Oxford and Cambridge "Universities" you say?

(Oxford and Cambridge, England) Think of Oxford and Cambridge and their world famous universities immediately spring to mind.

But a local story tells of a visitor who asked a cab driver at the train station to take him to the University. To his surprise, the driver replied "Sir, there’s no university here."

That tale has a genuine ring of truth to it, for in fact neither Oxford nor Cambridge are singular institutions. Instead of having central administrative structures and buildings, both schools are actually comprised of a number of university colleges, the oldest of which were founded back in the thirteenth century as religious schools. Oxford has thirty-nine colleges and Cambridge has thirty-one.

Both of these great academic communities were modeled originally after the oldest university in the world, Cairo’s Al Azher, established during the tenth century. Even the familiar cap and gown of ceremonial academic dress were taken from the traditional Muslim garb of Al Azher faculty members. And the style of designing open-air courtyards around water fountains –” a feature hardly needed in the English climate, where it rains more often than not – was incorporated by architects to imitate the fountains used to cool the hot air of Cairo’s Al Azher.

Early in their history, both Oxford and Cambridge produced clerics, educated specifically to serve in the Christian church. Until 1877 lecturers were not even allowed to marry and women were not granted degrees until 1920.

But during the 19th century, the universities’ curricula broadened to include more secular subjects. These changes were designed to educate the sons (and much later, the daughters) of Britain’s ruling classes who were, and still are, predominantly members of the Church of England. Large numbers of these well-educated Anglicans become ordained ministers, members of parliament, government bureaucrats and diplomats.

Each of the many Oxford and Cambridge university colleges has staunchly maintained its historical independence as a self-governing body. Students are bound by ties of loyalty and famous alumni are celebrated and memorialized for their achievements.

The noted British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863) invented a fictional composite town called "Oxbridge," yet these two institutions have retained a distinct quality in their style of learning. What they do share in common is a joint history of building traditional English education based on the formation of personality and character rather than comprehensive knowledge in a specific field.

Both Oxford and Cambridge are large towns (or small cities by Canadian standards) of about 100,000 whose populations include some 25,000 students; each summer the regular students are replaced by tourists and foreign-language students.

The two cities are located about 100 kilometres from London and are separated from one another by about the same distance; each municipality is very much a social and economic extension of its university community.

Being on rivers, or canal portions of natural waterways, Oxford and Cambridge are both known for the leisurely summer pastime of punting. A punt is a flat-bottomed boat ideal for the shallow waters of Cambridge’s Cam River and Oxford’s quiet stretch of the Thames. By levering a long pole against the river-bottom, one can propel the punt forward and also steer.

It’s not as easy as it sounds but is a lot of fun, especially if you are a passenger, as I was. Each punt can hold four or five people, with one (a hired summer student) doing the punting.

Christ Church is Oxford’s largest and most prestigious college, whose renowned alumni include Albert Einstein and twelve British Prime Ministers. The chapel of Christ Church College is also Oxford’s Cathedral.

Cambridge was established in 43AD by the Roman emperor Cantabrigensis, but remained a small market town until the university was founded during the early 13th century — supposedly by overly liberal-minded students fleeing hostile townsfolk in Oxford. Even in 1811 Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for the publication of "The Necessity of Atheism." Historic rivalry has existed between the two universities ever since, symbolized by an annual Boat Race between them on the Thames.

One aspect that sets Cambridge apart from Oxford is "the Backs" Рa green belt of forested land along the banks of the River Cam, providing beautiful views over the backs of the old colleges. The fa̤ades of these same colleges, all lined up along the main streets of Cambridge, picturesquely dominate the town centre; most of the older ones date back to the late 13th and 14th centuries.

History has highlighted Cambridge as the home of great minds such as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell, and Ernest Rutherford. And since 1871 the world renowned Cavendish Laboratory for Experimental Physics has been located here.

In recent times, Cambridge has been the academic home of more Nobel Prize winners than any other institution of higher learning, with some 90 alumni receiving Nobel honours since 1904. Trinity College alone boasts 31 Nobel Prize winners, the most of any college at Cambridge. In 1950, Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize in Literature for "A History of Western Philosophy" (1946) and Dorothy Hodgkin was the first (and to date, only) Cambridge woman to win a Nobel Prize; she was recognized for her research on anemia.

Cambridge’s newest distinction is as a major international player in the electronic communications industry; it has been dubbed Britain’s "Silicon Fen."

If you want to read more about these two fine cities and their remarkable universities, I can recommend Peter Sager’s excellent and critically acclaimed book, "Oxford and Cambridge: An Uncommon History" (2006).

The most famous Cambridge college is King’s, founded by Henry VI in 1441
and known for its famous choral music tradition. I had the pleasure of dining there along with some 300 other academics from around the globe attending a four-day international conference on Knowledge, Culture and Change in Organizations — and that is another story.