Oxbridge is a portmanteau of "Oxford" and "Cambridge"; the two oldest, most prestigious, and consistently most highly-ranked universities in the United Kingdom. The term is used to refer to them collectively, both in contrast to other British universities and more broadly to describe characteristics reminiscent of University of Oxford and University of Cambridge, often with implications of superior social or intellectual status.
Although both universities were founded more than eight centuries ago, the term Oxbridge is relatively recent. In William Thackeray's novel Pendennis, published in 1850, the main character attends the fictional Boniface College, Oxbridge. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this is the first recorded instance of the word. Virginia Woolf used it, citing Thackeray, in her 1929 essay A Room of One's Own. By 1957 the term was used in the Times Educational Supplement and in Universities Quarterly by 1958.
When expanded, the universities are almost always referred to as "Oxford and Cambridge", the order in which they were founded. A notable exception is Japan's Cambridge and Oxford Society, probably arising from the fact that the Cambridge Club was founded there first, and also had more members than its Oxford counterpart when they amalgamated in 1905.
In addition to being a collective term, Oxbridge is often used as shorthand for characteristics the two institutions share:
- They are the two oldest universities in continuous operation in the UK. Both were founded more than 800 years ago, and continued as England's only universities until the 19th century. Between them they have educated a large number of Britain's most prominent scientists, writers, and politicians, as well as noted figures in many other fields.
- They have established similar institutions and facilities such as printing houses (Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press), botanical gardens (University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Cambridge University Botanic Garden), museums (the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam), legal deposit libraries (the Bodleian and the Cambridge University Library), debating societies (the Oxford Union and the Cambridge Union), and notable comedy groups (The Oxford Revue and Footlights).
- Rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge also has a long history, dating back to around 1209, when Cambridge was founded by scholars taking refuge from hostile Oxford townsmen, and celebrated to this day in varsity matches such as The Boat Race.
- Each has a similar collegiate structure, whereby the university is a co-operative of its constituent colleges, which are responsible for supervisions/tutorials (the principal undergraduate teaching method) and pastoral care.
- Both universities have many buildings of great beauty and antiquity, and are sited on level terrain ideal for cycling, near slow-moving rivers suitable for rowing and punting.
- They are the top-scoring institutions in cross-subject UK university rankings, so they are targeted by ambitious pupils, parents and schools. Entrance is extremely competitive and some schools promote themselves based on their achievement of Oxbridge offers. Combined, the two universities award over one-sixth of all English full-time research doctorates.
- Oxford and Cambridge have common approaches to undergraduate admissions. Until the mid-1980s, entry was typically by sitting special entrance exams. Applications must be made at least three months earlier than to other UK universities (the deadline for applications to Oxbridge is mid-October whereas the deadline for all other universities, apart from applicants for medicine (for whom the deadline is the same as the Oxbridge one irrespective of the universities applied to), is January), and, with only minor exceptions (e.g., organ scholars), are mutually exclusive (i.e. candidates may apply to either Oxford or Cambridge but not both). Most candidates achieve, or are predicted to achieve (in the common case of application during the final year of secondary school), outstanding results in their final school exams, and consequently interviews are usually used to check whether the course is well suited to the applicant's interests and aptitudes, and to look for evidence of self-motivation, independent thinking, academic potential and ability to learn through the tutorial system.
The word Oxbridge may also be used pejoratively: as a descriptor of social class (referring to the professional classes who dominated the intake of both universities at the beginning of the twentieth century), as shorthand for an elite that "continues to dominate Britain's political and cultural establishment" and a parental attitude that "continues to see UK higher education through an Oxbridge prism", or to describe a "pressure-cooker" culture that attracts and then fails to support overachievers "who are vulnerable to a kind of self-inflicted stress that can all too often become unbearable" and high-flying state school students who find "coping with the workload very difficult in terms of balancing work and life" and "feel socially out of [their] depth".
Thackeray's Pendennis (1850) also introduced the term Camford as another combination of the university names – "he was a Camford man and very nearly got the English Prize Poem" – although this term has never achieved the same degree of usage as Oxbridge. Camford was also used in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Creeping Man (1923).
Other words have been derived from the term Oxbridge, though none has achieved widespread recognition. One example is Doxbridge, referring to Durham, Oxford and Cambridge, and used for an annual inter-collegiate sports tournament between some of the colleges of Durham, Oxford, Cambridge and York; while Woxbridge is seen in the name of the annual Woxbridge conference between the business schools of Warwick, Oxford and Cambridge. The term Loxbridge (referring to London, Oxford, and Cambridge) is sometimes seen, and was also adopted as the name of the Ancient History conference now known as AMPAH.
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