There’s a reason why Oxford and Cambridge are often jointly referred to as ‘Oxbridge’. Let’s start with their similarities. As cities, they’re both small, beautiful and dominated by their universities (and large student populations). As institutions, both are world-famous, extremely old (founded in 1096, Oxford is the oldest English-speaking university in the world; Cambridge was founded in 1209, making it the second-oldest university in the UK and the fourth-oldest university in the world) and they’re both spectacularly competitive to get into. Both Oxford and Cambridge boast an absolute glut of world leaders, former British Prime Ministers, Nobel Prize winners and Olympic medallists as alumni. Both are organised according to the college system: Oxford and Cambridge’s colleges are independent, self-governing institutions. The University of Oxford comprises 45 colleges, while the University of Cambridge is composed of 31 colleges. Students are taught in a specific, intimate tutorial style.
So, let’s tease out some differences and answer the most pressing question first…
1. Oxford or Cambridge: which is the better university?
Oxford and Cambridge are irrefutably amongst the very best universities in the world, and are always neck and neck in the official world rankings. Let’s zoom into a few telling stats. For 2023, Oxford has seized the top spot (until next year!) whilst Cambridge takes third place worldwide (or second in the UK). Worldwide, when it comes to teaching, Oxford ranks 5th whilst Cambridge ranks 7th. For research: Oxford ranks first, Cambridge ranks second.
There’s a common perception that Cambridge is slightly better for the sciences and for mathematics, whilst Oxford is stronger in humanities. Going a little deeper, for 2023, Cambridge actually ranked second for arts and humanities, with Oxford coming in at third place (Harvard claimed the top spot). For engineering and technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) came first, Stanford second, and Cambridge third. For medicine: Harvard ranked as number one, with Oxford in second place and Johns Hopkins in the US in third place.
Getting into Oxford or Cambridge is far from easy; the competition is fierce. You’ll need to stand out from the crowd with top grades that really dazzle, a bullet-proof interview and a large helping of the magical ‘x factor’. But which is the more difficult of the two to get into (and therefore, some might say, the better university)? Well, in 2021, the Oxford offer rate was 14% whilst the Cambridge offer rate was 18%, so Oxford is currently more competitive, but that gap is closing every year. Interestingly, compared with a decade ago, it’s now around 30% more difficult to get into either of them!
Our verdict: for 2023, Oxford has taken the highly-coveted top spot…until next year!
2. Famous Oxbridge Alumni
There’s definitely something in the air in both Oxford and Cambridge, as the list of famous and extraordinarily successful alumni at both is nothing short of phenomenal. Oxford claims 72 Nobel Prize winners among its alumni, whilst Cambridge blows it out of the water with 121 Nobel Prize winners! As well as a disproportionate number of world leaders, almost all British Prime Ministers have been Oxbridge-educated: of the 55 UK Prime Ministers to date, 14 were educated at the University of Cambridge and 28 were educated at the University of Oxford.
Cambridge has given the world IVF, the discovery of the structure of DNA, the UK’s first successful heart transplant, the first graphical computer game, evolution, gravity, and the discovery of Neptune. Oxford, on the other hand, has contributed antibodies, Penicillin (thought to have saved 200 million lives since its discovery), the theory of relativity, rugby, and the World Wide Web.
Let’s reel off some big names. Oxford’s impressive roll call of alumni includes (take a deep breath!): Albert Einstein, the American astronomer Edwin Hubble, literary genius’ J.R.R. Tolkien and Oscar Wilde, Tim Berners-Lee, the English computer scientist best known as the World Wide Web inventor, Hugh Grant, Emma Watson of Harry Potter fame, world leaders such as Bill Clinton and Indira Gandhi, current British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and ex-British Prime MInisters David Cameron, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
On the Cambridge team: science heavyweights Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking, Alan Turing, the inventor of the first modern computer and founding father of artificial intelligence, Oliver Cromwell, King Charles, David Attenborough, poets Byron, Wordsworth and Sylvia Plath, and actor Emma Thompson.
Our verdict: If political word domination is in your game plan (22 Prime Ministers, remember!), choose Oxford. If you’re keen to make this century’s most shocking scientific discovery (and follow in the footsteps of Hawking, Newton and Darwin), choose Cambridge.
3. Oxford or Cambridge: which is the better city to live in?
Oxford is located right in the centre of the UK and is close to the Cotswolds, an exceptionally pretty area filled with rolling hills and postcard-perfect quaint villages. Cambridge is in the east of the UK, located much closer to some lovely beaches. Both are about 60 miles or so from London, although the 45 minute train journey from Cambridge to London trumps Oxford’s one hour.
The biggest difference between Oxford and Cambridge is that Oxford is (and feels) bigger: it’s a city that has a university sprinkled throughout, whereas Cambridge is more like a large university campus that happens to also be a city. As it has often so succinctly been put: Cambridge is a university with a city around it, and Oxford is a city with a university in it.
As mentioned, Oxford University is the older of the two. In fact, Cambridge was set up after a fight in Oxford forced scholars to flee in 1209. Stemming from this, Oxford has always been viewed as a city of institution and order, and Cambridge as the rebel. This gives the two cities subtly different atmospheres.
Oxford is generally considered to be livelier, and Cambridge prettier. Which is more than a little unfair because, truly, both are exceptionally beautiful with stunning architecture (although more uniform in Oxford; more eclectic in Cambridge). Indeed, Oxford is often called ‘the city of dreaming spires’ and was one of the few UK cities left unscathed by World War II, as Hitler wanted Oxford to be the capital of England after defeating it. Both have sublime rivers that pass through their centres (the River Cam in Cambridge, and the River Cherwell in Oxford), although Cambridge is immediately surrounded by lovely countryside and Oxford isn’t. Both are very pedestrian and cyclist-friendly (although Cambridge is flatter than Oxford!), and Cambridge is slightly cheaper to live in.
Our verdict: it’s a tricky one, but our vote goes to Cambridge. It’s a true student bubble and beautiful, quintessential England at its very best – with equal servings of stunning countryside and city buzz, in a compact, very explorable package!
4. Top Things to do in Oxford and Cambridge
Both Oxford and Cambridge do culture very well. For small-sized cities, their world-class museums and art galleries pack a very decent punch.
Oxford’s magnificent Ashmolean Museum is the oldest in the UK. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History houses the remains of a dodo, and the Museum of the History of Science displays a blackboard used by none other than Albert Einstein himself. It has an impressive modern art museum and more than 100 libraries, the most famous of which is the Bodleian, built in 1602 (it’s not open to the general public but some summer schools include access to it, by the way).
Cambridge, on the other hand, has the very popular Fitzwilliam Museum, home to a huge collection of art and antiques including paintings by Rembrandt, Van Gogh and Monet, as well as The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, The Museum of Zoology, and the fascinating Polar Museum, which includes sledges used by Sir Ernest Shackleton and the remains of a walrus.
Some more similarities before we go on: both Cambridge and Oxford have colourful botanical gardens – perfect for summer day picnicking – and are dissected by picturesque rivers, and a favourite local pastime is to go punting, which began in Oxford in around 1860. The flat-bottomed boats are propelled along the river using a long stick, like the gondolas in Venice – an absolute must-try for any summer school student (most providers will take you along as one of your extracurricular activities)! Both cities have a plethora of quirky boutiques, ethnic restaurants, independent coffee shops, nightlife (although Cambridge is much more cosy pub-based as opposed to bars and clubs in Oxford) and theatres.
It is said that Oxford has more published authors per square mile than anywhere else in the world! For Harry Potter fans and Alice in Wonderland enthusiasts, get yourself to Oxford! The Great Hall in Harry Potter was inspired by the Great Hall in Christ Church College, part of the University of Oxford. Parts of Bodleian Library were used as Hogwarts hospital as well as Hogwarts Library. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings whilst living in Oxford and took a lot of inspiration from the city, including using the impressive Radcliffe Camera building as his creative seed for ‘Sauron’s temple’ in his books. He also formed an informal literary meeting group called The Inklings, along with C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, who used to meet at the Eagle and Child pub, which is incredibly still in business today! Talking of pubs, The Eagle in Cambridge is famous for being where Watson and Crick came up with and triumphantly announced their theory for the structure of DNA. Also in Cambridge, you may find yourself on the former sets for films including Chariots of Fire and The Theory of Everything.
Our verdict: sorry Cambridge, this one’s simple. A dodo, Harry Potter, and Einstein’s blackboard: need we say more?
5. Oxford or Cambridge: which has the best summer school?
Oxford and Cambridge are both very popular summer school locations. Providers tend to initially start out in Oxford before expanding into Cambridge and other locations, making courses in Oxford generally longer-running and therefore more established. In terms of course diversity, both have a huge range of courses to choose from, but generally speaking, in Oxford expect hefty traditional subjects much as Medicine, Law and Politics, History and Engineering alongside excellent Creative Writing and Film Production courses (drawing on Oxford’s deeply-ingrained literary and film set background), and well as Performing Arts and Music Production courses that aren’t offered elsewhere. Cambridge courses are slightly more focused on science and technology, with a plethora of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics courses as well as specialised science courses including Zoology, Neuroscience and Genetics. If you’re keen to learn English, there are equal numbers of English language courses in Oxford and Cambridge. If you need help with preparing for your IELTS exam, a dedicated course for this runs in Oxford only.
For adults (ages 19+), Oxford is the better choice as there more than twice as many courses available, for teens (ages 13-18) it’s even, and for kids (ages 8-12), you’ll need to go to Oxford, as there are no kids’ courses running in Cambridge in 2023 (but a lot of Oxford courses to choose from)!
And the million dollar question: who is the best summer school provider? Our official verdict on the best provider for 2023 is the award-winning Oxford Royale Academy (with courses running in both Oxford and Cambridge); find out why in our must-read guide, along with a full investigation into what the others are offering!
Still in a muddle? Get in touch and one of our friendly team will be happy to help with a free, personalised consultation!