The United Kingdom is home to two of the best-known universities in the world: the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. Though these educational institutions are each prestigious enough on their own, they’re often compared in terms of academic performance, course offerings, and overall campus experience.
This article aims to do a thorough comparison of these two universities, including factors such as university rankings, educational and living costs, and academic offerings. This comparison can prove to be useful especially since these universities are popular among aspiring college students today. Hopefully, this article can also help students choose which of these schools can best meet their needs.
Cambridge vs Oxford has been a recurring theme ever since the former’s founding in the 12th century, when Oxford scholars fled to Cambridge to escape hostility (University of Cambridge, n.d.). As the only two universities at the time, both institutions had their share of students and intellectuals who resided within their premises. The academic duopoly would go on to redefine how learning was administered in the U.K., with some of the traditions during ancient times still practiced today (Cole, n.d.).
Though a rivalry is present, the two universities share a slew of commonalities. The college of Oxford and Cambridge are self-governing bodies, each with its own buildings, its independent income, and its own marked individuality (Lloyd-Jones, 2000). Both universities also have their own esteemed publishing houses, apply similar teaching methods, and carry about the same level of prestige and prominence as the two top universities in Europe based on the metrics of the three major ranking outfits, Times Higher Education, Quacuarelli Symonds (QS), and Shanghai Ranking.
The similarities and storied rivalry between the two schools have led people to coin the term “Oxbridge,” a portmanteau word for Oxford and Cambridge universities, which is in common usage today across the U.K. and worldwide (Kelly, 2019). Oxford is generally perceived as a livelier community while Cambridge has a bit of an edge in aesthetics (Bridgestock, 2020), but both institutions offer far beyond what random perceptions and initial impressions suggest.
Today, the Oxford vs. Cambridge rivalry is most emphasized in sporting events. The annual rowing competition between both schools is subject to a lot of pride and passion from students, alumni, and participants (Cole, n.d.).
Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, with its exact founding date unknown and the earliest documented teaching going as far back as 1096 (University of Oxford, n.d.). Though the university has no main campus, it is home to 44 colleges and the U.K.’s most expansive library system (Top Universities, n.d.). Currently, the school has more than 20,000 students, 40% of whom come from outside the U.K.
Besides being a university, Oxford is an elegant city punctuated by historic structures and fixtures, which include the colleges, the Bodleian Library, Oxford Botanical Garden, the cosmopolitan city center, Christ Church Cathedral, and its collection of museums and galleries. Tons of extracurricular activities and hang-out spots for students are on offer while attractive living spaces are abundant.
Cambridge, which was founded in 1209 (University of Cambridge, n.d.), is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the fourth-oldest in the world. Within the university is a collection of 31 autonomous colleges, mainly divided into six academic schools, namely Arts and Humanities, Biological Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Humanities and Social Sciences, Physical Sciences, and Technology (Top Universities, n.d.). The school has 19,876 students coming not just from the U.K., but also countries within and outside of the European Union.
Like Oxford, Cambridge is a university city with its share of remarkable attractions. These include the individual colleges that come like architectural masterworks, nine renowned museums, a theater for the arts, Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and the King’s College Chapel. As far as extracurricular activities are concerned, learners will be delighted by the fact that the Monty Python comedy group was once a part of one of the university’s drama societies (Top Universities, n.d.). Meanwhile, the likes of Pink Floyd, Olivia Newton-John, and Matthew Bellamy of Muse trace their roots to the city.
Cambridge is a bustling city for tourists and carries a creative vibe that is conducive for painters, writers, musicians, and those who dabble in the arts.
Oxford and Cambridge are widely known as the creme de la creme of education in Europe and the rest of the world. One ranking outfit has placed them right at the very top while the other two recognize both schools as part of the world’s top 10 universities. In two out of the three ranking systems for 2020, Oxford was placed slightly higher than Cambridge (Times Higher Education, 2020; Top Universities, 2020) while Cambridge posted a higher overall score in one (Shanghai Ranking, 2020).
This does not necessarily mean that Oxford is the better university overall, given that the two universities do not have completely identical course offerings and the difference between them is marginal in all three ranking systems. Rather, the rankings serve more of a testament to the quality of instruction students are poised to receive should they get admitted to either university.
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According to the 2020 Times Higher Education’s World’s University Ranking, Oxford is the best university in the world, a spot it has claimed for four consecutive years (Times Higher Education, 2020). Meanwhile, Cambridge slides to the third spot, from second in 2019. Oxford also came out on top in the European Teaching Ranking of 2019 while Cambridge was second (Times Higher Education, 2020). Cambridge, however, slightly outranked Oxford in the 2019 World Reputation Rankings, with the two claiming the 4th and 5th spot, respectively (Times Higher Education, 2020).
Posting an overall score of 96, Oxford claimed the fifth spot in the 2021 QS World University Rankings (Top Universities, n.d.). Not far behind is Cambridge, with an overall score of 94.3, which landed it the seventh spot. From 2012 to 2020, both universities have been in the top 10 of the ranking scale, with Oxford peaking at number four in 2020 and Cambridge being the world’s second-best university in 2012 and 2015 (Top Universities, n.d.). The domination of Oxbridge would likely extend to the next several years as the trends suggest.
In the Shanghai Ranking system, Cambridge is the stronger overall performer (Shanghai Ranking, 2020). It has been among the world’s top five universities since 2003, peaking at number two in 2005 and 2006. Oxford, on the other hand, within the same time period, has occupied spots in the lower half of the top 10, maintaining its hold at the seventh spot since 2016 (Shanghai Ranking, n.d.). Similar to the QS ranking, there are barely any fluctuations in the standings of the top 10 universities, so both schools are likely to claim impressive positions in the succeeding years.
Source: Times Higher Education 2020
One of the biggest differences between Oxford and Cambridge lies in their course offerings. While both universities have a lot of overlaps in the courses offered, there are courses that are unique to each. The manner in which some joint courses are packaged also varies.
The single courses the Oxbridge duo shares include Computer Science, History, Mathematics, Biological Sciences, Medicine, Engineering, Law, English, Physical Sciences, Music, and Archaeology (Cole, n.d.). However, courses like Fine Art and Materials Science are exclusive to Oxford (University of Oxford, n.d.) while unique Cambridge courses include Architecture and Veterinary Science (University of Cambridge, n.d.). Overall, Cambridge focuses more on single courses, except for the sciences and cultural studies.
Joint and multidisciplinary courses are the specialties of Oxford, among which is one of the school’s premier courses, Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), which has produced a laundry list of politicians, journalists, and world leaders like David Cameron, Bill Clinton, and Tony Abbott. Other notable courses include Computer Science and Philosophy, Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics, Philosophy and Modern Languages, Mathematics and Computer Science, and Mathematics and Statistics (University of Oxford, n.d.).
On the Cambridge side, it has a premier degree that amalgamates several sciences in a three-year course, Natural Sciences (University of Cambridge, n.d.). This approach blurs the boundaries between sciences and affords learners flexibility in regard to their knowledge base. Interestingly, Oxford bears a singular approach to its science courses, akin to Cambridge’s course structure in other degrees.
Despite the difference in course offerings, the two halves of Oxbridge generally share the same method of instruction. Referred to as “tutoring” in Oxford and “supervision” in Cambridge, the teaching style in both universities group two to three students with one instructor per class, which lasts for an hour and conducted up to four times per week (Cole, n.d.). This strategy allows students to receive personalized education that accounts for their pace of learning, preferred means of instruction, and a bigger focus on concepts that are hard to understand.
Typically, lessons are administered through lectures and assigned readings. Students are expected to have read their assignments ahead of time and provide essays, solve problems, or perform exercises based on what they have read (Cole, n.d.). Besides the memorization of terms, the teaching style stimulates critical thinking as well as creativity in terms of approaching scenarios.
Moreover, students would reside together, ideally in close proximity to their teachers, and would combine their studies with an equally rigorous course of extracurricular activities, including religion, amateur sports, and related character-building avocations. Their studies would be overseen by a tutor—a member of the academic staff who would direct them and teach them individually or in very small groups—and their characters by a “moral tutor” (Mandler, 2015).
There is a common belief that Oxford is the place to study humanities whereas Cambridge is ideal for sciences or mathematics (University of Oxford, 2007; Oxford Royale, 2016). While there is some credence to that statement, given that Cambridge has been associated with more Nobel laureates (Cole, n.d.) and Oxford has produced more world leaders (Crimson Education, 2018), both universities perform well in the said fields based on their world rankings.
Cambridge made 44 appearances in the subject rankings while Oxford had 43 (Bridgestock, 2020). In fact, in most of their appearances, Oxbridge placed in the top 10, including in-demand courses like Arts & Humanities, Economics, Accounting & Finance, Law, Medicine, and Computer Science. Interestingly, Oxford also offers a short online blockchain degree, called the “Oxford
Blockchain Strategy Programme.”
Oxford Top Courses
Oxford managed to place first among all universities around the world in the following courses (Bridgestock, 2020):
Oxford was second in the world when it comes to prestigious courses like Medicine, Law, Life Sciences, and History. It also outranked Cambridge in most of its appearances (Bridgestock, 2020).
Cambridge Top Courses
While it did not secure the top spot for any subject, Cambridge claimed a place within the top five in most of its appearances. In fact, the school is second-best in the world when it comes to these courses (Bridgestock, 2020):
Interestingly, Oxford held the top spot in the aforementioned degrees. Cambridge, however, has its share of courses where it outranks its Oxbridge rival, including Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Business & Management, Engineering, Natural Sciences, Mathematics, Physics, Psychology, and Performing Arts (Bridgestock, 2020).
Contrary to the QS system, Cambridge outranks Oxford in most categories, which lends to its higher spot in the overall ranking of global universities (Shanghai Ranking, 2020). The latest consolidated data posted on the university profiles were mined from the 2016 rankings, which serve as bases for this comparison (Shanghai Ranking, n.d.).
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In this ranking system, Oxford is the best in the world when it comes to research, with a score of 99.6, followed closely by Cambridge’s 98.6 (Times Higher Education, 2020). The teaching scale, on the other hand, puts Cambridge slightly ahead of Oxford, claiming the 4th and 6th spots among all universities, respectively. As far as the subject breakdown is concerned, Oxford slightly outperforms Cambridge overall, with both being in the world’s top five in various fields.
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Source: Times Higher Education 2020
The fees for both universities are generally within the same bracket as the Oxbridge pair is on par in virtually every regard. U.K. and E.U. students clearly have the advantage, since the tuition fees are more affordable and they are relatively close to their households should they need financial support from their families. Overseas students will have to shoulder a college fee, which is included in Oxford’s course fee. Cambridge charges the fee separately, amounting to $11,180-$12,650 annually depending on the college (Bridgestock, 2020).
Here is how the two universities match up in regard to annual education costs.
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As far as living costs are concerned, Oxford suggests its students prepare funds somewhere between $15,950-24,780 annually to cover expenditures such as rent, food, transportation, and personal purchases (Bridgestock, 2020). Cambridge, on the other hand, advises students to have at least $14,110 per year.
Oxford offers a larger space for exploration, studying, and night outs while Cambridge is more compact, which means less road congestion and it is easier to hop from one location to another on foot (Cole, n.d.). Since a good portion of the population is made up of students, learners can make friends in both cities and stay at the quaint coffee shops or the popular night clubs. Sometimes colleges hold parties aimed at making students from around the area intermingle (Cole, n.d.).
Once classes are over for the day, students are encouraged to visit the vast number of attractions unique to each city, from sprawling parks to buildings and thoroughfares characterized by remarkable architecture. It is a wonderful learning experience, as they can draw inspiration from the splendor and history of each location. Students can also join groups like the Oxford or Cambridge Union. The said clubs have hosted world leaders, celebrities, and other big names from all over the world (Cole, n.d.).
Those who like sports can be part of the universities’ athletics groups or even join the rowing club, which is a source of pride for both schools.
Regardless of which university a student attends, there is a wealth of attractions, interesting establishments, and like-minded individuals to make the experience thoroughly fulfilling.
Considering the education fees and living expenses, some students will need a means of financial support to get through each year of their stay. Undergraduates from the U.K. and the E.U. have access to loans from the U.K. government that cover tuition fees, to be paid back gradually after they graduate (Cole, n.d.).
Furthermore, bursaries are offered by both the government and the two universities. Both universities also offer full-ride and full tuition scholarships. Cambridge, for instance, doles out $4,588 each year to those who qualify (Bridgestock, 2020) while local authorities can provide a one-off payout of $3,288 (UK Government, n.d.). These amounts are not to be paid back to ease the students’ financial burden.
Oxbridge provides a multitude of scholarships for both local and international learners. Students are free to apply for any of them, provided that they are eligible. This gives international students a chance to reduce their financial strain and focus more on their studies. However, the competition is particularly stiff for most, if not all, scholarships, so it is wise to plan ahead.
According to Montacute and Cullinane (2018), both universities are taking other positive steps to improve access, with Lady Margret Hall in Oxford now running a foundation year, a free fully funded course to improve progression to top universities to students from under-represented backgrounds. Cambridge has also recently announced plans to follow suit. However, both universities need to do much more to improve access.
As expected of the two top European universities, Oxford and Cambridge have produced a long list of celebrated personalities who once walked their halls as students. And this ranges from world leaders to renowned scientists, all the way to celebrities in the entertainment industry. Oxford boasts more government leaders, including leaders of the world’s biggest economies, while Cambridge has more Nobel laureates, 120 – 72 (University of Oxford, nd; University of Cambridge, n.d.), somewhat contributing to the statement that “Oxford is for humanities, Cambridge is for science.”
Stephen Hawking appears on both lists since he finished his undergraduate degree in Oxford and then took up his postgraduate studies in Cambridge. Interestingly, he was born in Oxford and died in Cambridge (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.).
It is also worth noting that John Harvard, founder of Harvard University, is a product of Cambridge (Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d.).
Widening participation is an issue across top universities, but access to two universities, in particular, Oxford and Cambridge, is held under the most intense spotlight. The two institutions are the most competitive to gain access to in the U.K.; regularly appear in first and second position in league tables and are often at or near the top of worldwide rankings (Montacute & Cullinane, 2018).
Interest in the background of students who go to Oxford and Cambridge is nothing new. The 1852 Royal Commissions on both universities identified access by poorer students as an important and longstanding issue. The debate about elitism at Oxford and Cambridge has tended to focus on a single indicator–the proportion of students from state schools and particularly whether it has gone up or down in the latest year (Bolton, 2019).
However, based on the statistics, getting particularly high grades comes as a huge factor if a student is to be admitted to either university. In 2019, 39.9% of admitted students had recorded A*A*A* or higher in Oxford (University of Oxford, 2019) while in Cambridge, the figure was 37.8% (University of Cambridge, 2019). Both universities also have a significant proportion of admitted international students, with Oxford having 14.1% and Cambridge 12.5%.
Source: University of Oxford 2019
Endowments are money and other assets donated to schools by individuals and organizations (Phung, 2020). They are a significant source of revenue for universities as they are used to fund research, build new facilities, and execute local and international projects. They are also instrumental to the net worth of any educational institution.
With Oxbridge being two of the world’s most prestigious universities, their combined wealth amounts to a staggering $27.39 billion in 2018 (Adams & Greenwood, 2018), of which a significant percentage came from endowments. Cambridge is wealthier as it has amassed revenues of $6.39 billion in 2018, compared to Oxford’s $4.17 billion (Adams & Greenwood,2018).
As of 2019, Cambridge has received $9 billion in endowments while Oxford has $7.95 billion, making them the two most well-endowed universities in Europe.
As previously mentioned, Oxford and Cambridge are on par in every possible aspect. If there are any differences between the two, they are marginal at best as displayed in this article. The Oxbridge halves share more commonalities than differences, to be honest. Both institutions have the same manner of instruction (Cole, n.d.), with instructors being in close proximity with a small group of students nearly at all times (Mandler, 2015). Their tuition fees and suggested living expenses are also comparable, mostly falling within the same monetary bracket (Bridgestock, 2020). The same goes for the financial support that can be received.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Oxford and Cambridge is the way their courses are structured. Oxford tends to package various fields into one degree (University of Oxford, n.d.), particularly with its renowned program, PPE (Cole, n.d.). Meanwhile, Cambridge is more focused on singular disciplines as degrees (University of Cambridge, n.d.) but carries its own prestigious packaged program in its Natural Sciences course, which bundles together various sciences (Cole, n.d.).
As far as world rankings are concerned, Oxford has a slight edge, being the world’s top university in 2020 according to Times Higher Education. Cambridge, on the other hand, outranked Oxford in Shanghai Ranking’s 2019 list, placing 3rd and 7th in the world, respectively (Shanghai Ranking, 2020). In terms of academic performance, Oxford also holds a bit of an advantage overall, but Cambridge appears to be the better institution for sciences, outperforming its rival in all three ranking systems (Shanghai Ranking, nd; Times Higher Education, n.d.; Bridgestock, 2020).
All that said, a strong case can be made for either university regarding which of them is better. Both have their share of strong points, with Oxford having several reputable programs and Cambridge offering innovative programs for sciences. What matters more is which university is more suitable for a student’s preferred course and lifestyle. Regardless of which university is chosen, learners are assured of an education that is among the best in the world. Having Oxford or Cambridge on one’s resume would certainly boost one’s likelihood of finding an esteemed job, which ultimately leads to a rewarding professional life.