So, it started with the Sorbonne, when a frustrated Henry II decided to recall all English students from Paris in the 12th century and housed them instead in Oxford. Many of the early students were from the clergy (at that time the most likely able to read and write, hence “clerical” work). Trinity College, for example, started out as a training house for Catholic priests. Remnants of that religious origin can be seen in the semestral terms: Michaelmas (Feast of St. Michael and All Angels), Lent, and Easter.
Students were derisively called “gownies” (from the black gown worn for school activities) by the natives of Oxfordshire (called, naturally, “townies”). Things became quite heated between town and gown that eventually some of the students decided to call it quits and in 1209 moved to another part of England. Thus, Cambridge University.
Peterhouse is the oldest Cambridge college (famous Petreans include Charles Babbage and James Mason) and Cambridge got a huge boost with the coming of Erasmus, who duly implemented Renaissance style learning in the place.
As an aside (and purely as an aside), a bunch of Cambridge graduates that somehow ended up in the United States missed their alma mater so much they decided to build a similar institute of higher learning. Settling in a town named (what else?) Cambridge (in Massachusetts), the organizers found themselves a donor and a new university was born. The name of the generous benefactor? John Harvard.
But going back to the two universities that really matter, graduates of Oxford are called Oxonians and count amongst them the following: Aldous Huxley and Adam Smith (Balliol College), Albert Einstein (Christ Church), Tony Blair (St. John’s), Margaret Thatcher and Indira Gandhi (Sommerville), Rupert Murdoch (Worcester), JRR Tolkien and Richard Burton (Exeter), Bill Clinton (University College), Christopher Wren (Wadham), TS Eliot (Merton), TE Lawrence (Jesus), Oscar Wilde (Magdalen, pronounced “maudlin”), John Le Carre (Lincoln), Jonathan Swift (Hertford), Aung San Suu Kyi (St. Hughes), Hugh Grant (New College), and Rowan Atkinson (Queen’s).
A Cambridge graduate is called Cantabrigian and one refers to Cambridge as Cantab (Oxford is Oxon). Famous graduates include: Oliver Cromwell (Sidney Sussex College), John Milton and Charles Darwin (Christ’s), Alan Turing and John Maynard Keynes (King’s), David Attenborough (Clare), Stephen Hawking (Trinity Hall), Emma Thompson (Newham), Tom Hiddleston (Pembroke), Stephen Fry (Queen’s), Hugh Laurie (Selwyn), Ian McKellen and Richard Ayoade (St. Catherine’s), and Prince Charles, AA Milne, and Isaac Newton (Trinity).
Oh, and the Cambridge Five: John Cairncross, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, Kim Philby (Trinity), and Donald Maclean (Trinity Hall).
There’s also the Cambridge Footlights.
Cambridge, of course, is the superior university, as proven by the following:
o 121 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to people associated with Cambridge University (29 of those are in physics). By comparison, Oxford has a measly 72.
o Cambridge is the birthplace of football! The 1863 “Cambridge Rules” included things such as no carrying the ball, no “hacking” (kicking the shins) and no loitering between “the ball and the adversaries’ goal” — an early version of the offside rule.
o Understandably miffed that students couldn’t keep dogs in their rooms, it was reported that the poet Lord Byron kept a bear in his room instead!
o Cambridge’s original name was Grantabrycge.
o In more recent times, the city has become known as Silicon Fen because of its reputation and influence amongst the technology industry. Up to 3,000 tech and science businesses are based here.
o Here’s a weird one: Oliver Cromwell’s head is buried in a secret location there.
(From “A Short History of Cambridge”).
Another thing: confirmation is had that one is truly a Cantabrigian the moment a desperately confused tourist comes up to you and asks “where is Cambridge University?” and you reply (smugly? smilingly? best both.) “you’re in it.” Because the entire town is the University. It is not found in a compound. It’s also a good example of a category mistake fallacy.
Oxbridge tends to accept around 18% of applicants. At first glance this looks ironically more generous than other universities, but the truth is that Oxbridge requires you to pass minimum requirements first before allowing you to apply and before your application even considered. And you can only apply either to Oxford or Cambridge but not both.
Cambridge’s undergraduate Law program, for one, sees around 1,600 applicants every year, with only around 280 accepted. If memory serves, in the 1990s, the acceptance rate was around 10%. International law is a Cambridge thing, what with Rosalyn Higgins (Girton), Robert Jennings (Downing), and Elihu Lauterpacht (Kings). James Crawford was formerly the director of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law.
So, does one learn a lot from Oxbridge? Speaking only of Cambridge, surely. Or rather in all probability. I spent much of my time in The Eagle so one can only guess. Anyway, in the words of Andrew Wiles (Clare College) in closing his Cambridge lecture solving Fermat’s Last Theorem: I think I’ll stop here.
Jemy Gatdula is a senior fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence