I then leapt upon the chance to test you
. I asked if he had been to one of the great universities: Oxford, Cambridge or Hull.
Nurse Fletcher-Brown: Well?
Blackadder: You failed to spot that only two of these are great universities!
Nurse Fletcher-Brown: You swine!
That's right! Oxford's a complete dump!
— "General Hospital", "Blackadder
Goes Forth" note
A portmanteau term for the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge (two distinct institutions). They are the UK's equivalent to the Ivy Leaguenote
and thus they are popular in UK fiction. They have also inspired fictional universities such as the Unseen University
for wizards in the Discworld
The University of Oxford, like all of the first European Universities, was never officially founded, rather it grew up organically as scholars settled in the city and began establishing their own informal institutional ties. Teaching activity is recorded in the city from at least the late 11th century. In 1209-10 the university was closed down temporarily and many scholars fled Oxford after two students were hanged for killing a woman. Many of them settled in Cambridge and established their own University in the following decades. The University of Cambridge received its official royal charter in 1231.
Cambridge is known for the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club (more commonly just "The Footlights" or "The Cambridge Footlights"), which puts on a yearly comedy revue and has featured some of Britain's best-loved comic writers and actors, including Peter Cook, half of Monty Python
, Douglas Adams
, Emma Thompson
(actress, Remains of the Day
), Clive Anderson (presenter, Whose Line Is It Anyway?
), and John Oliver (The Daily Show
The Footlights have also given birth to some of Britain's best comedic pairings/groups, including Stephen Fry
and Hugh Laurie
(A Bit of Fry and Laurie
, but better known these days as the guy from QI
and the guy from House
, respectively—and, incidentally, introduced to each other by Emma Thompson), half of the Monty Python
troupe, The Goodies, and Mitchell and Webb
Both universities are actually composed of semi-independent colleges, which accept applicants individually.
Undergraduate teaching methods at both universities are distinct from many others in the UK in using the "tutorial system". Rather than self-contained classes with their own lectures, assignments, exams etc., most subjects are taught via the university putting on lectures (and running the final-year exams on which students' degree class is almost wholly dependent), while the colleges independently assign their own coursework to the students. Most of this college-level teaching is done in tutorials between a faculty member and one or two students at a time, scenes of which will often crop up in Oxbridge-set fiction.
Oxford and Cambridge also both do the curious awarding of, in addition to the standard variety, "fake" MAs. For historical reasons (in short, the original undergraduate degree was an MA, BAs being a later invention), those who graduate with a BA (for Historical Reasons
, almost all first degrees, even in the sciences) can receive an MA a set number of years later, normally 7 years after matriculation (shortly after you start), merely by turning up for the ceremony (or paying a few quid to graduate in absentia). UK employers are generally aware that these are pretty meaningless.
Oxford is also one of the last university to require the wearing of academic dress (known as subfusc—Suit, cap, gown and bowtie) on a regular basis. Now it is only mandatory for formal ceremonies, some of the lectures, and exams, but it is still more commonly seen on regular days. Cambridge is much more relaxed on the dressing front.
Of minor note is that Oxford (though not Cambridge) is one of the few places that awards a "DPhil" rather than a "PhD" as the standard academic doctorate in most subjects, thus an Oxford DPhil just indicates that the person has a doctorate, not that their research was in philosophy. ("DPhil" technically stands for "Doctor of Philosophy" of course, but then so does "PhD").
Oxford has educated twenty-six British Prime Ministers (including the incumbent, David Cameron
). Its most visible institution is probably the Oxford Union, an independent debating society whose controversial guest speakers occasionally make the mainstream press.
There is a rather fierce rivalry between the two universities, members of each referring to the other as 'The Other Place'. This rivalry is most apparent in Varsity matches, which are any type of competition between the two, most often sporting (e.g. the boat race) but also covering various events such as the annual Tolkien quiz. The 'Town' (non-university) vs 'Gown' (university) divide is also a thing in Oxford and Cambridge, as both Universities essentially run their host cities, something accepted with fluctuating levels of equanimity by the other inhabitants.
Naturally both of them have a Pretentious Latin Motto
, though there was nothing pretentious about them when they were chosen—back then, all the students would have been expected to speak Latin as much of the teaching was done in that language. Oxford has Dominus Illuminatio Mea
("The Lord is my Light
") and Cambridge has Hinc lucem et pocula sacra
(literally, "From here, light and sacred draughts"—draughts being a metaphor for knowledge, but it would also work quite well as a reference to the pubs...)
See also Strawman U
. Compare Ivy League For Everyone
in US works and Tokyo University
in Japanese ones.
Oxford in the media:
- Punting on the River Cam.
- The Oxford Don With The Caustic Wit.
- The Cultured English Double Agent From Cambridge. Truth In Television- note the Cambridge Five.
- The Professor Who Recruits People For The Secret Service. Also Truth In Televison. During the Cold War, students with spy potential might get "a tap on the shoulder" from a chap from MI6. Or, in the case of the Cambridge Five, from the KGB.
- The Lewis Carroll-style eccentric.
- The Boat Race - in which Oxford and Cambridge rowers race down the River Thames for a bit. Shown on TV. Chucking the winning cox in the river seems to be obligatory.
Cambridge in the media:
- Inspector Morse and Lewis- Several episodes involving Oxford colleges, with sarcastic and eccentric dons and establishing shots of the dreaming spires.
- Amateur detective Gervaise Fen, in the series by Edmund Crispin, is an Oxford don.
- Brideshead Revisited (Novel and film) - The two main characters meet while studying at Oxford.
- Shadowlands - Film about C. S. Lewis, definitely an eccentric don, set partly in Magdalen College, Oxford where he taught.
- His Dark Materials - Alternative Oxford, but still quite recognisable.
- Connie Willis' Doomsday Book, Fire Watch and To Say Nothing of the Dog: Oxford in the future runs a Time Travel project.
- The fictional Bailie College at Oxford made occasional appearances on Yes, Minister, being Sir Humphrey's alma mater, to which he retains connections. One of the oldest Oxford colleges in Real Life is Balliol. Bernard is noted as another Oxford alumnus, having read Classics (his pedantry regarding grammar and Latin are a running joke). Both tease Hacker for having attended the London School of Economics and take any opportunity to pour (exceedingly polite) abuse and disdain upon Cantabrigian civil servants.
- Lord Peter Wimsey is a Balliol alumnus. In the same series, Harriet Vane attended Shrewsbury, a fictional all-female Oxford College.
- The love interest in "The Serial Murders", one of Kim Newman's Diogenes Club stories, is another Shrewsbury alumna; on its first American publication, the story included a footnote that helpfully explained that Shrewsbury was an Oxford college whose other famous alumni included Harriet Vane, but mischievously neglected to mention that both were fictional.
- Mary Russell spends a great deal of time at Oxford.
- Cal Lightman of Lie to Me went to Oxford.
- In the first episode of Series 4 of The Sarah Jane Adventures Luke and K-9 were put in a yellow VW Beetle to Oxford after Luke passed his A Levels a year early.
- Jay Gatsby went to Oxford. Well, sort of. He was there briefly after WWI as part of a "mixup" of some kind, but left after a couple months to search for Daisy.
- The Doctor Who New Adventures novel The Dimension Riders by Daniel Blythe is set in the fictional St Matthew's College. The college president is a retired Time Lord. Presumably, the author (an alumnus of St John's, Oxford) wanted to balance out "Shada".
- Christminster University in Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure is a thinly disguised Oxford. The title character is at Bibliol College, which is a barely-disguised-at-all Balliol.
- Oxford Murders (both the book and the film). It also features Cambridge, albeit very briefly.
- In X-Men: First Class, Oxford is the alma mater of Charles Xavier. There are several Oxford scenes, shot on location. It is clear, however, that the writers did not do the research, as Xavier's claim that you don't get to be called a professor unless you have a teaching position is utterly untrue in context; a professor at a UK university is not the same thing as a professor at a US university, and at Oxford in particular professors frequently do little to no teaching. Someone in Xavier's position would either be a Junior Research Fellow or, if so elected by his college, a Don.
- Inspector Lynley is an Oxford alum, as is Agent Mulder.
- In Sanctuary, Helen Magnus was the first woman to attend Oxford, where she met John Druitt, Nikola Tesla, Nigel Griffin, and James Watson (and was canonically lusted after by three out of those last four). "The Five" form a critical aspect of Sanctuary's backstory.
- As the page quote shows, Blackadder. This was also an inside joke; Stephen Fry, who played Melchett, was a Cambridge man, while Rowan Atkinson, who played Blackadder, attended Oxford.
- Harry Potter: Hogwarts is heavily based on Oxford, with much of the movies' locations filmed in colleges and university buildings (e.g. Bodleian Library), in the surrounding area, or using sets based on the architecture.
- A Discovery of Witches is set in Oxford, and heavily features the Bodleian library, colleges, and the river.
- The Cavaliers Series As the name of the first book, Oxford Blood, suggests, the series is set at Oxford University. The books revolve around a vampire dining society based on the real life Bullingdon Club. The books give a detailed portrayal of life as an contemporary undergraduate student. All the boxes - Oxford Union, punting, rowing, black tie dinners, tutorials with grumpy dons - are quite thoroughly ticked.
- The Bone Season: In Alternate Timeline England, Oxford has been converted into a penal colony called Sheol I for magic-users known as "voyants." Many of the buildings have fallen into disrepair except for those used as residences by the magical race known as the Rephaim. The city was given to the Rephaim when they first arrived on Earth and has since been off-limits to the public.
Oxbridge in the media:
- The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale is set in one of the original Cambridge colleges.
- Chariots of Fire: One of the main characters starts his running career competing in and succesfully finishing the Trinity Court Great Run studying at Cambridge - getting around the 343 metres of court in the c.43 seconds it takes for the bells to chime 12. This has only been confirmed as being done in real-life twice, the first in 1927 and the second in 2007 (the current route shaves the corners off and takes it down to 299 metres, manageable by a good club athlete) - Seb Coe just missed out in 1988. Abrahams never even attempted it.
- These scenes were actually done at Eton College, as Trinity declined permission to film fearing depictions of anti-Semitism.
- Porterhouse Blue: Set in a fictional Cambridge college. Which is not Peterhouse, at all.
- The Doctor Who story "Shada" is set at St Cedd's College, a fictional Cambridge college, and was filmed in Cambridge. It was written by Cambridge alumnus Douglas Adams, who also used it in his novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. In the forward to Dirk Gently he notes that elements of it are based loosely on his own college, St John's, as well as other colleges. St Cedd's appears in the second episode of the Dirk Gently TV series.
- Makes sense, since they're basically the same thing.
- Ian and Barbara are revealed to have become Cambridge professors.
- The 'Imogen Quy' detective novels by Jill Paton Walsh are set in a fictional Cambridge college.
- Susannah Gregory's 'Matthew Bartholomew' novels are set in and around one of the original Cambridge colleges.
- James Bond has a First in Oriental Languages from Cambridge.
- At the beginning of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader 2010 film, there are several shots of university buildings, including King's College.
- The Worst Witch followup Weirdsister College relocates Mildred and company from Wizard School to Wizard Cambridge College.
- The Liar (novel) by Stephen Fry, his monologues on The BBC Radio 4 programme Loose Ends, and his more recent podcast monologues The Dongle of Donald Trefusis all feature Cambridge don Professor Trefusis, of the fictional St Matthew's College.
- Thomas Gray, Philosopher Cat by Phillip J. Davis tells the tale of a cat that is a resident at Pembroke College.
- Mackenzie McHale from The Newsroom, a former President of the Cambridge Union, is considerably upset to discover that her Wikipedia page says she was the President of the Oxford Union.
- In Batman & Robin, Barbara Gordon apparently studied at "Oxbridge Academy". What this is supposed to mean British viewers can only guess at. Going by her accent, though, it's nowhere in the UK.
- What it means is the writers wanted to give her an Oxbridge background without potentially causing offence to either institution. There are many parallel examples, although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle preferred "Camford" for his fictional Professor Presbury.
- In one episode of The Young Ones ("Bambi"), Neil, Rick, Mike and Vyvian goes on the Quiz Show University Challenge against Lord Snot, Lord Monty, Miss Money-Sterling and Kendall Mintcake from "Footlights College, Oxbridge" (Played by old Footlighters Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson, no less).
- The History Boys centers on eight working-class boys from Sheffield trying to get into Oxford and Cambridge.
- Olly Reader of The Thick of It went to either Oxford or Cambridge. It is not known which as the other characters only ever refer to his alma mater as "Poxbridge".
- As mentioned above, the inspiration for Unseen University in the Discworld novels. All the bizarre ceremonies and rituals mentioned in the books are based on real Oxbridge traditions. Yes, even Hunting the Megapode.
- Jeremy Clarkson on Top Gear uses the term "Oxbridge" to refer to any highbrow, high class, big money Ivy League-style university, even ones that aren't in the UK. (Specifically, he once referred to Harvard as "an Oxbridge school".)
- The BBC Light Entetainment Department, responsible for talent-scouting and nurturing new comedy talent, has often been lampooned by snarky comics who went to less prestigious colleges (there are over forty other universities in the UK, and the same number of upgraded polytechnics/tech colleges) as BBC Oxbridge Footlights, or the Oxbridge Mutual Back-Scratching College Reunion Club.
- In the Lucky Luke story "The Tenderfoot" is a British aristocrat come to seek his fortune in America, and often makes references to his education at Oxbridge ("the Oxbridge dormitories were unheated and we slept with the windows open... it made you immune to cold or it filled up the family burial vaults").