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University of Cambridge, UK

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The University of Cambridge is the second oldest university in the UK and has a worldwide reputation for academic excellence both in teaching and research. Many of the University buildings are of historical or architectural interest, and the University's museums contain many rare, valuable and beautiful items. Graduates of the University have become famous in all fields of human endeavour, from science and engineering to economics and politics to film and television.


Bridge on the River Cam

The town of Cambridge originally took its name from the river on which it stood - the Granta. Through a convoluted process of evolution, the name 'Grontabricc' became 'Cambridge', and the river became the 'Cam'. The town is referred to in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as 'Canterbridge', while the abbreviation used to denote a degree from the University is 'Cantab', short for the town's Latin name, Cantabrigia. The modern Cam was diverted so that it flowed past The Backs - ie, behind some of the older Colleges, including King's, Queens', Trinity and St John's.

The presence of the eponymous bridge meant that Cambridge was already a thriving market town before the University appeared. In 1209, a group of students fled Oxford1 after they were attacked by hostile locals. Settling in Cambridge, they were joined by more like-minded individuals and in 1226 they set up a formal organisation, governed by a Chancellor, and began to teach grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy. Their new school received the blessing of King Henry III and the University of Cambridge was born.

Independence Day

In the early days of the University, most of the teachers and students were connected with the Catholic Church and were therefore responsible to the local and national church authorities. During the 14th and 15th Centuries, the University gradually gained its independence from the church, with the Chancellor taking on both religious and civil duties.

The University was also granted certain rights in relation to the townspeople of Cambridge, particularly market traders who were profiteering. This put some strain on the relationship between 'town and gown', which has been a source of varying degrees of conflict ever since.

Let's Put on the Show Right Here

The earliest teaching sessions of the University were carried out in churches or private houses. This was obviously unsatisfactory, and so the University authorities began to establish buildings for its own use. Some of these early 'schools' still exist on the site known, appropriately, as the 'Old Schools'.

The University also began to acquire buildings donated or paid for by wealthy sponsors. These became the first of the colleges of the University - semi-independent institutions that housed undergraduates and were also responsible for some of their teaching. The first college was Peterhouse, established in 1284 by Bishop Hugh Balsham of Ely. This was followed in the 14th Century by King's Hall and Michaelhouse (which were later combined by Henry VIII to form Trinity), Clare, Pembroke, Gonville Hall (later expanded to become Gonville and Caius), Trinity Hall and Corpus Christi.

The expansion of Cambridge continued in the 15th and 16th Centuries with the addition of King's, Queens'2, St Catharine's, Jesus, Christ's, St John's, Magdalene3, Trinity (not to be confused with the older Trinity Hall), Emmanuel and Sidney Sussex.

Little Apples

In the 17th and 18th Centuries the University continued to expand and evolve, with subjects such as history, law and medicine being added to the traditional ones that had been offered previously. Despite these new subjects, teaching at the University became dominated by mathematics, possibly due to the influence of one Sir Isaac Newton. This era also saw the establishment of institutions such as the University Press and the botanical gardens, together with significant enlargement of the University library.

The 19th Century opened with the founding of a new College, the first time this had happened since Sidney Sussex in 1596. The new College - Downing - was founded by Sir George Downing, whose grandfather had given his name to London's Downing Street4. Downing was followed later in the Century by Selwyn, Hughes Hall and St Edmund's, although these latter two were not fully recognised as Colleges until much later.

Wearing the Trousers

By the end of the 19th Century, radical changes had taken place in Cambridge, the most important of which was the setting up of Colleges for women. Girton (1869) and Newnham (1872) were established to prepare women for the University examinations, which they were finally allowed to take in 1882. If they passed, women were granted a University certificate rather than a degree. In 1921, women were permitted to attend the same lectures as male undergraduates and were also finally granted degrees. They were not, however, granted the 'privileges' that normally accompanied a degree - involvement in governing the University, for example - until 1947.

At the same time as women were being allowed into the University, male fellows of the University were permitted to marry, and new houses were built to house the new families that were appearing in Cambridge.

The 20th Century

As with all walks of life, the First World War saw an enormous number of University members killed in action. Teaching came almost to a standstill. Because the University still received fees for its teaching, this meant a dramatic loss of income. In 1920, a system was established whereby the University received a grant on condition that it took over lectures and practical teaching from the individual colleges, an arrangement that continues today.

After World War II, the University grew rapidly as new departments were set up and new subjects were introduced, fuelled by the University's reputation in scientific research. University facilities continued to develop, with further expansion of the library, the building of a music school and concert hall, expansion of the museums and acquisition of the Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC) Theatre.

Yet more colleges were added to the University, including New Hall (for women), Churchill, Robinson and Fitzwilliam, as well as Homerton, which specialises in undergraduate and post-graduate teacher training. The growing research activities of the University led to the foundation of colleges specifically for graduate students, with Darwin, Clare Hall, Wolfson and Lucy Cavendish joining the older graduate colleges, Hughes Hall and St Edmunds.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, the older colleges had started to accept women members, with the last men-only College - Magdalene - finally admitting women in 1988. Girton, which had started as a women's college, admitted men in 1979, leaving Newnham, New Hall and Lucy Cavendish as the only all-women colleges left today.


Undergraduates at Cambridge sit what are known as 'Tripos' exams. The name comes from a three-legged stool that was once used at graduation ceremonies. A senior graduate of the University would sit on the stool and read poetry to entertain those graduating. The names of the new graduates (the 'Tripos list') were printed on the back of the poems. Eventually, the examinations themselves, firstly in mathematics and later in all other subjects, came to be known as the Tripos.

Each Tripos consists of a Part I and a Part II (and occasionally a Part III) and a student must pass both parts to gain a degree. Unlike many other universities, where the final grade of the degree is based on scores throughout the three years, a Cambridge grade is based purely on the score in the Part II. This system means that it is theoretically possible (however unlikely) for students to do almost no work for two and a half years, cram like mad for the finals, and come out with a first class degree.

One of the advantages of the Tripos system is the flexibility it allows - a student does not have to do their Part I and Part II in the same subject. This is a great bonus if you find you are doing the wrong course. Scientists in Cambridge (referred to as Natural Scientists or 'NatScis') have a particularly flexible course, choosing several subjects from an extensive list and only really specialising in the third year.


Like any other university, Cambridge has a wide range of societies and clubs for students to belong to. Some of those are known outside of Cambridge, either because their members have gone on to great fame and fortune, or simply because of 'tradition'.


Every level of sport is represented at Cambridge, from the no-hopers to the international athletes. Admittedly, many of the international athletes have been dragged into graduate colleges on the flimsy pretext of some post-graduate course simply to strengthen the University rugby or rowing squads for the 'Varsity match'.

All 'sports' played at Cambridge and Oxford, even the likes of tiddleywinks and ballroom dancing, generally have their own Varsity match. When people refer to 'The Varsity Match', however, they are talking about rubgy union. The match is played in December at Twickenham, the home of English rugby, and is really just an excuse for lots of ex-Oxbridge 'City'-types to have a day off from work. In 2005, the 124th Varsity Match was won 31-16 by Cambridge.

The other 'famous' Cambridge vs Oxford sport is The Boat Race. In the past, this was a great 'British' occasion, when many people with no connection to either University would declare their allegiance to one or other and sit glued to their televisions all day. In recent years, the popularity of the boat race has declined, although substantial television coverage on Boat Race Day is still devoted to the build-up and the race.


While the University has produced a number of famous playwrights (Christopher Marlowe, Michael Frayn), actors (Ian McKellen, Michael Redgrave) and even theatre directors (Trevor Nunn), it is in comedy that the University has an incredible track record. This is mainly due to the existence of the Footlights, a University society that stages a pantomime and several comedy revues every year. The Spring Revue is the most important, and the show tours the UK, including the Edinburgh Festival. Graduates of the Cambridge comedy machine include half of the Monty Python team and all of the 'Goodies', as well as Douglas Adams and many, many more.

You Have a Blue What..?

Over the years, Cambridge has accumulated a wide range of weird and wonderful words and expressions that are meaningless outside of the University. While a comprehensive list would be impossible, here is a taste:

  • Bedder - a loud-voiced woman, often approaching retirement age, who makes students' beds and cleans their rooms.

  • Blue -

    1. An award made to someone who represents the University in certain sports5

    2. Someone who has been awarded a Blue

  • Court - usually an open space surrounded by the buildings of a college. Most Colleges have several linked courts, each with their own name. A 'court' can also be a single building, such as Emmanuel's 'East Court' or the 'New Court' at Christ's. Courts should never be referred to as 'quads', which are what they have at Oxford.

  • Formal Hall - an occasion of varying formality, depending on the College. Some go the whole hog and insist on ties and gowns and Grace said in Latin.

  • Gyp room - a small 'kitchen', in which it is almost impossible to cook anything, encouraging students to eat in 'Hall'.

  • Hall -

    1. Some Colleges eg, Trinity Hall, St Edmund Hall

    2. The dining room/canteen of a College

    3. The meal eaten in the dining room

  • Junior common room (JCR) -

    1. The College bar

    2. A room in College set aside for undergraduates

    3. The Student Union of a particular College

  • Porter - College gatekeepers. Unlike other types of porter, they do not carry your luggage. Ever.

  • Staircase - an accommodation block, usually a set of rooms clustered around a single spiral staircase. Colleges are made up of a number of staircases surrounding the 'courts'.

And Really..?

Today, Cambridge is a strange mixture of its long and distinguished past, and the attributes of a modern university. Contrary to popular opinion, it is not full of over-privileged 'toffs'6 wasting three years at Mummy and Daddy's expense. Nor is it full of athletes doing 'easy' courses simply so they can represent the University in some sport or other. Cambridge does, however, have a very high proportion of students from private schools - 48%, compared with the total school population of 6% in private schools - although sadly this is simply an accurate reflection of the percentages of students who apply to the University. The authorities and student bodies are working to hard to address this and to ensure that the most academically gifted students are attracted to Cambridge, regardless of their school or financial background.

Teaching in Cambridge is often rated as some of the best in Britain, if not the world. As with any academic institution, of course, the quality varies. While being surrounded by some of the most respected researchers in any particular field has its advantages, they are not always the best people to communicate their subject. There is also a subset of lecturers who feel that students are an irritation that gets in the way of their ground-breaking research. The teaching also varies from College to College and can at times feel like pot luck. Often, the best teaching is carried out by post-graduate students who have a genuine enthusiasm for their subject and, importantly, can still remember what it is like to be an undergraduate.

Social life at Cambridge tends to revolve around the individual Colleges. Each College has its own bar and some (Clare, for example) hold regular events. There is, at the time of writing, no central undergraduate facility, although every Union committee since the year dot has tried to change this. Cambridge is a quiet place and is not overly-blessed with what might be termed 'nightlife'. London is, however, only a 1-hour train journey away.

Being a very traditional institution, Cambridge comes with a number of rules and regulations that appear to date from a different era, although these can vary from College to College. For example, students are not permitted to have a boyfriend/girlfriend stay in their room overnight. Students are also expected to sign an 'exeat' if they wish to spend one or more nights away from Cambridge during term time. Admittedly, these rules are not enforced particularly strictly, but students may find themselves facing a small fine if they are caught breaking the rules. As bedders (see above) are the people with access to students' rooms and generally know exactly what's going on, these are people that students need to keep on the right side of.

Cambridge is certainly not to everyone's taste, both as a city and as a University, but if you can put up with the sometimes stuffy tradition, odd rules that could be seen as Draconian, and the occasional irritating minor aristocrat, it can a beautiful place in which to live and study.

1And who can blame them...2With the apostrophe after the 's', to show that the College was founded by two Queens: Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth of Woodville.3Pronounced 'maudlin'.4The home of the British Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.5Notably rowing or rugby union. Minor sports merit only a half-blue or quarter-blue.6Although, admittedly, it does seem to have more than its fair share of these...

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