Issue 251: 2020 10 15: Oxford or Cambridge?

15 October 2020

“Oxford or Cambridge

Which is best?”

by Philip Throp

Oxford tourist guides tell me that if and when they ask for questions from their tour participators, the most common question is “Which is best, Oxford or Cambridge?”

I suspect the level of interest in the question from the questioner is more often than not at the level of who will win University Challenge; or who will, if televised this year, win the Boat Race. And, for sure, the question begs a counter-question: best for what?

In my youthful years, I seem to remember the question of which is the OLDER of the two universities seemed to be shrouded in bickering about criteria. But it is an established historical fact that, whilst there is no exact date for when Oxford University came into being as a university (but sometime in the mid to late 1100s), Cambridge University was started in 1209  by a group of students leaving Oxford to escape town/gown violence, which had reached a murderous pitch. They were to find no better reception from the townsfolk of Cambridge.

Any “truce” between the two varsities seems to rest on a smirking denial of the other’s name. There’s a tradition of each referring to the other dismissively as “The Other Place.” At some time Oxford seems to have felt the need to bid up such mutual scorn to “The Other Place in the Fens.” This seems to undermine the whole game by actually accepting Cambridge’s existence in a specific location. Cambridge, perhaps contemptuous of the jibe, or tiring of the game, or not having the wit (?) have not stooped to respond. I could suggest “The Other Place just west of Slough” or “The Other Place north of Didcot Junction”. But then Didcot junction probably didn’t exist when TheOtherPlace-ing first started. And why am I gracing TOP with capital letters?

Both universities have the temerity to refer to students arriving at the start and departing at the end of term, as “coming UP” and “going DOWN”. As “a person of the Northern powerhouse” I find this offensive in any case, and anyway, isn’t Oxford more coming ACROSS than up? No wonder in the medieval times in addition to town/gown battles there was internecine armed violence on the streets between students from alliances of colleges with a Northern intake (because of their founders) and those of Southerners (assisted by the belligerent Welsh at Jesus). Perhaps we should be thankful for professional football nowadays after all.

I guess this down and up business is all thanks to a London-centric England, though it’s relevant to point out that the University of London, in common with the other “Other Places” (apologies to Durham and St Andrews here) was not founded until the Victorian era.

Roger Bacon (1220-1292) was one of the cleverest scholars and professors that Oxford ever had, and is probably almost single-handedly responsible for the tremendous uplift in its academic credentials in that early formative period. A delegation from Cambridge University journeyed to Oxford in those early years (presumably for peace talks?). Oxford positioned its star goalkeeper Bacon (aka Doctor Mirabilis) in a palisaded tower atop the locked entrance gates to the city. The good Doctor goalkeeper berated (or “disputed with”, as it was known at that time)  the Cambridge upstarts, using his excellent scholarly knowledge of Ancient Greek. The Cambridge contingent, encountering the wild man gesticulating and shouting down to them in an unintelligible foreign tongue, turned tail for Cambridge in fright, where they reported to the Senate that communication with Oxford was impossible, the town being occupied by madmen with an unintelligible dialect. I suspect that this tale has been subject to scandalous misrepresentation by Oxford story-mongers, in order to imply that Cambridge had no knowledge of the accepted language of learning (remember this is centuries before Latin was accepted as the language of scholars). At this time there was of course no Sky Sports News, and Cambridge is not a football city, so they could not have known Oxford had just signed a multi-million-groat star goalkeeper from Olympiakos to keep out invading academics.

Oxford tour guides are to this day wont to gleefully point out their home university coat of arms, proudly displayed on all the University buildings. It is an open book with a (Latin) motto inscribed on a dark blue background. “Ha ha ha” they chirrup “ our insignia is an open book, whilst that of Cambridge is a closed book, ……showing that we read the books and Cambridge have not started yet.” It is tempting to respond that no, Cambridge have already read the books (the seals are open on one side) and that Oxford is still struggling to read them.

A serious theory comparing the two universities’ respective strong points was prevalent for many years. It was said that Oxford was best for Humanities, Cambridge for Science.  It probably relates firstly to the fact that considerably more British Prime Ministers were educated at Oxford. Of 54 P.M.s since Robert Walpole, Oxford have it 27-14 over Cambridge. This is said to be due to Oxford’s early introduction of a combined PPE course (Politics with Philosophy and Economics), but in fact most of those Oxford PMs didn’t in fact study PPE. And I’m not sure that PPE counts as a “Humanity” subject anyway. More statistically credibly, Oxford claim the formative value of the Oxford Union (Debating Society). And the social contacts created there. Hmm. But Cambridge does have an outstanding similar institution too. Over recent decades, the trend for PMs  to be Oxford-educated has in fact accelerated. Three out of four this century. But this is over only twenty years counting, so whether this is yet statistically significant may be debatable (no pun intended). And only one of these (Cameron) studied PPE.

Cambridge on the other hand has far more Nobel prize winners (120) than Oxford (71). Let’s not carp here, let’s be proud that Cambridge (2nd to Harvard) and Oxford (9th) are the only non-American universities in the top 10. It’s true that Oxford was later than Cambridge in accepting Natural, as opposed to, Theoretical Sciences as acceptable degree subjects. Though there’s some evidence that Oxford are catching up, thanks particularly to Nobel prizes in Medicine. And with the discovery and development of penicillin antibiotics at Oxford I would grant Oxford the accolade of most valuable Nobel Prize to humanity.

Speaking of value to humanity, how many of you breakfast on Frank Coopers Oxford Marmalade, like H.M. (Ma’am’s marm!!) by Royal Appointment? Experimenting in the back kitchen of their grocers shop in Oxford High Street in 1874, Sarah Cooper developed a unique marmalade using only Seville oranges (now celebrated by a blue plaque to Sarah), which quickly caught on with the Oxford dons, and became a massive Victorian export industry, expanding into a magnificent art-deco factory near Oxford Station. When researching the story of the closure of this lovely factory a few years ago, I found that the brand “Frank Coopers Oxford Marmalade” was now being marketed by a spreads company based in… Cambridge! The sauce of it! According to the label of the jar on my shelf this morning, this now seems to have passed from the clutches of Cambridge to Leeds. Am I beginning to sound like Alan Bennett? (Exeter College)

This brings us full circle to that question so often posed by the tourist sufficiently bored to ask the one burning question to which he yearns for an answer: Oxford or Cambridge, which is best?

Arthur Ransome, the author of the evergreen childrens’ book Swallows and Amazons, also wrote other childrens’ books. My prize for the wisest and best answer to the Oxford / Cambridge question goes to the main character of his The Pirate Princess, who tells her crew, adrift on the China Seas, about her undergraduate days at Cambridge University (!?), so I’ll leave her with the last word on the subject:

“ We always had Oxford marmalade for breakfast at Cambridge. Cambridge best for scholars, Oxford best for… ”


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