Similarities and Differences between Cambridge and Oxford

Date of Publication: 30 November 2017

Cambridge University and Oxford University are two of the most prestigious universities in the world.  The two schools are regularly referred to as “super brands” in higher education, being easily recognised internationally. Some outside of the United Kingdom may not realise that these two giants have had a rivalry since Cambridge was founded, and that it goes far beyond the annual boat race. There are many similarities and differences between Cambridge and Oxford, resulting from a shared past.  The rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford began with the founding of Cambridge University by a group of Oxford University students. Following a conflict between the townspeople and Oxford students, a group of scholars left Oxford to found a university in Cambridge in 1209. As a result, the two universities have many academic similarities. The similarities and differences between Cambridge and Oxford can


Both universities use the collegiate system, where the larger universities consist of individual colleges and different subject departments. While students belong to the wider university, they also belong to the smaller academic colleges. The student benefits from this system, as they are eligible to use resources from both their academic colleges and the larger university as a whole. An undergraduate applicant applies to the college rather than the university. The scholar is accepted by the college before being eligible to enrol at the larger university. The pastimes between Cambridge and Oxford are typically quite similar, including punting down the river. Punting refers to boating in a punt, a special type of boat with a flat bottom and a square-cut bow. A punt is ideal for small rivers or shallow water. This makes punting the perfect pastime in Cambridge (Cam) and Oxford (Cherwell and Thames). Both Oxford and Cambridge have similar institutions between the two cities. Both have  museums (the Ashmolean in Oxford and the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge), debating societies (Oxford Union and Cambridge Union), botanical gardens (University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Cambridge University Botanic Garden) and publishing houses (Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press). Facilities in both cities are prestigious, adding to the environment of each city as a whole.


Both universities offer rigorous academic teaching, but the two universities differ in what they call this teaching. Both Oxford and Cambridge students benefit from one-on-one sessions with experts in their field. However, Cambridge refers to these sessions as supervisions, while Oxford refers to the sessions as tutorials. Both Cambridge and Oxford have similar traditions, such as matriculation, where students officially become a member of the university. Oxford also has the tradition of wearing academic dress, known as the subfusc. Every undergraduate and graduate student must wear a specific gown, cap and tie to formal events, which makes up their subfusc, which means “of a dark hue”. Students wear the gowns to formal dinners, chapel, examinations, matriculation, and graduation. In 2015, students voted whether or not to keep the archaic subfusc, and opted to continue wearing it to formal occasions and examinations.The demographics and geography of Oxford and Cambridge also pose several differences between the two universities. Oxford is larger in size, with a population about 30% larger than that of Cambridge. Both cities are located near rivers. The sole river in Cambridge, the river Cam, flows through the city centre. Oxford, on the other hand, has two rivers (Thames and Cherwell) which flow around the city centre.

Learn More

Both the similarities and differences between Cambridge and Oxford create an environment of shared respect and friendly rivalry. Please visit the Stay in Cambridge page and the Stay in Oxford page on our website to learn more about how you can study in one of these historic academic locations. Which will you choose?

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