They are two of the oldest universities in the world, as well as two of the most prestigious and vaunted. They are so closely associated that they are often just referred to as ‘Oxbridge’. What, then, are their similarities and differences?
There is a general perception that Oxford is better for humanities subjects like Literature, Philosophy, Art and Geography, while Cambridge is better for the sciences: Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry and so forth. The reality, however, is that both are generally great at pretty much everything. Believe it or not.
There are also some subjects which are only offered at one of the two; Architecture is only offered at Cambridge, Fine Art only at Oxford. One of Oxford’s foremost degrees is PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), not offered at Cambridge. They instead have HSPS (Human, Social, and Political Sciences). So keep an eye out for differences.
Both are made up of individual colleges, their home and place of learning. This means that while Oxford and Cambridge are both huge, they can still feel like small, personal communities.
Oxbridge also each have publishing houses, botanical gardens, debating societies, business schools, science parks, theatrical societies and legal deposit libraries.
Teaching is similar at each also; students attend lectures, classes (with some practical work dependent on course) and personalised meetings with experts in their field. The only difference here is what these meetings are referred to as- ‘tutorials’ for Oxford and ‘supervisions’ for Cambridge.
The major and obvious difference between the two are the locations. The city of Oxford is larger, more urban and industrial, while Cambridge is a bit smaller and agricultural. Nevertheless, they are both fairly small, especially compared to London, which they are a similar distance from.
Generally speaking, Cambridge is thought to be a little prettier while Oxford is a bit grander. It’s entirely personal preference though- both are mightily impressive.
With both Oxford and Cambridge being hundreds of years old, they understandably have their own odd or arcane traditions. They both have lots of ceremonies in Latin, lots of robe wearing and playing of old, almost non-existent sports, like ‘real tennis’ and ‘fives’.
There are some traditions that one or the other have foregone over the years. It is still compulsory to wear formal academic dress during exams at Oxford, though not at Cambridge. While Oxford abolished their own police force in 2003, Cambridge continues to have one.
Oxford, generally, was the university that had more of the odd traditions, like having their own time schedule, a night time backwards walk and the Tortoise Fair (one could write thousands of words on the eccentricities of Oxford).
Two major traditions they share though are Matriculation (the process by which one formally enters the university) and Formal Hall, a dinner in which students sit on long tables, much like the meals taken at Hogwarts in Harry Potter.
Considering there are so many similarities between the two, it’s no surprise that the two share a healthy rivalry. Most emblematic of the differences is the annual Boat Race, first contested in 1829, in which the corresponding boat clubs race each other over four miles (6 km) down the River Thames.
There are also Rugby Union and Rugby League Varsity Matches. Along with the boat race, these three events are the only university events that are shown live on television and covered in mainstream media.
The rivalry also of course extends to academics and specifically, university rankings. The differences are slight, as suggested before, though you are mistaken if you think either will settle for a draw anytime soon, as each continually strives for excellence.