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Is Oxford or Cambridge University Better?

Is Oxford or Cambridge University Better?

8 min Read|February 07 2024
|Written by:

Megan Isaac

Contents

As a prospective university student, you may be wondering which of these two prestigious institutions is the better choice for you. Both Oxford and Cambridge are world-renowned for their academic excellence and offer a wide range of courses, but each has its own unique strengths and characteristics. In this blog post, we will take a closer look at both universities, discussing their research, teaching styles, courses, and global rankings, to help you decide which one is the better fit for you.

What do the global rankings say?

When it comes to global rankings, both Oxford and Cambridge consistently rank among the top universities in the world. But different ranking systems place them slightly differently, with Oxford sometimes coming out on top, and Cambridge beating them to the top spots on other websites.

Below is the Times Higher Education ranking which places the University of Oxford in the top spot for universities globally.

Oxford and Cambridge University rankings

Source

But here we see the QS World University Rankings 2023 with Cambridge in second place and Oxford down in fourth.

Oxford and Cambridge University rankings

Source

So what does this tell us? And which is better? Well the key difference between these rankings is what they look at to aggregate their score and how they weight each of these categories. This includes academic reputation, employer reputation and citations per faculty. Some include student satisfaction scores, whereas others choose to just focus on academic excellence. So whilst these rankings give you a good idea, it is worth looking into more detail on their websites to see which areas each university scores really highly on. For instance, the QS rankings suggest that Oxford has a slightly better international research network than Cambridge but if you are an undergraduate who is more interested in career prospects or student satisfaction then this may not be so relevant.

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Subjects

One of the most significant factors to consider when choosing between Oxford and Cambridge is the subjects they offer and the subjects they excel in. Oxford is known for its strengths in the humanities and social sciences, while Cambridge is particularly renowned for its science, engineering, and mathematics departments. However, at undergraduate level, it is not entirely clear whether this is just a reputation or based on facts. At the end of the day they are both world-renowned universities, so whether you study Maths at Oxford or at Cambridge is unlikely to have any significant impact on your future prospects. But it is worth looking at the courses in detail as they may differ in the topics they cover and if you have an area you are particularly interested in, especially at postgraduate level when things really go into depth, then you should choose on this basis.

That said, Oxford and Cambridge do not offer identical courses and some of their most popular undergraduate offerings are unique to each institution. For example, Oxford is known for its unique undergraduate course in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE), which is one of the most popular and competitive courses at the university. PPE is a multidisciplinary degree that combines elements of philosophy, politics, and economics to provide a comprehensive understanding of the workings of society. It is a highly respected and sought-after course, and graduates of PPE often go on to successful careers in politics, business, and the media.

On the other hand, Cambridge is known for its undergraduate course in Human, Social, and Political Sciences (HSPS), which is a multidisciplinary degree that combines elements of sociology, politics, and anthropology. This course aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of human society and its political and economic structures. It is a highly respected and sought-after course, and graduates of HSPS often go on to successful careers in politics, international relations, and the media.

So take a look at the undergraduate courses A-Z for both universities linked below to get an idea of the range of courses they each offer:

Colleges

Oxford and Cambridge are unique from many other universities in the world, since they are divided into colleges, which are self-governing communities within the university. Each college is unique and has its own distinct culture, history, and traditions.

When you apply to either Oxford or Cambridge, you don’t apply directly to the university, but rather to a specific college. Therefore rather than looking at the culture of the whole university, you should also have a look at which colleges offer the course which you want to study.

At Oxford, there are 38 colleges and 6 permanent private halls (PPHs). The colleges vary in size, from the larger colleges such as Balliol and Christ Church, to the smaller colleges such as St. Edmund Hall and Hertford. The colleges also vary in their academic and social priorities, with some colleges having a stronger emphasis on academic achievement, while others have a stronger emphasis on social activities and sports.

At Cambridge, there are 31 colleges and 6 affiliated institutions. Like Oxford, each college has its own character and students are able to choose which college they would like to be a member of. The colleges vary in size, from the larger colleges such as Trinity and St John’s, to the smaller colleges such as Magdalene and Clare.

Both Oxford and Cambridge colleges have their own unique cultures and traditions. For example, Oxford's Christ Church college is famous for being the filming location of the Hogwarts Great Hall in the Harry Potter movies. Cambridge's King's College is famous for its choir and its annual Christmas Eve service of Nine Lessons and Carols which is broadcasted live on the BBC.

Research

Both Oxford and Cambridge are renowned for their research excellence, and both consistently rank among the top universities in the world for research output. According to the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) assessment, which measures the quality of research in UK universities, both Oxford and Cambridge ranked first and second, respectively. However, it is worth noting that the universities have different research specialisations, so if you are looking to apply at postgraduate level it is worth looking at the specific department you are interested in and which areas each of the research fellows and professors specialise in.

Teaching Style

Another important factor to consider when choosing between Oxford and Cambridge is the teaching style. Oxford is known for its tutorial system, where students receive one-on-one or small group instruction from a tutor, while Cambridge is known for its lecture-based system, where students attend large lectures and small group supervision sessions. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages, and it ultimately comes down to personal preference and learning style.

This may also vary depending on your course. For example, humanities subjects at Oxford tend to have greater focus on self-directed learning and a lot (I mean a lot!) of reading, whereas the sciences tend to be more lecture based with problem sheets to complete rather than long written essays.

Cities

When you go to university you don’t want to spend all of your time in the library, so another important consideration is what the city itself is like. This will play a huge role in your student experience. Both Oxford and Cambridge are located in the UK and are steeped in history and culture. Both cities offer a unique and vibrant student experience, with a wealth of cultural and recreational activities to enjoy.

Oxford is a beautiful city, known for its historic architecture, including the famous Oxford University colleges, and the River Thames runs through the heart of the city. The city also offers a wide range of cultural and recreational activities, including museums, art galleries, theatres, and parks. Oxford is a relatively small city, and the university is closely integrated with the city, making it easy for students to explore and enjoy all that the city has to offer. Have a look at this What’s on in Oxford page for some more ideas.

Cambridge is also a beautiful city, known for its historic architecture, including the famous Cambridge University colleges, and the River Cam runs through the heart of the city. The city also offers a wide range of cultural and recreational activities, including museums, art galleries, theatres, and parks. Cambridge is a bit larger than Oxford and it is an excellent city to explore and experience the student life. Have a look at this Visit Cambridge page to get a taste.

We also recommend The Student Room as a forum to ask former and current Oxbridge students questions about their experiences, the cultures of the different colleges and what the nightlife is like. You don’t have to submit a question yourself if you don’t want to, someone else has probably asked before and you can search up responses!

Sports, clubs, societies

Both Oxford and Cambridge have a vibrant student community, with a wide range of student societies and clubs to get involved in. Both universities offer a wealth of extracurricular activities, including sports teams, music groups, and drama societies, providing students with the opportunity to pursue their interests and develop new skills.

Have a look at the Oxford student union website for some ideas of the societies and clubs that they have. And if there’s something you would like to do that’s not there, you can always start a new society or club.

The two universities also have a long-standing sporting rivalry across several sports including the famous Boat Race and the Varsity Match. So if you still can’t decide which one to choose and you’re a sporting fan, then have a think about whether you would prefer to wear Dark Blue (Oxford) or Light Blue (Cambridge) to make your final decision!

Final thoughts

Oxford and Cambridge are both outstanding universities that offer a wide range of subjects, excellent research, and a world-class education. The decision of which university is better for you ultimately comes down to personal preference and which course you wish to study.

If you are looking to apply to either of these prestigious universities, then TutorChase can help. We offer one-to-one support with Oxbridge applications from our hand-selected expert Oxbridge tutors who have attended Oxbridge themselves. They can guide you through every step of the process, from choosing a course and college, writing your personal statement, preparing for entrance tests and interviews. We recognise that attending Oxford or Cambridge is a truly unique education experience which many students dream of, which is why we support you throughout the process to help you reach these world-leading institutions. Get in touch with TutorChase today to take the first steps in your Oxbridge journey.

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Megan Isaac

Written by: Megan Isaac

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Oxford University - BA Politics, Philosophy, and Economics

Megan recently graduated from Oxford University, achieving a first class degree in PPE. She has has six years of tutoring experience, teaching a range of subjects at GCSE and A-Level, as well as helping students with their applications to university including Oxbridge.

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