The UK’s two oldest and most famous universities, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge have a historic rivalry dating back more than 800 years. These two halves of “Oxbridge” share many elements in common; both are made up of residential colleges, both use tutorial (or supervision) teaching systems, and of course both are steeped in centuries of traditions, stories and stereotypes.
While choosing whether to apply to Oxford or Cambridge is likely to be tricky, applicants do have to choose just one; the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) only allows students to apply to one of the two.
I’ll admit I could be biased here (I studied at one; can you guess which?) – but I’ll do my utmost to present a balanced overview of how Oxford and Cambridge compare, looking at their performance in the international university rankings, as well as additional considerations such as location and funding. Oxford or Cambridge, which will you choose?
University of Cambridge
University of Oxford
*Based on the QS World University Rankings by Faculty 2014.
QS World University Rankings® 2014/15
The University of Cambridge outranks Oxford in the QS World University Rankings® 2014/15, but only marginally. It’s important to remember that at this level, the differences between institutions are generally very minor – and at joint second and joint fifth in the world, both Oxford and Cambridge are firmly established among the world’s higher education elite.
The Oxbridge brand is extremely strong, with both halves of Oxbridge getting high ratings in QS’s global surveys of academics and employers. In the latest results, Cambridge comes out first in the world according to academics and second according to employers. Oxford, meanwhile, has the world’s highest rating from graduate employers, and is ranked third by academics. In short: if you want to study at a university with a solid international reputation, whichever pathway you plan to pursue in future, a degree from either Oxford or Cambridge will stand you in good stead.
Cambridge has a slightly stronger score for citations per faculty member – an indicator which aims to give an idea of how influential a university’s research is, but both Oxford and Cambridge are within the world’s top 50 on this measure. Meanwhile Oxford takes the lead when it comes to faculty-student ratio (number of academic staff per student), but again both are within the global top 20 here, and are renowned for their commitment to small group teaching and individual supervision.
In terms of international diversity, both Oxford and Cambridge again get high scores; unsurprisingly, both are popular destinations for academics and students from around the world. Oxford has a slightly stronger score for its percentage of international faculty members, while Cambridge fares marginally better for percentage of international students.
A look at the QS World University Rankings by Faculty confirms that both Oxford and Cambridge are among the world’s best across the full spectrum of subjects.
Cambridge is ranked 4th in the world for engineering & technology, 3rd for life sciences & medicine, 3rd for natural sciences, 3rd for arts & humanities and 4th for social sciences & management. Oxford comes 13= for engineering & technology, 2nd for life sciences & medicine, 5th for natural sciences, 2nd for arts & humanities and 3rd for social sciences & management.
At individual subject level, both rank within the world’s top 10 for most of the 30 subjects covered by the 2014 edition of the QS World University Rankings by Subject, and in several cases they occupy the top two spots. In short, both universities have a strong offering across the academic spectrum, so for most students, the decision of whether to apply to Oxford or Cambridge is likely to come down to the finer detail of curriculum and course structure.
Oxford is technically a city and Cambridge a town, but in fact both are relatively small and compact places to live, easily navigable on foot or (as is very popular) by cycling.
Highly picturesque, they’re both characterized by attractive historic architecture and rivers running through the city centers – where you’ll find students in training for inter-college rowing contests or the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race, perhaps the one day each year when Oxbridge rivalry becomes most heated.
Oxford and Cambridge are also both close to the UK capital; London is about an hour on the train from Oxford, and slightly less from Cambridge. In terms of differences between the two locations, there’s a general consensus that Cambridge is a little prettier, while Oxford has a bit more going on – but of course this may depend on who you ask!
Fees & living costs
Both Oxford and Cambridge charge different tuition fees depending on whether students are from within the EU or not. The following table gives a rough overview of how much you can expect to pay per year, depending on your study level and nationality. Check the university websites for exact rates; there is significant variation in the amount charged for graduate courses, and for non-EU students on undergraduate courses, depending on the subject.
Annual tuition fees at Oxford and Cambridge (2015-16)
Undergraduate (UK/EU students)
£9,000 (about US$14,400)
£9,000 (about US$14,400)
Undergraduate (non-EU students)
£15,063-22,923 (US$24,000-36,600) for most courses; £36,459 (US$58,280) for medicine and veterinary medicine
Graduate (UK/EU students)
£4,100-15,805 (US$6,500-25,000) for most master’s and doctoral programs; there are some exceptions.
£7,362-14,832 (US$11,600-23,500) for most master’s and doctoral programs; there are some exceptions.
Graduate (non-EU students)
£7,425-18,220 (11,800-28,900) for most master’s and doctoral programs; there are some exceptions.
£19,017-23,889 (US$30,000-38,000) for most master’s and doctoral programs; some exceptions.
Overseas students will also be charged an additional “college fee”, which also applies to UK/EU students who are not enrolling on their first publicly funded degree. For 2015-16, this fee is £5,500 to £6,500 (depending on the college) per year for undergraduates at Cambridge and £6,925 per year for undergraduates at Oxford.
In addition to course fees, Oxford advises students to allow between £11,343 and £15,981 per year for living costs, including accommodation, food, study resources, socializing and other items. Cambridge recommends a minimum of £9,200 per year for living expenses.
Overall then, the cost of studying at Oxford or Cambridge adds up to a pretty substantial amount, though still coming in below the up-front price of a degree at most top universities in the US. For many students, some kind of financial support is needed.
Undergraduate students from within the UK and from other EU countries can apply for financial support from the UK government, in the form of student loans. These cover tuition fees, are interest-free, and are paid back gradually once the student begins work and starts earning a certain amount (currently the repayment threshold is £16,910 per year). Full-time undergraduate-level UK students can also apply for additional loans and grants to help cover living expenses.
Both Oxford and Cambridge also offer a range of scholarships and financial support schemes. At Cambridge, UK and EU undergraduates can apply for bursaries of up to £3,500 (US$5,500) per year, while almost a quarter of overseas students receive funding from the Cambridge Trusts. Oxford’s website allows students to search for any scholarships they may be eligible for, based on their course and nationality.
At both universities, individual colleges also offer scholarships and bursaries. Of course, scholarships to study at Oxford or Cambridge are among the most competitive in the world – as is gaining admission to begin with. But if you are successful in your application, you’re likely to be rewarded with an experience which is both academically challenging and aesthetically inspiring.
This article was originally published in October 2013. It was updated in November 2014.