford vs Cambridge for Formality

Both universities have a long and respected history. This has led to many traditions, such as formal events and the wearing of gowns at dinners and even in exams.

Oxford University, being a little older, is considered to be the more formal of the two. Many of the traditions are based around the individual colleges.

The colleges host Formal Hall several times a week. This is a three-course dinner by candlelight. Formal dress is required, and Fellows wear their gowns. Some colleges have a high table, reserved for Fellows, and there may be other traditions, such as readings before the meal.

Oxford vs Cambridge in Summary

Course Offerings - Undergraduate Degrees

  • Oxford offers around 50.
  • Cambridge offers around 30.

Number of Students

  • Oxford has over 26,000
  • Cambridge has over 20,000

Tuition Costs per Year

  • Identical for undergraduate degrees for UK students.
  • For international students, starting from around £25,000 at Cambridge and £29,000 at Oxford.

Nobel Prize Winners

  • Cambridge - 118
  • Oxford - 69

Famous Graduates

Oxford University:

  • JRR Tolkien - author of Lord of the Rings
  • Margaret Thatcher - politician and British Prime Minister
  • Tim Berners-Lee - inventor of the World Wide Web

Cambridge University

  • Stephen Hawking - theoretical physicist
  • Emma Thompson - actress and writer
  • David Attenborough - broadcaster and natural historian

Oxford students refer to Cambridge students as 'tabs', being short for 'cantabs', based on a medieval Latin name for the city.

Summer Schools Help You Choose Between Oxford and Cambridge

In any debate about Oxford vs Cambridge, it's clear that there's little difference between the two. Cambridge appears a little less formal and is smaller, while Oxford has more course offerings and has produced more British Prime Ministers. When it comes to academic achievements, it's hard to separate the two.

A great way to choose between the two is to visit the cities and some of the colleges. Even better is to take a course there. This lets you experience student life for yourself.

We offer Summer Schools courses at both Oxford and Cambridge. There's a variety available, including science courses, English language courses and many others.

Learn more by taking a look at the full list of our course offerings.

Cress Warnell

Cress is a skilled copywriter who transforms ideas into captivating content. With a passion for words and a keen eye for detail, she crafts compelling copy for Summer Schools, helping students explore their options in education.

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