Oxbridge is a portmanteau of Oxford and Cambridge, the two oldest, most prestigious, and highly-ranked universities in the United Kingdom. The term is used to refer to them collectively, in contrast to other British universities, and more broadly to describe characteristics reminiscent of them, often with implications of superior social or intellectual status or elitism.
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 The Cambridge 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.
- 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, is January). Additionally, candidates may not apply to both Oxford and Cambridge in the same year, apart from a few exceptions (e.g., organ scholars). Most candidates achieve, or are predicted to achieve, 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".
The Sutton Trust maintains that the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge recruit disproportionately from 8 schools. They examined published admissions data from 2015 to 2017 and found that 8 schools accounted for 1,310 Oxbridge places during the three years, whereas 2,900 other schools accounted for 1,220.
Other portmanteaus have been coined that extend the term Oxbridge, though none has achieved widespread recognition.
The term Loxbridge (referring to the golden triangle of London, Oxford, and Cambridge) is also used, and was also adopted as the name of the Ancient History conference now known as AMPAH. Doxbridge is another example of this, referring to Durham, Oxford and Cambridge. Doxbridge was also used for an annual inter-collegiate sports tournament between some of the colleges of Durham, Oxford, Cambridge and York. Meanwhile, Woxbridge is seen in the name of the annual Woxbridge conference between the business schools of Warwick, Oxford and Cambridge.
Thackeray's Pendennis, which introduced the term Oxbridge, also introduced Camford as another combination of the university names – "he was a Camford man and very nearly got the English Prize Poem" – but this term has never achieved the same degree of usage as Oxbridge. Camford was also used as the name of a fictional university city in the Sherlock Holmes story The Adventure of the Creeping Man (1923).
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Originally: a fictional university, esp. regarded as a composite of Oxford and Cambridge. Subsequently also (now esp.): the universities of Oxford and Cambridge regarded together, esp. in contrast to other British universities. adj Of, relating to, characteristic of, or reminiscent of Oxbridge (freq. with implication of superior social or intellectual status
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It is possible for a candidate to enter the comparable competition at Cambridge which is scheduled at the same time of year.
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