The universities of Oxford and Cambridge (collectively and colloquially referred to by their portmanteau: “Oxbridge”) are considered the jewels of tertiary education in the United Kingdom, and for large swathes of history, the entirety of the English-speaking world. After all, even Gatsby was proud to refer to himself as “an Oxford man.” As such, it is only natural that more often than not, those who aspire to study in the United Kingdom have their eyes set on these storied institutions. But what’s so special about Oxbridge? That is, at the end of the day, what is it, really, that makes Oxford and Cambridge so special?
In a single phrase: residential colleges. The residential college system is what sets Oxbridge apart from other institutions. Indeed, the residential college systems pioneered by Oxford and Cambridge are so recognized to be a hallmark of a top-tier tertiary education that it is imitated by venerated institutions such as Harvard and Yale. However, while Harvard’s House system and Yale’s own residential colleges provide some amazing perks and serve as wonderful centers of community, they can be reduced to glorified residential halls that are essentially dependent on the university.
Oxbridge colleges, on the other hand, exercise an incredible amount of independence. In fact, the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge are essentially federations under which constituent colleges (38 at Oxford, 31 at Cambridge) , like those at Harvard and Yale, organize their own living accommodations and social events, but also go on hire their own faculty, manage their own sports facilities and endowments (which can vary wildly between colleges!), and provide general student support services, covering everything from health insurance to financial assistance. Oxbridge colleges even oversee their own admissions processes; when prospective students apply to either Oxford or Cambridge (an applicant can only apply to one in a particular cycle), they are not just applying to the university, but rather a particular college at that university.
Being composed of anywhere from 300 to 500 undergraduates (depending on the college) studying a broad range of subjects at any given time, the constituent colleges of Oxford and Cambridge offer on an education that, with the exception of small liberal arts colleges in the United States, is practically unheard of in terms of intimacy and personal interaction between students and faculty. More often than not, the small size of the undergraduate student body at the typical Oxbridge college means that there could be as few as two students or as many as twenty students studying the same subject in a given year group.
This degree of intimacy allows for a system of teaching that focuses on small groups of students. To be clear, teaching to small groups of students is present at many other institutions as well, but it is usually reserved for graduate students in other institutions. Known as tutorials at Oxford and supervisions at Cambridge, these sessions, typically lasting an hour at a time (although it’s not unheard of for some to go on for much longer) typically comprise the bulk of an undergraduate’s education and are often held on a one-on-one basis. Indeed, by most accounts, the degree of personalized contact between faculty and students provided by tutorials and supervisions is what really sets Oxford and Cambridge apart from most universities; the regular, individualized attention students receive allows them to be constantly and newly challenged and supported in their academic development. To put it bluntly, there are very few universities that can afford to mandate this level of contact between its instructors and students, and of those that could, very few do.
At the end of the day, the Oxbridge colleges, being diverse in their specialties and functions, provide their prospective applicants with a flexible range of options; and should these aforementioned students apply and be admitted, these colleges have, needless to say, provide an education that has, in many respects, proven to be unparalleled.