Oxford and Cambridge are a couple of the most famous academic institutions in the world. Thousands of hopeful students apply to these prestigious universities every year, filled with a strong desire to gain a degree within their historic and intellectual walls. Enjoying a summer school at Oxford or Cambridge can be a life-changing experience for students, who often fall in love with the character of the cities and are left wanting more. From the teaching style and traditional events to the history and heritage, Oxford and Cambridge have many unique quirks that really set them apart from other academic institutions around the world.
1. The unique college system
The historical grandeur of Oxbridge is perhaps best showcased through the spectacular colleges in which students reside. These impressive buildings are scattered throughout both cities and provide students with an incredibly unique place to call home for the duration of their degree. The colleges were founded by many different and remarkable individuals, who often funded the construction of the buildings and left their own mark on them.
Many of the colleges are paired between the two universities, known as sister colleges. These relationships vary, from being created around the same time to being founded by the same people, and often include various rights given to the students at the sister college (including the right to dine at your sister college!). The college system at Oxbridge is one of the most unusual things that summer school students experience and can leave a lasting impression on those residing in them.
2. The Boat Race
Oxford and Cambridge are nothing if not competitive, and the annual boat race is no exception. Originating in 1829, by Charles Merivale, a Cambridge student, and his friend Charles Wordsworth, an Oxford student, the boat race has become a world-famous competition between the two universities.
The race takes place on the River Thames over a distance of 4.2 miles (6.8km) and provides an opportunity for the two prestigious universities to go head-to-head to prove which institution is athletically superior. Although the event has been cancelled on a few occasions, including most recently due to the COVID-19 pandemic, since 2019, Cambridge are in the overall lead, having won the men’s race 84 times, with Oxford’s total at 80.
3. Punting: A traditional pastime
Whether you’re studying at Oxbridge or enjoying a summer school at one of the incredible colleges, you will certainly see odd-looking boats flowing down the rivers, powered by a punter holding a long stick. Many might confuse these boats with the gondolas seen in Venice, but punts are different in both their construction and method of propelling. During the summer months, many tourists, students, families and friends embark on a punting adventure, jumping into the narrow vessels and floating calmly down the river.
For students in a summer school in Oxford or Cambridge, punting is definitely something to try in order to immerse yourself into the quirks of these cities and explore the beautiful sights by water. It’s a great bonding experience and you could even take a picnic to enjoy as you take it in turns to punt around the historic cities. Be warned, however, that being the punter propelling the boat is not as easy as it looks!
4. Among the oldest universities in the world
Oxford and Cambridge are much more than impressive educational institutions, they are also historically important and represent some of the oldest universities in the world. The University of Oxford was founded in 1096 and is therefore the second oldest university in the world that has operated continuously. That’s 924 years of academia in Oxford, demonstrating the unfathomable amount of time that this university has been teaching and inspiring students.
The University of Cambridge was founded slightly later in 1209, making it the fourth oldest university in existence in the world. Cambridge has a fascinating, yet little known, origin story and was, surprisingly, founded by Oxford students. In 1209, three Oxford scholars were hanged in relation to the death of a woman, but the town authorities did not properly consult with the ecclesiastical members who would ordinarily have provided judgement on such a case.
As a result of this conflict with the local people, Oxford scholars began to leave the city and settle in other areas, including Cambridge, where they founded a new university. This history between the two universities explains the fierce rivalry between the institutions, and perhaps places a greater significance on who wins the annual boat race!
5. Teaching via the tutorials system
Something that sets Oxford and Cambridge apart from other universities around the globe is their unique teaching style. Although like many other academic institutions students still attend lectures and classes, they are also expected to engage with small group tutorials (or supervisions at Cambridge).
These sessions are incredibly valuable in terms of learning and development, as groups of 1-3 students are asked to critique and provide feedback on the work of their fellow classmates. As each student is expected to make significant contributions to the session, they are able to learn how to defend, analyse and critique written work in a conversational capacity. These opportunities give students a chance to really develop their style of writing and thought and, though challenging, are thought to be an important method of teaching and learning at Oxbridge.
6. Top universities
Oxford and Cambridge are regularly ranked as some of the top universities in the world, making them desirable to students choosing which institutions to attend. They often feature in the top 5 in university ratings and, in 2018, a UK report by the Complete University Guide stated that all of the subjects offered by both institutions were ranked within the top 10 nationally. Both universities are also independently recognised for offering leading teaching in various courses, with Oxford being ranked as number one in the world for a handful of humanities subjects like History and English.
With such impressive academic offerings, traditional pastimes and historical fascination, Oxford and Cambridge have plenty of quirks and characteristics that make them hugely appealing to students. Those in a summer school in either of these universities are sure to become infatuated with the inspiring surroundings and unique way of life and may find themselves desperate to return in the future.