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276

Oxbridge: Why Two Universities Dominate Britain

Jul 1, 2022
Arts & Culture
-
23
minutes

Despite only educating 1% of the population Oxford and Cambridge University have a tight grip over everything from UK politics to business.

In this episode, we look at what life at Oxbridge is like, why graduates often go on to such powerful positions, and see what these two universities have been doing to improve access to disadvantaged children.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Oxbridge, why two universities dominate life in the UK.

[00:00:31] Oxbridge, if you hadn’t guessed, is the name for Oxford and Cambridge University, the two most famous and prestigious universities that dominate everything from British politics to journalism to business.

[00:00:44] And in this episode we are going to look at why that is, and what is being done about it.

[00:00:51] We’ll start with a brief look at the universities themself, the history of Oxford and Cambridge and how they are different from other universities in the UK, then we’ll look at why graduates from these universities dominate so much of British public life, and ask ourselves whether this will change any time soon.

[00:01:12] OK then, Oxbridge.

[00:01:15] Before we get right into this episode I should start with a little personal disclaimer

[00:01:21] I didn’t study at either Oxford or Cambridge. 

[00:01:24] I did apply for Oxford, and was given an interview but, like the almost 85% of other people who applied, I was not offered a place, and I went to another university called University College London.

[00:01:39] Now, with that out of the way, let me start by saying that I imagine you will have heard of Oxford and Cambridge University. They are two of the most famous universities in the world, and often come first in the global rankings of the best universities in the world. 

[00:01:56] Together with places like Harvard, Stanford and MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you will find Oxford and Cambridge on pretty much every list of top five universities worldwide.

[00:02:11] No doubt you knew that already, but what you might not have known is quite how much Oxford and Cambridge, or simply, Oxbridge, dominates the ruling class in Britain.

[00:02:23] Graduates from Oxbridge make up less than 1% of the UK population, but make up 75% of senior judges, 51% of diplomats, 47% of columnists for major newspapers, a quarter of MPs, of members of parliament, and one in five civil servants.

[00:02:47] And neither university is particularly large, in terms of how many students it takes.

[00:02:54] Oxford only takes 12 and a half thousand undergraduates, and Cambridge takes a similar number. 

[00:03:00] Both universities have about the same number of postgraduate students, Masters and PhD students, which takes the total number of students studying at each university to around 25,000. 

[00:03:15] At Oxbridge in total, undergraduates and postgraduates in the two universities put together, there are fewer than 50,000 students, but these students have an outsized impact on Britain, and indeed, the wider world.

[00:03:31] As a point of comparison, Harvard has about 23,000, so it’s about the same, while universities like UC Berkeley have about 45,000 and the Sorbonne in Paris has over 55,000. 

[00:03:46] Both Oxford and Cambridge, on a structural level, are very different from most universities in the UK, and most universities in the world.

[00:03:57] The universities are divided into self-governing colleges: Oxford has 39 colleges while Cambridge has 31.

[00:04:08] On a linguistic level it might sound confusing, because what British people call “university”, Americans call both “college” and “school”, and in Oxford and Cambridge you have the “university”, but within it you have separate “colleges”.

[00:04:25] The university is a sort of umbrella around the colleges, and the degree certificate is from the university, but most of student life is dominated by the college.

[00:04:38] Students live in the college, and university professors, otherwise known as “dons” are attached to a particular college.

[00:04:47] The reason for this is historical, Oxford and Cambridge originally began as monastic-like institutions with the teaching staff – the dons, who were priests originally – enclosed within the college's walls. 

[00:05:03] As you may know if you’ve been there, and you may know anyway if you’ve seen pictures, many of these colleges are incredibly beautiful buildings, with the most beautiful for many being the chapel. 

[00:05:26] They did, after all, begin life as religious places, hence why no expense would be spared for the centre of religious worship.

[00:05:26] The emphasis placed on the self-contained college community also means that they have elegant, enclosed "quads” or squares and wonderful dining halls, such as the one you might be familiar with from the Harry Potter films. 

[00:05:43] Unlike in many other universities, where there are large lectures attended by hundreds of students, and then there might be exams or assignments set at the end of each term, undergraduate students at Oxbridge are typically taught in small tutorial groups, often just two or three undergraduates to a single professor.

[00:06:06] This tutorial style makes the teaching particularly intimate and, as you can imagine, means that students are often pushed and challenged more than at typical universities.

[00:06:19] Another particularly unique aspect of Oxbridge is the sheer amount of work that most undergraduates are required to do on a weekly basis.

[00:06:29] At many universities, throughout the UK but throughout much of the world, the workload, the amount of work that you actually have to do, is not particularly strenuous

[00:06:41]  In an average term, you might have to do a few assignments per class, and you will normally be given several weeks to do them. At Oxbridge, students are required to be almost constantly doing assignments, every week there is a new assignment that needs to be completed within 7 days, and there is no option to extend.

[00:07:03] The pace, the speed, is furious, and–as we’ll come to discuss shortly–one of the main skills that Oxford graduates often say that the university has given is the ability to produce a large amount of work in a very short period of time.

[00:07:21] If we contrast this to the university system in, let’s say Italy–and apologies if you are Italian, but I say this both having studied at an Italian university and my wife being Italian–there is little time pressure for most subjects, and it isn’t uncommon for people to take several years to graduate.

[00:07:42] At Oxbridge this simply isn’t an option. Every week there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be completed, there is no hiding from it because you will have these small tuition groups, and it simply isn’t possible to not do the work. The result of this is that you have this curious situation where students within each college will often know each other very well, as they live and study together intensely, but may not even have met other students doing the same course at another college.

[00:08:19] Even within the university, some colleges are more prestigious than others. At Oxford, one of the most prestigious colleges is called Christ Church, which was in fact founded by King Henry VIII in 1546.

[00:08:35] It only teaches 730 undergraduate students per year, but has a formidable list of alumni, or former students. Of the 28 British prime ministers educated at Oxford, 13 have come from this one college. 

[00:08:54] But it’s not just prime ministers. Among its famous alumni you will find the philosopher John Locke, and Robert Hooke, the 18th century scientist and inventor. Writers include the 1930s poet WH Auden and Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

[00:09:14] Meanwhile at Cambridge, let us take a look at the other college founded by Henry VIII, the prestigious Trinity College, which has even fewer undergraduates than Christ Church Oxford at only 600. 

[00:09:29] Here, the record is not so much in prime ministers, although it can name six British ones and five other ones, including the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Trinity College is most famous for its Nobel prize winners. 

[00:09:46] Now, you might find this difficult to believe, but Trinity College Cambridge has produced 34 Nobel laureates since Nobels started being awarded in 1901. 

[00:09:58] This is out of 118 that have been generated by Cambridge University, and the 975 that have been awarded worldwide. Indeed, were Cambridge University a country, it would be the country with the third highest number of Nobel prizes awarded in the world.

[00:10:18] And although Christ Church in Oxford and Trinity in Cambridge might be two of the most prestigious colleges of the university, and typically perform best academically, every college is prestigious, and pretty much every single college will have famous and notable alumni that have gone on to have a global influence.

[00:10:39] Alumni of Oxbridge are too many to name, but let me just give you a few examples. The current UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, the previous one, Theresa May, the one before that, David Cameron. Indeed, more British Prime Ministers have gone to Oxbridge than every other university put together.

[00:10:59] And of course it’s not just prime ministers and politicians. J.R.R. Tolkein, Emma Watson, Benazir Bhutto, Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Rupert Murdorch, Hugh Grant, Rowan Atkinson, who you might know better as Mr Bean, and Aung San Suu Kyi, they all spent time studying at either Oxford or Cambridge.

[00:11:21] Now, to get back to the question of how and why Oxbridge has such an oversized influence on British life, this is one that is often a subject of debate in the UK. Is it because the brightest and most ambitious students are attracted to Oxbridge, and therefore it’s only natural that these young men and women will go on to have successful professional careers? Is it because the tuition system at Oxbridge is so intense and personal, that of course it will produce more knowledgeable, productive and capable graduates than students of another university system?

[00:11:59] Is it because the brand names of Oxford and Cambridge University are now so recognised that if someone has this name on their CV, on their resume, that they will be given opportunities and job interviews where another candidate might not?

[00:12:15] Is it because of the alumni network that exists, of students living and working in such close proximity, as each graduate forges their own career path they will work with and help their former university colleagues? Is it the confidence and charisma that going to Oxbridge instils in a young person, which often stays with them for life?

[00:12:38] Or is it a combination of everything?

[00:12:41] As you’d imagine, there are countless articles in newspapers and journals about why exactly this is, but the result is, as we’ve seen, the sheer domination of British public life by graduates from these universities. You might argue that this is an unhealthy situation, one where such a tiny proportion of the population has such a large impact on life in the country.

[00:13:09] You might argue that it’s a good thing, if the brightest and most capable 18 year olds are given the opportunity to live and study with other similarly bright and capable 18 year olds, so they can all learn from each other, be pushed forward by each other’s ambition, and generally do better than if they studied with a random collection of students. Either opinion may be valid, but it does hinge upon whether you believe that access to these universities is fair and unbiased.

[00:13:41] And unfortunately, on this count, both universities have come under increasing pressure and scrutiny, with critics saying that Oxford and Cambridge have historically preferred candidates from private schools, fee-paying schools, rather than state schools.

[00:13:59] Six and a half percent of children in Britain go to private schools, but up until recently around 50% of Oxford and Cambridge graduates went to private schools.

[00:14:10] In the past 20 years or so, both Oxford and Cambridge have pledged to increase the number of places offered to candidates from state schools, and have a goal of 75% of places going to state school pupils, but there is still a way to go, with Oxford at 68% and Cambridge at 71%. This being said, there are still critics who say that these statistics hide another ugly truth, and that is that not all state schools are created equal. 

[00:14:43] Some are very high quality academically, while others are not. And for exceptionally talented students who have not been lucky enough to go to a good school and who perhaps have not grown up in an environment where going to university is the norm, access to Oxbridge is incredibly hard, and Oxford and Cambridge have been accused of not making much of an effort to encourage gifted students from disadvantaged households to apply there.

[00:15:15] Thankfully, this has started to change.

[00:15:18] They are now spending considerable amounts of money on outreach programmes, trying to ensure that potential applicants in schools which have rarely sent any one of their pupils to Oxbridge, the brightest amongst these groups are persuaded that Oxford or Cambridge could be for them.

[00:15:36] In this respect, the intervention of the British rapper, Stormzy, in 2018 has been significant. He joined forces with other, less glamorous, sponsors to support black and mixed race students through Cambridge, awarding up to 10 scholarships of £20,000 per year to the successful students. This so-called "Stormzy effect" means that Cambridge has now significantly increased the number of black and mixed race students. 

[00:16:07] Estimates at both Oxford and Cambridge show that the numbers of what’s called BAME undergraduates - BAME stands for Black, Asian and Mixed Race - the number of BAME students is almost one third, while this segment is only 13% of the total UK population. 

[00:16:26] So things are certainly getting better, and although access might not be equal, it is more equal than ever before.

[00:16:35] Now, it is worth noting that, compared to many universities in the United States, for example, access to Oxford and Cambridge is incredibly meritocratic, the universities are much better at offering places based on intelligence and potential rather than anything else.

[00:16:53] You may remember the “Varsity Blues” scandal from 2019, where parents of wealthy students were found to have paid bribes to secure access to elite American universities. You may know that Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, was accepted to Harvard University despite having very average grades, and there being question marks about whether his father’s $2.5 million donation to the university had anything to do with it.

[00:17:23] You may also know that for many American universities, students with a family connection are more likely to be given a place. At Harvard, for example, 33% of applicants with a family connection are offered a place while the overall rate is just 6%.

[00:17:42] Fortunately this is not the case for Oxbridge - it doesn’t matter whether your parents both went there and donated millions of pounds to the university, it shouldn’t affect your chances of getting a place.

[00:17:54] Now, let us finish this exploration of Oxbridge with some curiosities, some little interesting facts that you may not know about these two prestigious universities, because they are steeped in history and have some amazing stories to tell.

[00:18:10] Firstly, and this is also a practical point, did you know that you can actually visit these colleges, you can wander around them and imagine yourself strolling through the courtyard like Sir Isaac Newton or Oscar Wilde? You can, and if you visit the UK I would definitely recommend you do this.

[00:18:31] Secondly, if you haven’t ever visited Oxford or Cambridge or been inside a college, you will probably have seen it in film or TV. 

[00:18:39] The colleges are beautiful, and are often used as sets for films and TV series. Harry Potter is the most famous one, which used the majestic dining hall at Christ Church College Oxford for the great hall at Hogwarts.

[00:18:55] Thirdly, Oxford University is home to one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and the second largest library in the UK. It’s called “The Bodleian”, or simply “The Bod”, and has over 13 million individual books.

[00:19:11] Fourth, our penultimate fact is that the head of Oliver Cromwell, the man who ruled England for a brief period in the 17th century, is still rumoured to be hidden in a college in Cambridge. 

[00:19:24] And our final fact relates to an unusual tradition at Oxford University, and that is that several colleges keep pet tortoises, and every year there is a tortoise fair where these animals race, chasing, I guess I probably shouldn’t use the word “chasing”, but at least following a lettuce leaf.

[00:19:46] So, there you go, a brief look at the unusual and unique institutions of Oxford and Cambridge University, otherwise known as Oxbridge.

[00:19:56] The final thing to underline is that if you visit the UK I would highly recommend a trip to either Oxford or Cambridge. They are both a very easy train or bus ride away from London, and you will find yourself with no shortage of things to do.

[00:20:12] Whether it’s going for a ride on the gondola-like boats called punts and imagining that you are Lewis Carrol writing Alice and Wonderland or strolling through a courtyard at a famous college and imagining that you’re Lord Byron, there are few places in the country, few places in the world perhaps, that have produced so many people that have had such an impact on the world we live in.

[00:20:38] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Oxbridge. I hope it's been an interesting one, that it’s given you some perspective on how these universities work and why they are so important, and that perhaps it has inspired you to pay them a visit if you come to the UK.

[00:20:56] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. Have you been to Oxford or Cambridge? What did you think of them?

[00:21:03] Are there similar institutions in your country that have a similar impact on public life? I would love to know. For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:19] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Oxbridge, why two universities dominate life in the UK.

[00:00:31] Oxbridge, if you hadn’t guessed, is the name for Oxford and Cambridge University, the two most famous and prestigious universities that dominate everything from British politics to journalism to business.

[00:00:44] And in this episode we are going to look at why that is, and what is being done about it.

[00:00:51] We’ll start with a brief look at the universities themself, the history of Oxford and Cambridge and how they are different from other universities in the UK, then we’ll look at why graduates from these universities dominate so much of British public life, and ask ourselves whether this will change any time soon.

[00:01:12] OK then, Oxbridge.

[00:01:15] Before we get right into this episode I should start with a little personal disclaimer

[00:01:21] I didn’t study at either Oxford or Cambridge. 

[00:01:24] I did apply for Oxford, and was given an interview but, like the almost 85% of other people who applied, I was not offered a place, and I went to another university called University College London.

[00:01:39] Now, with that out of the way, let me start by saying that I imagine you will have heard of Oxford and Cambridge University. They are two of the most famous universities in the world, and often come first in the global rankings of the best universities in the world. 

[00:01:56] Together with places like Harvard, Stanford and MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you will find Oxford and Cambridge on pretty much every list of top five universities worldwide.

[00:02:11] No doubt you knew that already, but what you might not have known is quite how much Oxford and Cambridge, or simply, Oxbridge, dominates the ruling class in Britain.

[00:02:23] Graduates from Oxbridge make up less than 1% of the UK population, but make up 75% of senior judges, 51% of diplomats, 47% of columnists for major newspapers, a quarter of MPs, of members of parliament, and one in five civil servants.

[00:02:47] And neither university is particularly large, in terms of how many students it takes.

[00:02:54] Oxford only takes 12 and a half thousand undergraduates, and Cambridge takes a similar number. 

[00:03:00] Both universities have about the same number of postgraduate students, Masters and PhD students, which takes the total number of students studying at each university to around 25,000. 

[00:03:15] At Oxbridge in total, undergraduates and postgraduates in the two universities put together, there are fewer than 50,000 students, but these students have an outsized impact on Britain, and indeed, the wider world.

[00:03:31] As a point of comparison, Harvard has about 23,000, so it’s about the same, while universities like UC Berkeley have about 45,000 and the Sorbonne in Paris has over 55,000. 

[00:03:46] Both Oxford and Cambridge, on a structural level, are very different from most universities in the UK, and most universities in the world.

[00:03:57] The universities are divided into self-governing colleges: Oxford has 39 colleges while Cambridge has 31.

[00:04:08] On a linguistic level it might sound confusing, because what British people call “university”, Americans call both “college” and “school”, and in Oxford and Cambridge you have the “university”, but within it you have separate “colleges”.

[00:04:25] The university is a sort of umbrella around the colleges, and the degree certificate is from the university, but most of student life is dominated by the college.

[00:04:38] Students live in the college, and university professors, otherwise known as “dons” are attached to a particular college.

[00:04:47] The reason for this is historical, Oxford and Cambridge originally began as monastic-like institutions with the teaching staff – the dons, who were priests originally – enclosed within the college's walls. 

[00:05:03] As you may know if you’ve been there, and you may know anyway if you’ve seen pictures, many of these colleges are incredibly beautiful buildings, with the most beautiful for many being the chapel. 

[00:05:26] They did, after all, begin life as religious places, hence why no expense would be spared for the centre of religious worship.

[00:05:26] The emphasis placed on the self-contained college community also means that they have elegant, enclosed "quads” or squares and wonderful dining halls, such as the one you might be familiar with from the Harry Potter films. 

[00:05:43] Unlike in many other universities, where there are large lectures attended by hundreds of students, and then there might be exams or assignments set at the end of each term, undergraduate students at Oxbridge are typically taught in small tutorial groups, often just two or three undergraduates to a single professor.

[00:06:06] This tutorial style makes the teaching particularly intimate and, as you can imagine, means that students are often pushed and challenged more than at typical universities.

[00:06:19] Another particularly unique aspect of Oxbridge is the sheer amount of work that most undergraduates are required to do on a weekly basis.

[00:06:29] At many universities, throughout the UK but throughout much of the world, the workload, the amount of work that you actually have to do, is not particularly strenuous

[00:06:41]  In an average term, you might have to do a few assignments per class, and you will normally be given several weeks to do them. At Oxbridge, students are required to be almost constantly doing assignments, every week there is a new assignment that needs to be completed within 7 days, and there is no option to extend.

[00:07:03] The pace, the speed, is furious, and–as we’ll come to discuss shortly–one of the main skills that Oxford graduates often say that the university has given is the ability to produce a large amount of work in a very short period of time.

[00:07:21] If we contrast this to the university system in, let’s say Italy–and apologies if you are Italian, but I say this both having studied at an Italian university and my wife being Italian–there is little time pressure for most subjects, and it isn’t uncommon for people to take several years to graduate.

[00:07:42] At Oxbridge this simply isn’t an option. Every week there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be completed, there is no hiding from it because you will have these small tuition groups, and it simply isn’t possible to not do the work. The result of this is that you have this curious situation where students within each college will often know each other very well, as they live and study together intensely, but may not even have met other students doing the same course at another college.

[00:08:19] Even within the university, some colleges are more prestigious than others. At Oxford, one of the most prestigious colleges is called Christ Church, which was in fact founded by King Henry VIII in 1546.

[00:08:35] It only teaches 730 undergraduate students per year, but has a formidable list of alumni, or former students. Of the 28 British prime ministers educated at Oxford, 13 have come from this one college. 

[00:08:54] But it’s not just prime ministers. Among its famous alumni you will find the philosopher John Locke, and Robert Hooke, the 18th century scientist and inventor. Writers include the 1930s poet WH Auden and Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

[00:09:14] Meanwhile at Cambridge, let us take a look at the other college founded by Henry VIII, the prestigious Trinity College, which has even fewer undergraduates than Christ Church Oxford at only 600. 

[00:09:29] Here, the record is not so much in prime ministers, although it can name six British ones and five other ones, including the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Trinity College is most famous for its Nobel prize winners. 

[00:09:46] Now, you might find this difficult to believe, but Trinity College Cambridge has produced 34 Nobel laureates since Nobels started being awarded in 1901. 

[00:09:58] This is out of 118 that have been generated by Cambridge University, and the 975 that have been awarded worldwide. Indeed, were Cambridge University a country, it would be the country with the third highest number of Nobel prizes awarded in the world.

[00:10:18] And although Christ Church in Oxford and Trinity in Cambridge might be two of the most prestigious colleges of the university, and typically perform best academically, every college is prestigious, and pretty much every single college will have famous and notable alumni that have gone on to have a global influence.

[00:10:39] Alumni of Oxbridge are too many to name, but let me just give you a few examples. The current UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, the previous one, Theresa May, the one before that, David Cameron. Indeed, more British Prime Ministers have gone to Oxbridge than every other university put together.

[00:10:59] And of course it’s not just prime ministers and politicians. J.R.R. Tolkein, Emma Watson, Benazir Bhutto, Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Rupert Murdorch, Hugh Grant, Rowan Atkinson, who you might know better as Mr Bean, and Aung San Suu Kyi, they all spent time studying at either Oxford or Cambridge.

[00:11:21] Now, to get back to the question of how and why Oxbridge has such an oversized influence on British life, this is one that is often a subject of debate in the UK. Is it because the brightest and most ambitious students are attracted to Oxbridge, and therefore it’s only natural that these young men and women will go on to have successful professional careers? Is it because the tuition system at Oxbridge is so intense and personal, that of course it will produce more knowledgeable, productive and capable graduates than students of another university system?

[00:11:59] Is it because the brand names of Oxford and Cambridge University are now so recognised that if someone has this name on their CV, on their resume, that they will be given opportunities and job interviews where another candidate might not?

[00:12:15] Is it because of the alumni network that exists, of students living and working in such close proximity, as each graduate forges their own career path they will work with and help their former university colleagues? Is it the confidence and charisma that going to Oxbridge instils in a young person, which often stays with them for life?

[00:12:38] Or is it a combination of everything?

[00:12:41] As you’d imagine, there are countless articles in newspapers and journals about why exactly this is, but the result is, as we’ve seen, the sheer domination of British public life by graduates from these universities. You might argue that this is an unhealthy situation, one where such a tiny proportion of the population has such a large impact on life in the country.

[00:13:09] You might argue that it’s a good thing, if the brightest and most capable 18 year olds are given the opportunity to live and study with other similarly bright and capable 18 year olds, so they can all learn from each other, be pushed forward by each other’s ambition, and generally do better than if they studied with a random collection of students. Either opinion may be valid, but it does hinge upon whether you believe that access to these universities is fair and unbiased.

[00:13:41] And unfortunately, on this count, both universities have come under increasing pressure and scrutiny, with critics saying that Oxford and Cambridge have historically preferred candidates from private schools, fee-paying schools, rather than state schools.

[00:13:59] Six and a half percent of children in Britain go to private schools, but up until recently around 50% of Oxford and Cambridge graduates went to private schools.

[00:14:10] In the past 20 years or so, both Oxford and Cambridge have pledged to increase the number of places offered to candidates from state schools, and have a goal of 75% of places going to state school pupils, but there is still a way to go, with Oxford at 68% and Cambridge at 71%. This being said, there are still critics who say that these statistics hide another ugly truth, and that is that not all state schools are created equal. 

[00:14:43] Some are very high quality academically, while others are not. And for exceptionally talented students who have not been lucky enough to go to a good school and who perhaps have not grown up in an environment where going to university is the norm, access to Oxbridge is incredibly hard, and Oxford and Cambridge have been accused of not making much of an effort to encourage gifted students from disadvantaged households to apply there.

[00:15:15] Thankfully, this has started to change.

[00:15:18] They are now spending considerable amounts of money on outreach programmes, trying to ensure that potential applicants in schools which have rarely sent any one of their pupils to Oxbridge, the brightest amongst these groups are persuaded that Oxford or Cambridge could be for them.

[00:15:36] In this respect, the intervention of the British rapper, Stormzy, in 2018 has been significant. He joined forces with other, less glamorous, sponsors to support black and mixed race students through Cambridge, awarding up to 10 scholarships of £20,000 per year to the successful students. This so-called "Stormzy effect" means that Cambridge has now significantly increased the number of black and mixed race students. 

[00:16:07] Estimates at both Oxford and Cambridge show that the numbers of what’s called BAME undergraduates - BAME stands for Black, Asian and Mixed Race - the number of BAME students is almost one third, while this segment is only 13% of the total UK population. 

[00:16:26] So things are certainly getting better, and although access might not be equal, it is more equal than ever before.

[00:16:35] Now, it is worth noting that, compared to many universities in the United States, for example, access to Oxford and Cambridge is incredibly meritocratic, the universities are much better at offering places based on intelligence and potential rather than anything else.

[00:16:53] You may remember the “Varsity Blues” scandal from 2019, where parents of wealthy students were found to have paid bribes to secure access to elite American universities. You may know that Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, was accepted to Harvard University despite having very average grades, and there being question marks about whether his father’s $2.5 million donation to the university had anything to do with it.

[00:17:23] You may also know that for many American universities, students with a family connection are more likely to be given a place. At Harvard, for example, 33% of applicants with a family connection are offered a place while the overall rate is just 6%.

[00:17:42] Fortunately this is not the case for Oxbridge - it doesn’t matter whether your parents both went there and donated millions of pounds to the university, it shouldn’t affect your chances of getting a place.

[00:17:54] Now, let us finish this exploration of Oxbridge with some curiosities, some little interesting facts that you may not know about these two prestigious universities, because they are steeped in history and have some amazing stories to tell.

[00:18:10] Firstly, and this is also a practical point, did you know that you can actually visit these colleges, you can wander around them and imagine yourself strolling through the courtyard like Sir Isaac Newton or Oscar Wilde? You can, and if you visit the UK I would definitely recommend you do this.

[00:18:31] Secondly, if you haven’t ever visited Oxford or Cambridge or been inside a college, you will probably have seen it in film or TV. 

[00:18:39] The colleges are beautiful, and are often used as sets for films and TV series. Harry Potter is the most famous one, which used the majestic dining hall at Christ Church College Oxford for the great hall at Hogwarts.

[00:18:55] Thirdly, Oxford University is home to one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and the second largest library in the UK. It’s called “The Bodleian”, or simply “The Bod”, and has over 13 million individual books.

[00:19:11] Fourth, our penultimate fact is that the head of Oliver Cromwell, the man who ruled England for a brief period in the 17th century, is still rumoured to be hidden in a college in Cambridge. 

[00:19:24] And our final fact relates to an unusual tradition at Oxford University, and that is that several colleges keep pet tortoises, and every year there is a tortoise fair where these animals race, chasing, I guess I probably shouldn’t use the word “chasing”, but at least following a lettuce leaf.

[00:19:46] So, there you go, a brief look at the unusual and unique institutions of Oxford and Cambridge University, otherwise known as Oxbridge.

[00:19:56] The final thing to underline is that if you visit the UK I would highly recommend a trip to either Oxford or Cambridge. They are both a very easy train or bus ride away from London, and you will find yourself with no shortage of things to do.

[00:20:12] Whether it’s going for a ride on the gondola-like boats called punts and imagining that you are Lewis Carrol writing Alice and Wonderland or strolling through a courtyard at a famous college and imagining that you’re Lord Byron, there are few places in the country, few places in the world perhaps, that have produced so many people that have had such an impact on the world we live in.

[00:20:38] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Oxbridge. I hope it's been an interesting one, that it’s given you some perspective on how these universities work and why they are so important, and that perhaps it has inspired you to pay them a visit if you come to the UK.

[00:20:56] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. Have you been to Oxford or Cambridge? What did you think of them?

[00:21:03] Are there similar institutions in your country that have a similar impact on public life? I would love to know. For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:19] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:21] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Oxbridge, why two universities dominate life in the UK.

[00:00:31] Oxbridge, if you hadn’t guessed, is the name for Oxford and Cambridge University, the two most famous and prestigious universities that dominate everything from British politics to journalism to business.

[00:00:44] And in this episode we are going to look at why that is, and what is being done about it.

[00:00:51] We’ll start with a brief look at the universities themself, the history of Oxford and Cambridge and how they are different from other universities in the UK, then we’ll look at why graduates from these universities dominate so much of British public life, and ask ourselves whether this will change any time soon.

[00:01:12] OK then, Oxbridge.

[00:01:15] Before we get right into this episode I should start with a little personal disclaimer

[00:01:21] I didn’t study at either Oxford or Cambridge. 

[00:01:24] I did apply for Oxford, and was given an interview but, like the almost 85% of other people who applied, I was not offered a place, and I went to another university called University College London.

[00:01:39] Now, with that out of the way, let me start by saying that I imagine you will have heard of Oxford and Cambridge University. They are two of the most famous universities in the world, and often come first in the global rankings of the best universities in the world. 

[00:01:56] Together with places like Harvard, Stanford and MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, you will find Oxford and Cambridge on pretty much every list of top five universities worldwide.

[00:02:11] No doubt you knew that already, but what you might not have known is quite how much Oxford and Cambridge, or simply, Oxbridge, dominates the ruling class in Britain.

[00:02:23] Graduates from Oxbridge make up less than 1% of the UK population, but make up 75% of senior judges, 51% of diplomats, 47% of columnists for major newspapers, a quarter of MPs, of members of parliament, and one in five civil servants.

[00:02:47] And neither university is particularly large, in terms of how many students it takes.

[00:02:54] Oxford only takes 12 and a half thousand undergraduates, and Cambridge takes a similar number. 

[00:03:00] Both universities have about the same number of postgraduate students, Masters and PhD students, which takes the total number of students studying at each university to around 25,000. 

[00:03:15] At Oxbridge in total, undergraduates and postgraduates in the two universities put together, there are fewer than 50,000 students, but these students have an outsized impact on Britain, and indeed, the wider world.

[00:03:31] As a point of comparison, Harvard has about 23,000, so it’s about the same, while universities like UC Berkeley have about 45,000 and the Sorbonne in Paris has over 55,000. 

[00:03:46] Both Oxford and Cambridge, on a structural level, are very different from most universities in the UK, and most universities in the world.

[00:03:57] The universities are divided into self-governing colleges: Oxford has 39 colleges while Cambridge has 31.

[00:04:08] On a linguistic level it might sound confusing, because what British people call “university”, Americans call both “college” and “school”, and in Oxford and Cambridge you have the “university”, but within it you have separate “colleges”.

[00:04:25] The university is a sort of umbrella around the colleges, and the degree certificate is from the university, but most of student life is dominated by the college.

[00:04:38] Students live in the college, and university professors, otherwise known as “dons” are attached to a particular college.

[00:04:47] The reason for this is historical, Oxford and Cambridge originally began as monastic-like institutions with the teaching staff – the dons, who were priests originally – enclosed within the college's walls. 

[00:05:03] As you may know if you’ve been there, and you may know anyway if you’ve seen pictures, many of these colleges are incredibly beautiful buildings, with the most beautiful for many being the chapel. 

[00:05:26] They did, after all, begin life as religious places, hence why no expense would be spared for the centre of religious worship.

[00:05:26] The emphasis placed on the self-contained college community also means that they have elegant, enclosed "quads” or squares and wonderful dining halls, such as the one you might be familiar with from the Harry Potter films. 

[00:05:43] Unlike in many other universities, where there are large lectures attended by hundreds of students, and then there might be exams or assignments set at the end of each term, undergraduate students at Oxbridge are typically taught in small tutorial groups, often just two or three undergraduates to a single professor.

[00:06:06] This tutorial style makes the teaching particularly intimate and, as you can imagine, means that students are often pushed and challenged more than at typical universities.

[00:06:19] Another particularly unique aspect of Oxbridge is the sheer amount of work that most undergraduates are required to do on a weekly basis.

[00:06:29] At many universities, throughout the UK but throughout much of the world, the workload, the amount of work that you actually have to do, is not particularly strenuous

[00:06:41]  In an average term, you might have to do a few assignments per class, and you will normally be given several weeks to do them. At Oxbridge, students are required to be almost constantly doing assignments, every week there is a new assignment that needs to be completed within 7 days, and there is no option to extend.

[00:07:03] The pace, the speed, is furious, and–as we’ll come to discuss shortly–one of the main skills that Oxford graduates often say that the university has given is the ability to produce a large amount of work in a very short period of time.

[00:07:21] If we contrast this to the university system in, let’s say Italy–and apologies if you are Italian, but I say this both having studied at an Italian university and my wife being Italian–there is little time pressure for most subjects, and it isn’t uncommon for people to take several years to graduate.

[00:07:42] At Oxbridge this simply isn’t an option. Every week there is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be completed, there is no hiding from it because you will have these small tuition groups, and it simply isn’t possible to not do the work. The result of this is that you have this curious situation where students within each college will often know each other very well, as they live and study together intensely, but may not even have met other students doing the same course at another college.

[00:08:19] Even within the university, some colleges are more prestigious than others. At Oxford, one of the most prestigious colleges is called Christ Church, which was in fact founded by King Henry VIII in 1546.

[00:08:35] It only teaches 730 undergraduate students per year, but has a formidable list of alumni, or former students. Of the 28 British prime ministers educated at Oxford, 13 have come from this one college. 

[00:08:54] But it’s not just prime ministers. Among its famous alumni you will find the philosopher John Locke, and Robert Hooke, the 18th century scientist and inventor. Writers include the 1930s poet WH Auden and Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

[00:09:14] Meanwhile at Cambridge, let us take a look at the other college founded by Henry VIII, the prestigious Trinity College, which has even fewer undergraduates than Christ Church Oxford at only 600. 

[00:09:29] Here, the record is not so much in prime ministers, although it can name six British ones and five other ones, including the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Trinity College is most famous for its Nobel prize winners. 

[00:09:46] Now, you might find this difficult to believe, but Trinity College Cambridge has produced 34 Nobel laureates since Nobels started being awarded in 1901. 

[00:09:58] This is out of 118 that have been generated by Cambridge University, and the 975 that have been awarded worldwide. Indeed, were Cambridge University a country, it would be the country with the third highest number of Nobel prizes awarded in the world.

[00:10:18] And although Christ Church in Oxford and Trinity in Cambridge might be two of the most prestigious colleges of the university, and typically perform best academically, every college is prestigious, and pretty much every single college will have famous and notable alumni that have gone on to have a global influence.

[00:10:39] Alumni of Oxbridge are too many to name, but let me just give you a few examples. The current UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, the previous one, Theresa May, the one before that, David Cameron. Indeed, more British Prime Ministers have gone to Oxbridge than every other university put together.

[00:10:59] And of course it’s not just prime ministers and politicians. J.R.R. Tolkein, Emma Watson, Benazir Bhutto, Bill Clinton, Stephen Hawking, Rupert Murdorch, Hugh Grant, Rowan Atkinson, who you might know better as Mr Bean, and Aung San Suu Kyi, they all spent time studying at either Oxford or Cambridge.

[00:11:21] Now, to get back to the question of how and why Oxbridge has such an oversized influence on British life, this is one that is often a subject of debate in the UK. Is it because the brightest and most ambitious students are attracted to Oxbridge, and therefore it’s only natural that these young men and women will go on to have successful professional careers? Is it because the tuition system at Oxbridge is so intense and personal, that of course it will produce more knowledgeable, productive and capable graduates than students of another university system?

[00:11:59] Is it because the brand names of Oxford and Cambridge University are now so recognised that if someone has this name on their CV, on their resume, that they will be given opportunities and job interviews where another candidate might not?

[00:12:15] Is it because of the alumni network that exists, of students living and working in such close proximity, as each graduate forges their own career path they will work with and help their former university colleagues? Is it the confidence and charisma that going to Oxbridge instils in a young person, which often stays with them for life?

[00:12:38] Or is it a combination of everything?

[00:12:41] As you’d imagine, there are countless articles in newspapers and journals about why exactly this is, but the result is, as we’ve seen, the sheer domination of British public life by graduates from these universities. You might argue that this is an unhealthy situation, one where such a tiny proportion of the population has such a large impact on life in the country.

[00:13:09] You might argue that it’s a good thing, if the brightest and most capable 18 year olds are given the opportunity to live and study with other similarly bright and capable 18 year olds, so they can all learn from each other, be pushed forward by each other’s ambition, and generally do better than if they studied with a random collection of students. Either opinion may be valid, but it does hinge upon whether you believe that access to these universities is fair and unbiased.

[00:13:41] And unfortunately, on this count, both universities have come under increasing pressure and scrutiny, with critics saying that Oxford and Cambridge have historically preferred candidates from private schools, fee-paying schools, rather than state schools.

[00:13:59] Six and a half percent of children in Britain go to private schools, but up until recently around 50% of Oxford and Cambridge graduates went to private schools.

[00:14:10] In the past 20 years or so, both Oxford and Cambridge have pledged to increase the number of places offered to candidates from state schools, and have a goal of 75% of places going to state school pupils, but there is still a way to go, with Oxford at 68% and Cambridge at 71%. This being said, there are still critics who say that these statistics hide another ugly truth, and that is that not all state schools are created equal. 

[00:14:43] Some are very high quality academically, while others are not. And for exceptionally talented students who have not been lucky enough to go to a good school and who perhaps have not grown up in an environment where going to university is the norm, access to Oxbridge is incredibly hard, and Oxford and Cambridge have been accused of not making much of an effort to encourage gifted students from disadvantaged households to apply there.

[00:15:15] Thankfully, this has started to change.

[00:15:18] They are now spending considerable amounts of money on outreach programmes, trying to ensure that potential applicants in schools which have rarely sent any one of their pupils to Oxbridge, the brightest amongst these groups are persuaded that Oxford or Cambridge could be for them.

[00:15:36] In this respect, the intervention of the British rapper, Stormzy, in 2018 has been significant. He joined forces with other, less glamorous, sponsors to support black and mixed race students through Cambridge, awarding up to 10 scholarships of £20,000 per year to the successful students. This so-called "Stormzy effect" means that Cambridge has now significantly increased the number of black and mixed race students. 

[00:16:07] Estimates at both Oxford and Cambridge show that the numbers of what’s called BAME undergraduates - BAME stands for Black, Asian and Mixed Race - the number of BAME students is almost one third, while this segment is only 13% of the total UK population. 

[00:16:26] So things are certainly getting better, and although access might not be equal, it is more equal than ever before.

[00:16:35] Now, it is worth noting that, compared to many universities in the United States, for example, access to Oxford and Cambridge is incredibly meritocratic, the universities are much better at offering places based on intelligence and potential rather than anything else.

[00:16:53] You may remember the “Varsity Blues” scandal from 2019, where parents of wealthy students were found to have paid bribes to secure access to elite American universities. You may know that Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law, was accepted to Harvard University despite having very average grades, and there being question marks about whether his father’s $2.5 million donation to the university had anything to do with it.

[00:17:23] You may also know that for many American universities, students with a family connection are more likely to be given a place. At Harvard, for example, 33% of applicants with a family connection are offered a place while the overall rate is just 6%.

[00:17:42] Fortunately this is not the case for Oxbridge - it doesn’t matter whether your parents both went there and donated millions of pounds to the university, it shouldn’t affect your chances of getting a place.

[00:17:54] Now, let us finish this exploration of Oxbridge with some curiosities, some little interesting facts that you may not know about these two prestigious universities, because they are steeped in history and have some amazing stories to tell.

[00:18:10] Firstly, and this is also a practical point, did you know that you can actually visit these colleges, you can wander around them and imagine yourself strolling through the courtyard like Sir Isaac Newton or Oscar Wilde? You can, and if you visit the UK I would definitely recommend you do this.

[00:18:31] Secondly, if you haven’t ever visited Oxford or Cambridge or been inside a college, you will probably have seen it in film or TV. 

[00:18:39] The colleges are beautiful, and are often used as sets for films and TV series. Harry Potter is the most famous one, which used the majestic dining hall at Christ Church College Oxford for the great hall at Hogwarts.

[00:18:55] Thirdly, Oxford University is home to one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and the second largest library in the UK. It’s called “The Bodleian”, or simply “The Bod”, and has over 13 million individual books.

[00:19:11] Fourth, our penultimate fact is that the head of Oliver Cromwell, the man who ruled England for a brief period in the 17th century, is still rumoured to be hidden in a college in Cambridge. 

[00:19:24] And our final fact relates to an unusual tradition at Oxford University, and that is that several colleges keep pet tortoises, and every year there is a tortoise fair where these animals race, chasing, I guess I probably shouldn’t use the word “chasing”, but at least following a lettuce leaf.

[00:19:46] So, there you go, a brief look at the unusual and unique institutions of Oxford and Cambridge University, otherwise known as Oxbridge.

[00:19:56] The final thing to underline is that if you visit the UK I would highly recommend a trip to either Oxford or Cambridge. They are both a very easy train or bus ride away from London, and you will find yourself with no shortage of things to do.

[00:20:12] Whether it’s going for a ride on the gondola-like boats called punts and imagining that you are Lewis Carrol writing Alice and Wonderland or strolling through a courtyard at a famous college and imagining that you’re Lord Byron, there are few places in the country, few places in the world perhaps, that have produced so many people that have had such an impact on the world we live in.

[00:20:38] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Oxbridge. I hope it's been an interesting one, that it’s given you some perspective on how these universities work and why they are so important, and that perhaps it has inspired you to pay them a visit if you come to the UK.

[00:20:56] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. Have you been to Oxford or Cambridge? What did you think of them?

[00:21:03] Are there similar institutions in your country that have a similar impact on public life? I would love to know. For the members among you, you can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:21:19] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:21:19] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]