The Patch

March 5, 2007

Oxbridge, Worth the Effort?

Filed under: Miscellany,UK News — triffid @ 9:13 am

Getting into Oxford or Cambridge. It seems to be the ultimate goal for many teenagers, and for many of their parents. But why does Oxbridge have such pulling power? And is it really worth the effort that it takes to reach it?

University league tables consistently place Oxford and Cambridge above other institutions. There are now even attempts to create global league tables which also place Oxbridge near the top. However useful and perceptive these tables really are in our list culture is debatable, but what is not in doubt is that Oxford and Cambridge offer high standards of education. But surely many other universities do the same…. Surely a first class honours degree from any other university is equal to one from Oxbridge, and there is no doubt that with hard work and commitment they can be achieved almost anywhere. Essentially an honours degree from Oxbridge is the same as one from Warwick, Durham, Reading or any other university, and should be worth as much in the job marketplace. Indeed Oxford and Cambridge are not the universities which on average guarantee the highest starting salaries for graduates.
It could also be argued that students would enjoy life at other universities more. The workload at Oxbridge is undoubtedly higher than at many other institutions as a curriculum is crammed into 8-week semesters in comparison to the 12 or 13 week terms at most universities. This leaves little time for enjoying the student lifestyle, in all its bleary-eyed, drunken goodness.

Along with having to complete an average of two essays a week, you have to deal with tourists (many of the American kind), often living in old-fashioned accomodation, shared bathrooms et al- and many students have to vacate their rooms along with all of their belongings outside of term time so that their colleges can be used to host private functions. Despite this, accomodation, particularly at Oxford is amongst the most expensive in the country.

Going to Oxbridge doesn’t, as many people believe, guarantee you a high paying job and success in life. The Times Good University Guide for example suggests that the graduate prospects for Oxford students is about the same as that of UCL, Bristol and LSE and doesn’t place them a long way ahead of many other universities.

So what is it then, that leads to many students to placing huge impetus and importance on gaining a place and to some parents spending thousands of pounds in ‘training’ their children for two 30 minute interviews? Maybe it’s the Oxbridge tradition…

Many of the country’s leading politicians went to Oxbridge (although some would argue this is not much of an advert). However Oxbridge also educated some of the world’s finest broadcasters, writers, journalists and business leaders. Melvyn Bragg, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Bennett and Rupert Murdoch to name a few. Maybe its the idea that Oxbridge breeds success that is its attraction. Maybe it’s the talented people that you meet there. Perhaps many believe that Oxbridge ‘opens doors’. They could be right.

It is also true that for some of the very competetive jobs, for example ‘in the City’, companies such as Goldman Sachs will only interview candidates who went to Oxbridge and maybe one or two other top universities. This, they argue, saves them the time of searching out the most gifted applicants from other universities which they suggest would be in a smaller number. This is a good example of the other key attraction of Oxbridge, simply its name. It still seems capable of evoking reverent gasps from some people when they find out that the person they are talking to is at Oxford or Cambridge. It is also true that Oxbridge, almost like a brand, is recognised all over the world and may prove very beneficial to graduates who seek a career abroad rather than at home.

Whatever the case, being rejected by Oxbridge does not mean failure in life. Ultimately, Oxbridge cannot create talent or produce entrepreneurism. If an individual is driven and gifted, they will succeed even if they are educated solely by ‘the university of life’. Alan Sugar left school at 16. David Beckham certainly never went to university. Oxbridge, it seems, may be helpful in starting some people on the second, rather than the first rung of the career ladder, but after a few years it is your achievments in your career, not which university you went to that will prove attractive to employers. But however true this sentiment is, it appears that, at least for the time-being, Oxbridge will retain an almost abstract pull over people and will remain an indicator of achievment to others. Ultimately, perhaps it is the idea and prestige of Oxbridge that is the real attraction. Not Oxbridge itself



  1. Much like Harvard… it’s not as good of a school as its made out to be, but because of the tradition of Harvard and other Ivy league schools, it sounds a lot better to say “I graduated Harvard,” than “I went to a state school.”

    Comment by Amie — March 5, 2007 @ 11:33 pm | Reply

  2. Many people seek the Oxbridge experience…which is to submerge in the ancient traditions, fabulous architecture, bright peers and world-class experts. This experience is very hard to match by any other university in the world, even top American universities like Harvard, Princeton etc. US universities surely have more resources and money, but what they don’t have is this 800-year history and tradition, which Oxbridge has.

    The textbook knowledge you learn is arguably similar across most universities, whether it’s Oxbridge, Harvard or a community college. But what Oxbridge does offer uniquely is the small group teaching, which in my opinion, hones and greatly improves one’s thinking skills and ability to construct an argument.

    It’s not only the idea and prestige of Oxbridge that attract students, but the whole experience at these two magical places that make Oxford and Cambridge two of the best universities in the world.

    Comment by Tony — March 15, 2007 @ 8:43 pm | Reply

  3. Yeah i agree, really the main attraction is the unique experience. That said, i think i’m going to reject Oxford for LSE because i prefer the LSE course

    Comment by Triffid — March 16, 2007 @ 6:36 pm | Reply

  4. My goodness, what a shockingly badly written article! It is clear that the journalist didn’t attend either, or their poor grammer and writing style might have been improved.

    Firstly, yes, Oxford and Cambridge are beautiful, historical places, rather unlike any other university in the UK. Therefore, living in either city is a wonderful experience.

    Secondly, there are worldclass researchers working at the two universities. The overall work done by those there surpasses that done at any other university (sure, many other departments might match one or two of those of oxbridge, but there is not the same level of consistency). This is demonstrated by the pull of the universities on graduates, not just undergraduates. Quite apart from the tradition, this excellence serves to attract undergraduates with a similar enthusiasm for their areas of study. If one were to strip Oxbridge of its’ tradition, the high level of achedemia is quite a sufficient attraction.

    I think that it is incorrect to compare a degree from Oxbridge to one from another university. Generally, it is significantly more difficult to gain admittance to either than to any other, and thus the quality of the students is notably better (indeed there are exceptions). And, the high workload only serves to develop those better students’ intellects further. The workload is higher for that very reason, not unnecessarily as the journalist seems to suggest. (The higher quality may be reflected in the fact that many graduates, examples of which the journalist mentioned, have been very successful.) Of course the students must ultimately be divided (graded)… they can’t all be given distinctions! Thus, a first from Oxford is not the same as a first from Hull.

    Employers are aware of the more taxing selection process and the more rigorous achedemic routine that oxbridge students have undergone, and are thus aware that graduates are MORE LIKELY (but of course not necessarily) to be of a higher quality. Therefore, it is easier more them to chose from such a selection. In this way Oxbridge ‘opens doors’; I am not condoning this, but in some ways it makes sense. As for the not-special gratduate employment rates: there are some students there who are simply too intelligent, so much so that they are socially incompetant, and hence wouldn’t make great employees. As the author suggested, there are more important characteristics that an employer might consider, such as charisma, which a high quality degree does not develop. The author did, however, neglect to mention the comparitive quality of those jobs that graduates did secure… I suspect that it might well be that there are a similar number of employed graduates, but in higher positions.

    I think the accomodation is a very superfiacial point to this argument, but for what it’s worth, the rooms are fine. Depending on the college, they might be a little ‘old-fashioned’, but I ask people what else they expect from a building that could be 600 years old?! Again, depending on the college, accomodation can usually be secured over the vacations too. Besides, the other facilities (sports grounds, theatres, dining halls, parks, and so on) more than make up for the occasional fireplace.

    In conclusion, I am arguing that the author is wrong. The presitige and positive idea of Oxbridge reflects the real reasons that the universities have such a pull: predominantly, achedemic brilliance. Please note that I am certainly not saying that other universities aren’t good!

    Comment by S. Brownrigg — June 21, 2007 @ 11:33 am | Reply

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