5 Key Differences between Oxford and Cambridge

Whatever their respective students might claim, it’s clear that Oxford and Cambridge have more similarities than differences.

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It’s a summer’s day. People are eating strawberries in punts on the river. Students cycle past, their panniers overloaded with books, and narrowly avoid crashing into a large group of tourists who were concentrating more on their map than on the traffic. There’s a lively market in the square not far away, and you are surrounded by beautiful, historic buildings on all sides.
That’s a scene that immediately brings to mind only two places: Oxford and Cambridge (though residents of Bath and Canterbury might argue that it could also take place there). But it’s nigh-on impossible to say which one it might be. They have plenty of other similarities as well; roughly equal proximity to public transport links, including a fast train to London and a good range of airports nearby. Suggestions that Oxford is better for the humanities and Cambridge for the sciences (or vice versa) are soon proven to be outdated. And there’s no perceptible difference in teaching quality between the number one and number two universities in the UK, either.
So, whether you’re planning on attending a summer school, or you’re figuring out what to put on your UCAS form, the choice between the two can be a challenge given that they are so very similar. To save you from tossing a coin, here’s our look at what separates them.

To experience the differences yourself whilst living and studying in the colleges of the universities, consider joining Oxford Royale’s Oxford summer courses or Cambridge summer school this summer.

1. Oxford is bigger and livelier; Cambridge is smaller and quieter

As differences go, this one is still not all that significant. Oxford has a population of 150,000; Cambridge has a population of 124,000. An additional 26,000 people is unlikely to feel that different if, for instance, you are also considering studying in London (population: 8.7 million). Both Oxford and Cambridge are small cities that feel like they sit on the intersection between being small cities and large towns; if you’ve come from London, Manchester or Birmingham, say, both will feel small. They are also both of a size that means you can cycle across them in about half an hour (in Oxford, we’ve defined this as Summertown to Rose Hill; in Cambridge, as the Science Park to Grantchester Road).

Both cities are easily navigable by bike.
Both cities are easily navigable by bike.

All the same, if you’re seeking differences, rather than similarities, this is one of the more noticeable ones. Gentrification has progressed further in Cambridge than in Oxford, so that the lively area of Mill Road in Cambridge is distinctly quieter and more middle-class than its equivalent in Oxford, Cowley Road. In Cambridge, the nightlife is more student-orientated, as the students make up a greater percentage of people going out.
This difference is sometimes expressed as “Oxford is bigger and livelier; Cambridge is smaller and prettier”, which is unfair to Oxford. Whether you prefer the delicate spires of King’s College, Cambridge, to the grand surroundings of Radcliffe Square, Oxford, is very much a matter of taste, and both cities have an equal number of stunning buildings and memorable views. Oxford’s architecture is more uniform, as it’s mostly built from the same Headington stone, while as Cambridge has no local stone, its buildings are more diverse. But there’s certainly no consensus as to which city is therefore more beautiful.
One side-effect of Oxford being larger is that it has two main bus companies, rather than just one, and the competition between the two means that bus travel is easier in Oxford than Cambridge. However, if you’re planning on walking or cycling, there’s no noticeable difference between the two; both are extremely friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

2. Cambridge and Oxford universities offer different subjects

That’s not to say that they offer completely different subjects, of course; but you certainly shouldn’t assume that every subject will be offered by both universities, and, if offered, it will be taught in the same way.
For instance, Cambridge offers a course in Architecture, which Oxford doesn’t. Oxford offers Fine Art, which Cambridge doesn’t. Celtic courses at Oxford are currently under review, and can’t be studied until at least 2018, while Cambridge’s celebrated Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic course (ASNC – or ‘az-nack’) is still going strong. Cambridge offers a Natural Sciences degree that covers a wide range of areas within science, allowing students to choose their specialism later, while Oxford students have to choose their focus at the point at which they apply to the university. Oxford also doesn’t offer a course in Veterinary Medicine, while Cambridge does.

Beowulf not your thing? You might want to reconsider English at Oxford.
Beowulf not your thing? You might want to reconsider English at Oxford.

Beyond these differences between the subjects that are offered at each university, there are also differences in what is taught within the specific subject. For instance, both universities offer English courses (in Cambridge called simply ‘English’, and in Oxford, ‘English Language and Literature’). But in Oxford, in your first year, you will study “early medieval literature, Victorian literature and modern literature up to the present day”, while being introduced to “the conceptual and technical tools used in the study of language and literature, and to a wide range of different critical assumptions and approaches”. At Cambridge, in your first two years, the only compulsory papers are “English Literature and its Contexts 1300-1550” and “Shakespeare”. You can choose to avoid “Practical Criticism and Critical Practice” (that’s the same thing as Oxford’s “critical assumptions and approaches”) altogether if you prefer, and the earliest literature you will study dates from 1066 onwards. Oxford’s definition of first-year “early medieval literature” is from 650 onwards, whereas in Cambridge this is assigned to Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic.
You can see that while the two courses have more in common with each other than they might do with many other English courses elsewhere (Lancaster’s first-year English literature course, for instance, focuses on the late sixteenth century to the present, and modules to be taken in later years are also mostly about modern literature), they also have significant differences, especially if you’re interested in early medieval literature. You’ll see the same sorts of differences in almost any subjects, as what’s included will depend on the choices of the particular faculty – so it’s worth looking carefully in case one university or the other doesn’t cover your particular interests.

3. Oxford is (slightly) more traditional

Once again, just about any other university in Britain (except perhaps Durham and St Andrews) will have fewer weird or arcane traditions than Oxford and Cambridge. They both have a hefty dose of ceremonies in Latin, robe-wearing at meals, and sports that have died out nearly everywhere else, like real tennis and fives. But if you’re set on choosing between the two, it might be worth noting that Oxford has slightly more weird traditions to start with, and is more wedded to retaining the ones that it still has.
We’ve written about Oxford traditions before, but it’s worth noting that while some of these are also followed at Cambridge (such as rituals about Formal Hall and the ceremony of Matriculation), there are plenty that are unique to Oxford. Everything around Ascension Day, plus all the odd approaches to time, and the delights of May Morning, are traditions observed solely by Oxford University, not by Cambridge. The only tradition that Cambridge has maintained and Oxford abandoned is the tradition of having their own police force. This had been the case for both universities since the 1825 Universities Act, which actually predates the existence of a general police force in the United Kingdom. Oxford abolished its police force in 2003, as the non-student population of the city complained that they were “not accountable to any public authority” and it would have cost too much to train them to the required standard. In Cambridge, however, there are still between 20 and 30 university constables, known as bulldogs, who confine themselves to internal university matters.

A more usual sight in Oxford rather than Cambridge.
A more usual sight in Oxford rather than Cambridge.

The tradition that might affect you most as a student of either university is the one of wearing sub fusc – a kind of uniform of a black suit, white shirt and black robe, plus a black tie for men and a black ribbon for women. While this exists in both Cambridge and Oxford, and students at both are required to wear it at certain special occasion, in Oxford you also have to wear in for exams. This means that you’re much more likely to see students in sub fusc in Oxford than in Cambridge (and they’re also more likely to look a bit stressed when they’re wearing it).
Some people might think that needing to follow a strict dress code for exams adds extra pressure where it wouldn’t be wanted, but the students of Oxford University clearly disagree; a vote was held in 2015 to determine whether sub fusc for exams should become optional, and three-quarters of students voted to keep it compulsory. The leader of the campaign to keep sub fusc, Harrison Edwards, said, “The message I get from people from under-privileged or poor backgrounds is that having the ability to wear their gown makes them feel the equal of Etonians or Harrovians, and that is something they don’t want taken away from them.” This attitude to traditions seems to extend more broadly throughout student life at Oxford; while they might seem off-putting to others, for the students they are a valued part of the Oxford experience.

4. The weather is different

The Cantabrigian fog can have a mysterious beauty of its own, of course.
The Cantabrigian fog can have a mysterious beauty of its own, of course.

The climate of Oxford and Cambridge looks pretty similar on paper – Cambridge has an average of 576 mm of rainfall per year against Oxford’s 660 mm, and their average annual high and low temperature is much the same. But Cambridge sits in former wetlands – the Fens – which were drained as the town expanded, giving it its own particular climate that is distinctive to these fenland areas. While there were some earlier attempts to drain the Fens, the first proper scheme of drainage began in the 1630s, meaning that the lands surrounding Cambridge University would have looked very different in the first half of their history than they do today. The draining and pumping process began to use steam engines from the 1820s, which made it much faster and more effective.
Today there are 286 pumping stations and 3,800 miles of watercourses. River and sea embankments also defend the Fens from flooding, as their height above sea level is so low that the areas would flood at high tide if not protected. This low-lying situation makes Cambridge much mistier and foggier than Oxford is. While Oxford is around 70 m above sea level, Cambridge is in some places just 6 m above sea level. Cambridge also feels a lot windier than Oxford does, partly because it is considerably flatter, so there are fewer barriers to the wind.

5. The setting is different

Cambridge, as we’ve noted above, is in East Anglia, surrounded by fenland. Oxford, on the other hand, is located to the east of the Cotswolds, an area of rolling hills, dotted with small villages. If you like hills, choose Oxford; Cambridge only has the Gog Magog Downs, an elevation of just 75 m above sea level – one of the features that makes the city so very good for cyclists.

The Cotswolds, with its rolling hills and picturesque stone cottages, lies to the north of Oxford.
The Cotswolds, with its rolling hills and picturesque stone cottages, lies to the north of Oxford.

Both cities are close to London, though the travel time from Cambridge is marginally shorter (45 minutes on a fast train to King’s Cross, as compared to Oxford’s 58 minutes to Paddington). But other than this, the places you can get to from each of them differ considerably – Oxford is more convenient for Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, for instance, whereas Cambridge is much nearer to the beach than Oxford, which is about as far from the coast as it is possible to get in the UK. Wales is easier to reach from Oxford; the East and North-East, much easier from Cambridge. Cambridgeshire boasts fewer National Trust properties than Oxfordshire (and Oxford is closer to the stunning grandeur of Blenheim Palace), but has an array of incredible cathedrals on its doorstep in Ely, Peterborough, Norwich and Bury St Edmunds.
Whichever way you look at it, Oxford and Cambridge have a lot in common, and chances are, you would be equally happy in either of this beautiful, historic cities. And it’s worth remembering, as the number of people who do their undergraduate degree in one and their postgraduate degree in the other demonstrate – that if you can’t decide between the two, it’s not impossible to have both.
Image credits: oxford high street; bicycle in cambridge; bicycle; warrior; oxford students in sub fusc; fog; cotswold stone cottage