Oxford or Cambridge?

Oxford or Cambridge?

Oxford or Cambridge?

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. Want to study at one half of ‘Oxbridge’ but not sure how to choose? Get an overview of how the two compare in university rankings, subject strengths, location and international admissions, to help you decide whether Oxford or Cambridge is best for you.

The two halves of Oxbridge do 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.

Choosing whether to apply to Oxford or Cambridge is likely to be tricky – but applicants do have to choose just one; the UK’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) only allows students to apply to one or the other.

Here’s a quick snapshot of how the two compare, followed by some more detailed exploration of each point.


University of Cambridge

University of Oxford

QS World University Rankings® 2013/14

  • 3rd worldwide in 2013/14
  • Ranked 2nd in the world by both academics and employers
  • A stronger score than Oxford for research citations
  • 6th worldwide in 2013/14
  • Ranked 3rd in the world by academics and 1st by employers
  • A stronger score than Cambridge for faculty-student ratio

Subject strengths

  • Ranked 3rd in the world for engineering & technology
  • 3rd for life sciences & medicine
  • 1st for natural sciences
  • 2nd for arts & humanities
  • 4th for social sciences & management
  • Ranked 9th in the world for engineering & technology
  • 2nd for life sciences & medicine
  • 8th for natural sciences
  • 1st for arts & humanities
  • 3rd for social sciences & management


  • About 60 miles north of London (less than an hour by train)
  • Generally considered to be a bit prettier
  • About 60 miles north-west of London (about an hour by train)
  • Generally considered to be a bit livelier 

Tuition fees

  • £9,000 (about US$14,500) per year for UK/EU undergraduates
  • £13,860-£20,405 (US$22,300-32,800) per year for non-EU undergraduates
  • £9,000 (about US$14,500) per year for UK/EU undergraduates
  • £13,662-20,790 (US$22,000-33,500) per year for non-EU undergraduates

Financial support

  • Tuition fee loans for UK/EU undergraduates
  • Wide range of scholarships and grants for both domestic & overseas students
  • Tuition fee loans for UK/EU undergraduates
  • Wide range of scholarships and grants for both domestic & overseas students

International admissions

Admissions interviews around the world – for 2012/13, interviews were held in Malaysia, India, China, Singapore, Canada, Hong Kong and Pakistan.

Interviews are held in the UK, or remotely by phone or using Skype.

What the students say…

Jinho Clement, chair of iCUSU, which represents international students at Cambridge: “Ultimately the question is about where you think you will get a more enriching experience. This will depend highly on the individual, but some factors worth considering are how a particular course is structured/taught, college life, sports/societies, and proportion of students from your home country.”

David J. Townsend, president of Oxford’s student union: “They're both great universities and you should decide based on the quality of the particular course for which you're applying. The rivalry is just a bit of a running joke, like two brothers competing amongst each other to see who can kick the ball further... (But Oxford is the older brother, and therefore the boss!)”

*Based on the QS World University Rankings by Faculty 2013/14.

QS World University Rankings® 2013/14

The University of Cambridge outranks Oxford in the QS World University Rankings® 2013/14, but only marginally – at 3rd and 6th in the world, both are firmly established among the world’s most elite institutions.

The Oxbridge brand is extremely strong, and Oxford and Cambridge are among the world’s highest rated institutions both within the academic community and by graduate employers. In QS’s global surveys, Cambridge comes out second in the world according to both groups. The University of Oxford has the world’s highest rating from graduate employers, and is ranked third by academics.

Cambridge has the stronger score for citations per faculty member – an indicator which aims to give an idea of how influential a university’s research is. But Oxford takes the lead when it comes to faculty-student ratio (number of academic staff per student), which may suggest more contact time per student. However, both are up there among the world’s research leaders, and are also famed 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, however, is slightly ahead on this measure.

Subject strengths

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, though there are a few fields in which the gap between the two is slightly wider.

Cambridge is ranked 3rd in the world for engineering & technology, 3rd for life sciences & medicine, 1st for natural sciences, 2nd for arts & humanities and 4th for social sciences & management. Oxford comes 9th for engineering & technology, 2nd for life sciences & medicine, 8th for natural sciences, 1st for arts & humanities and 3rd for social sciences & management.

At individual subject level, both rank within the world’s top ten for most of the 30 subjects considered, 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. At both, almost all undergraduate courses are charged at £9,000 (about US$14,500) per year for students from the UK or other EU countries.

At the University of Oxford, non-EU students can expect to pay between £13,860 and £20,405 for an undergraduate degree, depending on the subject. Similarly, at the University of Cambridge, undergraduate fees for overseas students are between £13,662 and £20,790 for most courses (just medicine and veterinary science courses cost more than this).

At graduate level, fees vary depending on the subject, student’s country of origin, and whether the course is taught or research-based.

Overseas students will also be charged an additional college fee, which also applies to UK/EU students who are not eligible for tuition fee support. This varies between colleges, but at both halves of Oxbridge it’s about £5,000-6,500 for undergraduates, and about £2,500 for most graduate courses.

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 £8,850 per year for living expenses.

Financial support

Overall then, the cost of studying at Oxbridge 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 most 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 £21,000 per year). English 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$5,600) 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 may also offer scholarships and bursaries. Of course, scholarships at both Oxford and Cambridge are among the most competitive in the world – as is gaining admission to begin with.

International admissions

Cambridge conducts admissions interviews around the world – for 2012-13 admissions, interviews were held in Malaysia, India, China, Singapore, Canada, Hong Kong and Pakistan.

Meanwhile Oxford asks international students either to attend an interview in the UK, or be interviewed by phone, video conference or Skype.

What the students say...

Oxford University Student Union’s president, David J. Townsend, who came to study in the UK as a graduate-level law student, says his choice was motivated by specific differences in the way his subject was taught.

“I wanted a course that would give me the opportunity to choose between continuing within academia or moving into the wider world of work, and I thought that the Oxford course gave me the better opportunity to make this decision for myself, at a stage in my course that suited me.”

Jinho Clement, chair of iCUSU (the international section of Cambridge University Students Union) was attracted by Cambridge’s ‘Tripos’ system, which means undergraduate students are assessed more continually throughout their degree – instead of having the majority of assessment right at the end.

David also considered differences between the two locations. “Oxford as a university is better physically integrated within the city of Oxford, unlike Cambridge which is more separate from its city. This was important for me because I didn't want to live too much within a set-aside campus – I wanted the balance.”

Both agree that process of deciding whether to apply to Oxford or Cambridge will be different for each student, but as long as you choose a program that matches your own interests and ambitions, you’re unlikely to regret your choice. But of course keeping that centuries-old rivalry going is all part of the fun. As David puts it: “They’re like two brothers competing to see who can kick the ball further – good-natured competition which spurs each to improve.”

Read more about studying at Oxford or Cambridge >