University of Cambridge

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Education

University of Cambridge
Cambridge University coat of arms
Latin: Universitas Cantabrigiensis
Motto Hinc lucem et pocula sacra
Literal translation: “From here, light and sacred draughts”. Non-literal: “From the University, we receive enlightenment and precious knowledge”.
Established 1209
Type Public
Chancellor HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
Vice-Chancellor Professor Alison Richard
Students 18,933 (total; 2004–05)
Postgraduates 6,649 (2004–05)
Location Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, England
University surroundings Historic landmark
Affiliations Russell Group, Coimbra Group, EUA, LERU, IARU

The University of Cambridge, located in Cambridge, England, is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world. As reflected in international surveys, it has a reputation as one of the world's most prestigious universities.

Early records indicate that the university grew out of an association of scholars in the city of Cambridge, probably formed in 1209 by scholars escaping from Oxford after a fight with local townsmen.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge are jointly referred to by the portmanteau Oxbridge. In addition to cultural and practical associations as a historic part of English society, the two universities also have a long history of rivalry with each other.

Cambridge is a member of the Russell Group, a network of research-led British universities; the Coimbra Group, an association of leading European universities; the League of European Research Universities; and the International Alliance of Research Universities. It is also considered part of the "Golden Triangle", a geographical concentration of UK university research.

General information

Left to Right: The Senate House, Gonville & Caius College and the University Church (Great St Mary's) from King’s Parade
Left to Right: The Senate House, Gonville & Caius College and the University Church ( Great St Mary's) from King’s Parade

Cambridge is a collegiate university, with its main functions divided between the central departments of the university and 31 colleges. In general, the departments perform research and provide centralised lectures to students, while the colleges are responsible for the domestic arrangements and welfare of undergraduate students, graduate students, some of the postdocs and some University staff. The colleges also provide most of the small group teaching for undergraduates, referred to as supervisions. The thirty-one colleges are technically institutions independent of the university itself and enjoy considerable autonomy. For example, colleges decide which students they are to admit, and appoint their own fellows (senior members). (In Cambridge, “the university” often means the University as opposed to the Colleges.)

The current Chancellor of the university is Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The current Vice-Chancellor is Professor Alison Richard. The office of Chancellor, which is held for life, is mainly symbolic, while the Vice-Chancellor (as is usual at British universities) is the real executive chief. The University is governed entirely by its own members, with no outside representation in its governing bodies. Ultimate authority lies with the Regent House, of which all current Cambridge academic staff are members, but most business is carried out by the Council. The Senate consists of all holders of the M.A. degree or higher degrees. It elects the Chancellor; until their abolition in 1950, it elected Members to the House of Commons for Cambridge University, but otherwise has not had a major role since 1926.


International rankings of research universities produced in 2006 by The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University both ranked Cambridge as second in the world. The THES also ranked Cambridge first in the international academic reputation peer review, first in science, first in biomedicine, first in the arts & humanities, fourth in social sciences, and sixth in technology (note that all university rankings are subject to controversy about their methodology, and that the THES and Jiao Tong tables are the only international rankings available).

According to UCAS, Cambridge and Oxford are the most academically selective universities in the United Kingdom — there is a special national admissions process which sets Oxbridge apart from other UK universities.

The university has often topped league tables ranking British universities — for instance, Cambridge was ranked first in the Sunday Times league table every year between 1997 and 2006. In the most recent UK government Research Assessment Exercise in 2001 , Cambridge was ranked first in the country. In 2005, it was reported that Cambridge produces more PhDs per year than any other UK university (over 30% more than second placed Oxford) . In 2006, a Thomson Scientific study showed that Cambridge has the highest research paper output of any UK university, and is also the top research producer (as assessed by total paper citation count) in 10 out of 21 major UK research fields analyzed . Another study published the same year by Evidence showed that Cambridge won a larger proportion (6.6%) of total UK research grants and contracts than any other university (coming first in three out of four broad discipline fields) .

Historically, the university has produced a significant proportion of Britain’s prominent scientists, writers and politicians. Affiliates of Cambridge University have won a total of 81 Nobel Prizes , more than any other university in the world and more than any country in the world except the United Kingdom and the United States. Seventy of these awardees also attended Cambridge as undergraduate or graduate students.

In addition to a long distinguished tradition in the humanities and the arts, the University of Cambridge is especially known for producing prominent scientists and mathematicians. This distinguished list includes Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, William Harvey, Paul Dirac, J. J. Thomson, Ernest Rutherford, James Clerk Maxwell, Francis Crick, Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, and Fred Sanger.

The university is also closely linked with the development of the high-tech business cluster in and around Cambridge, which forms the area known as Silicon Fen or sometimes the “Cambridge Phenomenon”. In 2004, it was reported that Silicon Fen was the second largest venture capital market in the world, after Silicon Valley. Estimates reported in February 2006 suggest that there were about 250 active startup companies directly linked with the university, worth around US$6 billion .


Cambridge’s financial endowment (including the colleges), was estimated at £4.1 billion in late 2006 (it was estimated at £3.1 billion in late 2005 ). The endowment is arguably the largest in Europe. Oxford (including its colleges) is possibly ranked second, having reported an endowment valued at £3.9bn in mid-2006 (in 2005, estimates for Oxford ranged from £2.4bn to £2.9bn ), and the Central European University in Budapest third with an estimated €400 million in 2005. The share of Cambridge’s endowment directly tied to the university itself is over £1.2 billion, as reported in late 2006 . However, investment income represents only a small percentage of Cambridge's income - the university still relies on funding by the UK government for roughly a third of its income (research grants accounting for another third). If ranked on a US university table using figures reported in 2005, Cambridge would rank sixth or seventh (depending on whether one includes the University of Texas System — which incorporates nine full scale universities and six health institutions), or 4th in the Ivy League .

In 2005, the Cambridge 800th Anniversary Campaign was launched, aimed at raising £1 billion by 2012 — the first US-style university fundraising campaign in Europe. £300 million of funds had already been secured in the pre-launch period.


Early history

Roger of Wendover wrote that Cambridge University could trace its origins to a crime committed in 1209. Although not always a reliable source, the detail given in his contemporaneous writings lends them credence. Two Oxford scholars were convicted of the murder or manslaughter of a woman and were hanged by the town authorities with the assent of the King. In protest at the hanging, the University of Oxford went into voluntary suspension, and scholars migrated to a number of other locations, including the pre-existing school at Cambridge (Cambridge had been recorded as a “school” rather than University when John Grim held the office of Master there in 1201). These post-graduate researchers from Oxford started Cambridge’s life as a University in 1209. Cambridge’s status as a University is further confirmed by a decree in 1233 from Pope Gregory IX which awarded the ius non trahi extra (a form of legal protection) to the chancellor and universitas of scholars at Cambridge. After Cambridge was recognised by papal bull as a studium generale by Pope Nicholas IV in 1290, it became common for researchers from other European medieval universities to come and visit Cambridge to study or to give lecture courses.

The Colleges

Cambridge’s colleges were originally an incidental feature of the system. No college is as old as the university itself. The colleges were endowed fellowships of scholars. There were also institutions without endowments, called Hostels. The hostels were gradually absorbed by the colleges over the centuries, but they have left some indicators of their time, such as the name of Garrett Hostel Lane.

Hugh Balsham, Bishop of Ely, founded Peterhouse in 1284, Cambridge’s first college. Many colleges were founded during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but colleges continued to be established throughout the centuries to modern times, although there was a gap of 204 years between the founding of Sidney Sussex in 1596 and Downing in 1800. The most recent college established is Robinson, built in the late 1970s.

In medieval times, colleges were founded so that their students would pray for the souls of the founders. For that reason they were often associated with chapels or abbeys. A change in the colleges’ focus occurred in 1536 with the dissolution of the monasteries. King Henry VIII ordered the university to disband its Faculty of Canon Law and to stop teaching “scholastic philosophy”. In response, colleges changed their curricula away from canon law and towards the classics, the Bible, and mathematics.

Clare College (left) and King’s College Chapel (centre), seen from The Backs
Clare College (left) and King’s College Chapel (centre), seen from The Backs


From the time of Isaac Newton in the later 17th century until the mid-19th century, the university maintained a strong emphasis on mathematics. Study of this subject was compulsory for graduation, and students were required to take an exam for the Bachelor of Arts degree, the main first degree at Cambridge in both arts and science subjects. This exam is known as a Tripos. Students awarded first-class honours after completing the mathematics Tripos were named wranglers. The Cambridge Mathematical Tripos was competitive and helped produce some of the most famous names in British science, including James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, and Lord Rayleigh. However, some famous students, such as G. H. Hardy, disliked the system, feeling that people were too interested in accumulating marks in exams and not interested in the subject itself.

Although diversified in its research and teaching interests, Cambridge today maintains its strength in mathematics. The Isaac Newton Institute, part of the university, is widely regarded as the UK’s national research institute for mathematics and theoretical physics. Cambridge alumni have won eight Fields Medals and one Abel Prize for mathematics. The University also runs a special Certificate of Advanced Studies in Mathematics course.

Women’s education

Originally all students were male. The first colleges for women were Girton College (founded by Emily Davies) in 1869 and Newnham College in 1872. The first women students were examined in 1882 but attempts to make women full members of the university did not succeed until 1947. Although Cambridge did not give degrees to women until this date women were in fact allowed to study courses, sit examinations, and have their results recorded from the nineteenth century onwards. In the twentieth century women could be given a “titular degree”; although they were not denied recognised qualifications, without a full degree they were excluded from the governing of the university. Since students must belong to a college, and since established colleges remained closed to women, women found admissions restricted to colleges established only for women. All of the men’s colleges began to admit women between 1960 and 1988. One women’s college, Girton, also began to admit men, but the other women’s colleges did not follow suit. In the academic year 2004-5, the university’s student gender ratio, including post-graduates, was male 52%: female 48% (Source: Cambridge University Reporter, ).

Research and teaching

Cambridge University has research departments and teaching faculties in most academic disciplines. Cambridge tends to have a slight bias towards scientific subjects, but it also has a number of strong humanities and social science faculties. Academic staff (and often graduate students for the larger subjects) teach the undergraduates in both lectures and personal supervisions in which a ratio of one teacher to between one and three students is usually maintained. This pedagogical system is often cited as being unique to the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford (where “supervisions” are known as “tutorials”) — similar practices can be found elsewhere, though not on the Oxbridge scale.

All research and lectures are conducted by University Departments. The colleges are in charge of giving or arranging most supervisions, student accommodation, and funding most extra-curricula activities. During the 1990s Cambridge added a substantial number of new specialist research laboratories on several University sites around the city, and major expansion continues on a number of sites .




Prior to 20th century reforms of the UK education system, modern Cambridge undergraduate admissions tended to be drawn largely from the fee-paying public or independent schools. This resulted in a student body predominantly drawn from members of the British social elite.

The admissions process underwent major reforms in the 1960s

The proportion drawn from public/independent schools has diminished over the years, and now form a significant minority of the intake. In 2005, UK applicants from public/independent schools accounted for 38.3% of the total number of undergraduate acceptances .


The application system to Cambridge and Oxford is set apart from other British universities, with applications made earlier, and additional specific paperwork required. What is also unique is that all candidates are typically subject to face-to-face interviews.

How applicants perform in the interview process best determines which candidates are accepted . Most applicants are expected to be predicted at least three A-grade A-level qualifications relevant to their chosen undergraduate course, or equivalent overseas qualifications. Due to a very high proportion receiving the highest school grades, this makes the intervew process crucial at distinguising the most able candidates . In 2005, 5,325 students were rejected who went on to get 3 A levels or more at grade A, representing about 60% of all applicants rejected . The interview is performed by College Fellows, who evaluate candidates on unexamined factors such as potential for original thinking and creativity as expressed in extra-curricular activities . In a few cases, candidates may be offered an unconditional place.

In recent years, admissions tutors in certain subjects have required applicants to sit the more difficult STEP papers in addition to achieving top grades in their A-levels or International Baccalaureate diplomas. For example, Peterhouse requires 1 and 2 or better in STEP as well as A grades at A-levels including A-level Mathematics and Further Mathematics in order to be considered for entry for the Mathematical Tripos. Between one-half and two-thirds of those who apply with the correct grades are given offers of a place.

Public debate in the United Kingdom continues over whether admissions processes at Oxford and Cambridge are entirely merit based and fair, whether enough students from state schools are encouraged to apply to Cambridge, and whether these students succeed in gaining entry. Almost half of all successful applicants come from independent schools. However, the average qualifications for successful applicants from state schools are poorer than the average qualification of successful applicants from private schools. The lack of state school applicants to Cambridge and Oxford has had a negative impact on Oxbridge’s reputation for many years, and the University has encouraged pupils from state schools to apply for Cambridge to help redress the imbalance. Critics counter that excessive government pressure to increase state school admissions constitutes inappropriate social engineering .

Graduate admission is first decided by the faculty or department relating to the applicant’s subject. This effectively guarantees admission to a college - though not necessarily the applicant’s preferred choice (see the Board of Graduate Studies admissions flowchart).

Sports and other extracurricular activities

Cambridge maintains a long tradition of student participation in sports and recreation. Rowing is a particularly popular sport at Cambridge, and there are competitions between colleges (notably the bumps races) and against Oxford (the Boat Race). There are also Varsity matches against Oxford in many other sports, ranging from rugby (see Cambridge University RUFC) and cricket, to chess and tiddlywinks. Athletes representing the university in certain sports entitle them to apply for a Cambridge Blue at the discretion of the Blues Committee, consisting of the captains of the thirteen most prestigious sports. There is also the self-described “unashamedly elite” Hawks’ Club (men only), whose membership is usually restricted to Cambridge Full Blues and Half Blues.

The Cambridge Union serves as a focus for debating. Drama societies notably include the Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC) and the comedy club Footlights, which are known for producing well-known showbusiness personalities. Student newspapers include the long-established Varsity and its younger rival, The Cambridge Student. The student-run radio station, CUR1350, promotes broadcast journalism.

Myths, legends and traditions

The Mathematical Bridge over the river Cam (at Queens’ College)
The Mathematical Bridge over the river Cam (at Queens’ College)

There are many popular myths associated with Cambridge University.

One famous myth relates to Queens’ College’s so-called Mathematical Bridge (pictured right). Supposedly constructed by Sir Isaac Newton, it reportedly held itself together without any bolts or screws. Legend has it inquisitive students took it apart and were then unable to reassemble it without bolts. However, the bridge was erected 22 years after Newton’s death. This myth may have arisen from the fact that earlier versions of the bridge used iron pins and screws at the joints, whereas the current bridge uses more visible nuts and bolts.

Another famous myth involves the Clare Bridge of Clare College. Spherical stone ornaments adorn this bridge. One of these has a quarter sphere wedge removed from the back. This is a feature pointed out on almost all tours over the bridge. Legend has it that the bridge’s builder was not paid in full due to the college’s dissatisfaction with its construction. The builder thus took revenge and committed an act of petty vandalism. Though lacking evidence, this legend is commonly accepted.

A discontinued tradition is that of the wooden spoon, the ‘prize’ awarded to the student with the lowest passing grade in the final examinations of the Mathematical Tripos. The last of these spoons was awarded in 1909 to Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, an oarsman of the Lady Margaret Boat Club of St John’s College. It was over one metre in length and had an oar blade for a handle. Since 1909, results were published alphabetically within class rather than score order. This made it harder to ascertain who the winner of the spoon was (unless there was only one person in the third class), and so the practice was abandoned.

On the other hand, the legend of the Austin Seven delivery van that ended up on the apex of the Senate House is no myth at all. The Caius College website recounts in detail how this vehicle “went up in the world”.


View over Trinity College, Gonville and Caius, Trinity Hall and Clare College towards King’s College Chapel, seen from St John’s College chapel. On the left, just in front of Kings College chapel, is the University Senate House
View over Trinity College, Gonville and Caius, Trinity Hall and Clare College towards King’s College Chapel, seen from St John’s College chapel. On the left, just in front of Kings College chapel, is the University Senate House

The University of Cambridge currently has 31 colleges, of which three admit only women ( New Hall, Newnham and Lucy Cavendish). The remaining 28 are mixed, Magdalene being the last all-male college to admit women in 1988. Two colleges admit only postgraduates ( Clare Hall and Darwin), and four more admit mainly mature students or graduate students ( Hughes Hall, Lucy Cavendish, St Edmund’s and Wolfson). The other 25 colleges admit mainly undergraduate students, but also postgraduates following courses of study or research. Although various colleges are traditionally strong in a particular subject, for example Churchill has a formalized bias towards the sciences and engineering, the colleges all admit students from just about the whole range of subjects, although some colleges do not take students for a handful of subjects such as architecture or history of art. It is noteworthy that costs to students (accommodation and food prices) vary considerably from college to college. This may be of increasing significance to potential applicants as Government grants decline in the next few years.

There are several historical colleges which no longer exist, such as King’s Hall (founded in 1317) and Michaelhouse which were combined together by King Henry VIII to establish Trinity in 1546. Also, Gonville Hall was founded in 1348 and then re-founded in 1557 as Gonville & Caius.

There are also several theological colleges in Cambridge, (for example Westminster College and Ridley Hall Theological College) that are loosely affiliated with the university through the Cambridge Theological Federation.

See also the list of Fictional Cambridge Colleges

Selected notable members

  • James Clerk Maxwell (Peterhouse, Trinity)
  • Ian McKellen (St Catharine’s)
  • A. A. Milne (Trinity)
  • John Milton (Christ’s)
  • Vladimir Nabokov (Trinity)
  • Jawaharlal Nehru (Trinity)
  • Isaac Newton (Trinity)
  • Sylvia Plath (Newnham)
  • Salman Rushdie (King’s)
  • Bertrand Russell (Trinity)
  • Ernest Rutherford (Trinity)
  • Fred Sanger (St John’s)
  • Siegfried Sassoon (Clare)
  • Simon Schama (Christ’s)
  • Amartya Sen (Trinity)
  • Manmohan Singh (St. John’s)
  • Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Trinity)
  • J.J. Thomson (Trinity)
  • Emma Thompson (Newnham)
  • Alan Turing (King’s)
  • James D. Watson (Clare)
  • William Wilberforce (St John’s)
  • Maurice Wilkins (St John’s)
  • Michael Winner (Downing)
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein (Trinity)
  • William Wordsworth (St John’s)
  • Lee Kuan Yew (Fitzwilliam)

Cambridge University in literature and popular culture


  • Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale takes place at Soler Halle – another name for King’s Hall, which later became part of Trinity College, Cambridge.
  • The Glittering Prizes (1976 TV drama) and Oxbridge Blues (1984 TV drama) by Frederic Raphael.
  • The Longest Journey and Maurice by E.M. Forster
  • Still Life by A. S. Byatt
  • Chariots of Fire, 1981 film
  • Peter's Friends, 1992 film
  • The Masters and The Affair by C. P. Snow (features an unnamed fictional college, partly based on his own college, Christ’s)
  • Porterhouse Blue and its sequel Grantchester Grind feature Porterhouse, a fictional Cambridge College.
  • Darkness at Pemberley by T. H. White
  • All Sorts and Conditions of Men by Sir Walter Besant
  • High Table, Lower Orders BBC Radio comedy serial broadcast in 2005 and 2006 set in a college with some resemblance to Magdalene
  • The medieval murder mysteries of Susanna Gregory
  • Avenging Angel, a murder mystery by the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah
  • Eskimo Day is a 1996 BBC TV drama, written by Jack Rosenthal, and starring Maureen Lipman, Tom Wilkinson, and Alec Guinness, about the relationship between parents and teenagers during an admissions interview day at Queens’ College. There was also a 1997 sequel, Cold Enough for Snow.
  • The final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, ( All Good Things…) features the android character Data as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in his Cambridge college rooms. An establishing location shot shows a futuristic version of the Cambridge University skyline around the year 2395.
  • Civilization (computer game) - a classic turn-based strategy video game by Sid Meier features “Isaac Newton’s College” as a Wonder of the World - this could be a reference to Cambridge University as a whole or to Trinity College, Cambridge specifically.
  • In many novels und plays by Thomas Bernhard, Cambridge (Geistesnest) is the refuge of a Geistesmensch escaping from Austria
  • In Tom Stoppard's 2006 play Rock 'n Roll, Cambridge University is a key setting.


  • A concise history of the University of Cambridge, by Elisabeth Leedham-Green, Cambridge University Press, 1996, ISBN 0-521-43978-7, ISBN 978-0-521-43978-7
  • A history of the University of Cambridge, by Christopher N.L. Brooke, Cambridge University Press, 4 volumes, 1988-2004, ISBN 0-521-32882-9, ISBN 0-521-35059-X, ISBN 0-521-35060-3, ISBN 0-521-34350-X
  • Bedders, bulldogs and bedells: a Cambridge glossary, by Frank Stubbings, Cambridge 1995 ISBN 0-521-47978-9
  • Japanese Students at Cambridge University in the Meiji Era, 1868-1912: Pioneers for the Modernization of Japan , by Noboru Koyama, translated by Ian Ruxton , Lulu Press, September 2004, ISBN 1-4116-1256-6. This book includes information about the wooden spoon and the university in the 19th century as well as the Japanese students.
  • Teaching and Learning in 19th century Cambridge, by J. Smith and C. Stray (ed.), Boydell Press, 2001 ISBN 0-85115-783-1
  • The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge and of the Colleges of Cambridge and Eton, Robert Willis, Edited by John Willis Clark, 1988. Three volume set, Cambridge University Press ISBN 0-521-35851-5
  • The Cambridge Apostles: A History of Cambridge University’s Elite Intellectual Secret Society, by Richard Deacon, Cassell, 1985, ISBN 0-947728-13-9

University activities

History and traditions

  • Cambridge University Professorships, Chancellors and Vice-Chancellors
  • Cambridge University (UK Parliament constituency)
  • Registrary
  • List of Oxbridge sister colleges
  • Oxbridge scarf colours
  • Academic dress of the University of Cambridge
  • Formal Hall (formal evening meals)

Societies and leisure activities

Dramatic clubs

  • Amateur Dramatic Club
  • Footlights

Sports clubs

  • Cambridge University Association Football League
  • Cambridge University Boat Club which races the Boat Race against Oxford University
  • Cambridge University Cricket Club
  • Cambridge University Association Football Club
  • Cambridge University Rugby Union Football Club

Political clubs

  • The Cambridge Union Society
  • Cambridge Student Liberal Democrats
  • Cambridge University Conservative Association
  • Cambridge University Labour Club

Social clubs

  • Cambridge Apostles
  • Pitt Club

Other clubs

  • Cambridge University Student Alliances
  • CICCU, the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union
  • Hawks’ Club
  • May Balls
  • Punting
  • For a more complete list see List of social activities at the University of Cambridge
  • See also: University website list of societies

Retrieved from ""