University of Cambridge

Template:Infobox British University The University of Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world. It was probably founded in 1209 by scholars escaping from Oxford after a fight with locals there. Like the other very early universities, it was not exactly "founded" in the sense that later institutions were: it grew out of an association of scholars. The university is situated in Cambridge, England, and its presence dominates much of the city.

Cambridge has produced more Nobel prize laureates than any other university in the world, having 80 associated with it, about 70 of whom were students there. [1] ( It has often topped league tables ranking British universities, and a recent, although often disputed, ranking by the Times Higher Education Supplement rated Cambridge first in the world for science, as well as sixth worldwide overall.

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

Left to Right: The ,  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

The thirty-one colleges of the university 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). They are responsible for the domestic arrangements and welfare of students and for small group teaching, referred to at the university as supervisions. In Cambridge, "the university" often means the University as opposed to the Colleges.

Cambridge is a member of the Russell Group, 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 office of Chancellor, who holds office 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, but otherwise has not had a major role since 1926.


Colleges were originally an incidental feature of the system: no college is as old as the university itself. They were endowed fellowships of scholars. There were also institutions without endowments, which were called Hostels at Cambridge but Halls at Oxford (which causes confusion since the terms College and Hall were used interchangeably in Cambridge).

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 most recent college to be established 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 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, in 1536, in conjunction 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." This led to a change in the focus of the colleges' curricula — away from canon law and towards the classics, the Bible, and mathematics.

Missing image
Clare College (left) and King's College Chapel (centre), 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 from the time of Isaac Newton until the mid-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 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. 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.

Originally, all students were male. 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. It is sometimes stated that Cambridge did not give degrees to women until this date: although true this is misleading. From the nineteenth century women were allowed to study courses, sit examinations, and have the result recorded: this was treated by other institutions as a degree. In the twentieth century women could be given a "titular degree". The difference was that without a full degree women were excluded from the governing of the university. Hence it was a denial of the vote rather than of a qualification. Because it was necessary to belong to a residential college, and all the old colleges were for men only, the number of women students was severely limited by the smaller number of women's colleges until the 1960s, when the men's colleges began to go mixed. One women's college (Girton) went mixed, but the others took the view that until the gender ratio problem was completely solved they should not limit the number of women's places by admitting men.

Of the current 31 colleges, 28 are mixed, while three admit women only (Lucy Cavendish, New Hall and Newnham). Three colleges admit graduate students only (Clare Hall, Darwin and Wolfson).


Undergraduate admission to Cambridge colleges used to depend on knowledge of Latin and Ancient Greek, subjects taught principally in Britain at fee-paying schools, called public schools. This tended to mean that students came predominantly from members of the British social elite. Since the 1960s, the admission process has changed, and aspiring students are now expected to have the best, or nearly the best, possible qualifications at A-level relevant to the undergraduate course they are applying for and to impress college fellows at interview. 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 entirely meritocratic and fair, and whether enough students from state schools succeed in gaining entry. Almost 50% of the successful applicants come from public schools, but the average qualifications for these successful applicants are higher than for successful applicants from state schools.

Graduate admission is decided by the faculty or department relating to the applicant's subject — following this, admission to a college (not necessarily the applicant's preferred choice) is guaranteed.

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. [2] (

The Cambridge Union is a focus for politics and debating. There are also many drama societies, notably the Amateur Dramatic Club (ADC) and the comedy club Footlights. Student newspapers include the long-established Varsity and its younger rival, The Cambridge Student.

Myths and Legends

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

There are a number of popular 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's so-called Mathematical Bridge (pictured right), which was supposedly constructed by Sir 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 without the use of bolts. The story is false, as the bridge was 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 student with the lowest passing grade in the final examinations of the Mathematical Tripos. The last of many 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, with a blade for a handle. From 1910, results were published alphabetically within class as opposed to score order, which made it harder to ascertain who the winner of the spoon was (unless there was only one person in the third class), and so reluctantly the practice was abandoned.

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. [3] (


Missing image
St Johns College New Court and Chapel seen from The Backs

Building on its reputation for science and technology, Cambridge has a partnership with MIT in the United States, the Cambridge-MIT Institute. The university is also closely linked with many of the high-tech businesses in and around Cambridge, which form the area known as Silicon Fen. Cambridge businesses and the university 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, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation set up the Gates Scholarships to help students from outside the UK study at Cambridge. The University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory is also housed in a building partly funded by Gates and named after him.

After Cambridge was recognised as a Studium Generale in the 13th century, it became common for researchers from other European medieval universities to come and visit Cambridge to study or to give lecture courses.

In the Meiji Era (1868-1912), several Japanese students studied at the university.[4] ( In Japan, there is a Cambridge and Oxford Society[5] (, a rare example of the name Cambridge coming before Oxford when the two universities are referred to together — 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 this inversion is that the Cambridge Club was founded first in Japan, and it also had more members than its Oxford counterpart when they amalgamated in 1905.


View over ,  and  towards  Chapel, seen from  chapel. On the left, just in front of Kings College chapel, is the University
View over Trinity College, Gonville and Caius and Clare College towards King's College Chapel, seen from St Johns College chapel. On the left, just in front of Kings College chapel, is the University Senate House
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 (
Sidney Sussex 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 (founded in 1348 and re-founded in 1557 as Gonville & Caius)
  • Michaelhouse (which King Henry VIII combined with King's Hall to make Trinity in 1546).

Cambridge University in literature


See also the list of Fictional Cambridge Colleges


  • A concise history of the University of Cambridge, by Elisabeth Leedham-Green, Cambridge University Press, 1996, ISBN 0521439787, ISBN 9780521439787
  • A history of the University of Cambridge, by Christopher N.L. Brooke, Cambridge University Press, 4 volumes, 1988-2004, ISBN 0521328829, ISBN 052135059X, ISBN 0521350603, ISBN 052134350X
  • Bedders, bulldogs and bedells: a Cambridge glossary, by Frank Stubbings, Cambridge 1995 ISBN 0521479789
  • Japanese Students at Cambridge University in the Meiji Era, 1868-1912: Pioneers for the Modernization of Japan [6] (, by Noboru Koyama, translated by Ian Ruxton [7] (, Lulu Press, September 2004, ISBN 1411612566). 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 0851157831
  • 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 0521358515
  • The Cambridge Apostles: A History of Cambridge University's Elite Intellectual Secret Society, by Richard Deacon, Cassell, 1985, ISBN 0947728139

See also

Assorted alumni

History and traditions

Societies and leisure activities

Organisations and institutions associated with the university


External links


Colleges of the University of Cambridge Arms of the University

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 | Sidney Sussex | Trinity | Trinity Hall | Wolfson

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

Template:LERUcy:Prifysgol Caergrawnt de:Universitt Cambridge es:Universidad de Cambridge eo:Universitato de Kembriĝo fr:Universit de Cambridge it:Universit di Cambridge he:אוניברסיטת קיימברידג' hu:Cambridge-i Egyetem nl:Universiteit van Cambridge ja:ケンブリッジ大学 pl:Uniwersytet w Cambridge pt:Universidade de Cambridge th:มหาวิทยาลัยเคมบริดจ์ zh:剑桥大学


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