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University of Cambridge

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University of Cambridge
Motto Hinc lucem et pocula sacra
"[From] here [the university] [we receive] light and sacred draughts [knowledge]."
Established 1209
Chancellor HRH The Duke of Edinburgh
Vice-Chancellor Professor Alison Richard
Location Cambridge, United Kingdom
Students 16,000 total (4,700 graduate)
Member of Russell Group, Coimbra Group, EUA, LERU

The University of Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world (after Oxford). It is situated in the town of Cambridge, England. According to legend, the university was founded in 1209 by scholars escaping from Oxford after a fight with locals there.

Cambridge has produced more Nobel prize winners than any other university in the world, having 80 associated with it, about 70 of whom were students there. It regularly heads league tables ranking British universities, and a recent league table by the Times Higher Education Supplement rated it sixth in the world overall and first for science.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge, often referred to together as Oxbridge, vie to be seen as the strongest overall university in the UK (see Oxbridge rivalry). Historically, they have produced a significant proportion of Britain's prominent scientists, writers and politicians.


General information

The thirty-one Colleges of the university are technically institions independent of the University itself, and they enjoy considerable autonomy. For example, colleges decide which students they are to admit, and appoint their own fellows (senior members). They are responsible for the domestic arrangements and welfare of students and for small group teaching, referred to at the university as (supervisions).

Cambridge is a member of the Russell Group of Universities (a network of large, research-led British universities), the Coimbra Group (an association of leading European universities) and the LERU (League of European Research Universities).

The current Chancellor of the university is HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. The current Vice-Chancellor is Professor Alison Richard.


The first college to be founded was Peterhouse, established in 1284 by Hugh Balsham, Bishop of Ely. Many of the colleges were founded during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, but colleges continued to be established throughout the centuries that followed, right up to modern times. The newest college is Robinson, which was built in the late 1970s. In 2004, there were newspaper reports that Cambridge was planning on expanding its student numbers by adding three new colleges, but this has been denied by the university. A full list of Cambridge colleges is given below

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. However, later on, in conjunction with the Dissolution of the Monasteries, King Henry VIII ordered the University in 1536 to disband its Faculty of Canon Law and to stop teaching "scholastic philosophy." This led to a change in the focus of the colleges' curricula - away from canon law and towards the classics, the Bible, and mathematics.

King's College Chapel, seen from The Backs
King's College Chapel, seen from The Backs

A Cambridge exam for the Bachelor of Arts degree (the main first degree at Cambridge in both arts and science subjects) is known as a Tripos. Although the university now offers courses in a large number of subjects, it had a particularly strong emphasis on Mathematics up until the early 19th century, and study of this subject was compulsory for graduation. Students awarded first-class honours after completing the maths course were named wranglers. The Mathematics Tripos was extremely competitive, and it helped produce some of the most famous names in British science, including Lord Kelvin, Stokes and Maxwell. However, some famous students, such as Hardy disliked the system, feeling that people were too interested in accumulating large numbers of marks in exams and not interested in the subject itself. Despite diversifying 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 maths and theoretical physics.

The first Colleges for women were Girton College 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, 20 years later than at Oxford.

Of the current 31 colleges, three are now for women only (Lucy Cavendish, New Hall, and Newnham College), and four for graduate students only (Clare Hall, Darwin, Wolfson and St Edmund's).


Admission to Cambridge colleges used to be dependent on knowledge of Latin and Greek, subjects taught principally in Britain at public schools. This tended to mean that students came predominantly from members of the British social elite. Since the 1960s changing attitudes have led to a shift towards an admission process that aims for strict meritocracy. Aspiring students are usually expected to have the best, or nearly the best possible qualifications at A-level and to impress College fellows at interviews. In addition, in recent years admissions tutors in certain technical subjects, for example mathematics, have required applicants to sit the more difficult STEP papers in addition to achieving top grades in their A-levels. However, there is still considerable public debate in Britain over whether admissions processes at Oxford and Cambridge are now entirely meritocratic and fair, and whether enough students from state schools succeed in gaining entry.

Sports and recreation

There is a long tradition at Cambridge of student participation in sports and recreational pursuits. Rowing is a particularly popular sport 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, including rugby, cricket, chess and tiddlywinks. Representing the university in certain sports entitles the athlete to apply for a blue at the discretion of a Blues Committee consisting of the captains of the thirteen most prestigious sports . There are many drama societies such as the comedy club Footlights.

Legends and myths

There are also a number of myths associated with Cambridge University and its history, some of which should be taken less seriously than others.

One famous myth relates to Queens' College Mathematical Bridge (pictured below), which was supposedly designed by Isaac Newton to hold itself together without any bolts or screws. It was also supposedly taken apart by inquisitive students who were then unable to reassemble it. The story is false, as the bridge was actually erected 22 years after Newton's death. It is thought that this myth arises from the fact that earlier versions of the bridge used iron pins and screws at the joints, whereas the current bridge uses nuts and bolts (which are more visible).

A true legend is that of the wooden spoon, which was the 'prize' awarded to the last-placed student in the Mathematical Tripos. It was last awarded in 1909 to Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse, an oarsman of the Lady Margaret Boat Club (St John's College). It was over one metre in length, with a blade for a handle. This particular spoon is now in the possession of St John's College.

More recently, the Legend of the Austin Seven delivery van which 'went up in the world' is recounted in detail on the Caius College website.


Cambridge has a partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (see the Cambridge-MIT Institute). The university is closely linked with the high-technology businesses in the Cambridge area (see Silicon Fen). The university and the Cambridge area have also been financially supported by several prominent figures in the technology world, including Gordon Moore of Intel Corporation and Bill Gates of Microsoft. In 2000, Gates set up the Gates Scholarships to help students from outside the UK study at Cambridge.

In the Meiji Era (1868-1912) several Japanese students studied at the University. See here for details. In Japan there is a Cambridge and Oxford Society , a rare example of the name Cambridge coming before Oxford (traditionally, the order used when referring to both universities is "Oxford and Cambridge", even though "C" precedes "O" in the Latin alphabet). The probable reason for the inversion is that the Cambridge Club was founded first in Japan, and also it had more members than its Oxford counterpart when they amalgamated in 1905.


The Mathematical Bridge over the River Cam.
The Mathematical Bridge over the River Cam.
College Founded
Christ's 1505 Website
Churchill 1960 Website
Clare 1326 Website
Clare Hall 1965 Website
Corpus Christi 1352 Website
Darwin 1964 Website
Downing 1800 Website
Emmanuel 1584 Website
Fitzwilliam 1966 Website
Girton 1869 Website
Gonville and Caius 1348 Website
Homerton 1976 Website
Hughes Hall 1885 Website
Jesus 1496 Website
King's 1441 Website
Lucy Cavendish 1965 Website
Magdalene 1428 Website
New Hall 1954 Website
Newnham 1871 Website
Pembroke 1347 Website
Peterhouse 1284 Website
Queens' 1448 Website
Robinson 1979 Website
St Catharine's 1473 Website
St Edmund's 1896 Website
St John's 1511 Website
Selwyn 1882 Website
Censored page 1596 Website
Trinity 1546 Website
Trinity Hall 1350 Website
Wolfson 1965 Website

This list does not include several historical colleges which no longer exist. Some examples of these are:

  • King's Hall (which was founded in 1317)
  • Gonville Hall
  • Michaelhouse (which King Henry VIII combined with King's Hall to make Trinity in 1546).

Cambridge University in fiction

See also the list of Fictional Cambridge Colleges

See also

History and traditions

Societies and leisure activities

Organisations and institutions associated with the university


External links

  • University of Cambridge official website
  • Historical list of Vice-Chancellors
  • Varsity - a student newspaper
  • The Cambridge Student (TCS) - a student newspaper
  • Gown - the graduate magazine
  • Cambridge 2000 - a large collection of photographs of Cambridge architecture
  • Cambridge University jargon
  • Cambridge Search Engine - a comprehensive city guide and directory with thousands of pages of local information contributed by Cambridge residents
  • Coimbra Group (Network of leading European universities)
  • 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 1411612566)

Colleges of the University of Cambridge

Christ's | Churchill | Clare | Clare Hall | Corpus Christi | Darwin | Downing | Emmanuel | Fitzwilliam | Girton | Gonville and Caius | Homerton | Hughes Hall | Jesus | King's | Lucy Cavendish | Magdalene | New Hall | Newnham | Pembroke | Peterhouse | Queens' | Robinson | St Catharine's | St Edmund's | St John's | Selwyn | Censored page | Trinity | Trinity Hall | Wolfson

Coimbra Group
(of European research universities)
Coimbra Group
Aarhus | Bergen | Bologna | Bristol | Budapest | Cambridge | Coimbra | Dublin | Edinburgh | Galway | Geneva | Göttingen | Granada | Graz | Groningen | Heidelberg | Jena | Kraków | Leiden | Leuven | Louvain | Lyon | Montpellier | Oxford | Padua | Pavia | Poitiers | Prague | Salamanca | Siena | Tartu | Thessaloniki | Turku I | Turku II | Uppsala | Würzburg

League of European Research Universities

Cambridge | Edinburgh | Geneva | Heidelberg | Helsinki | Karolinska (Stockholm) | Leiden | Leuven | | Milan | Munich | Oxford | Strasbourg I (Louis Pasteur)

Last updated: 02-07-2005 21:37:29
Last updated: 05-03-2005 02:30:17