University of Oxford: Europe's most prestigious university

L’università più prestigiosa e antica del Regno Unito si divide in decine di colleges sparsi per tutta Oxford, una città invasa da studenti e professori che respirano usanze e tradizioni millenarie pur dedicandosi al futuro con le loro ricerche innovative.

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University of Oxford

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Oxford University is one of the top universities in the world, but unlike top American universities such as Harvard, it’s public. That means that students pay fees to study there but (in the case of British students) the cost of courses is subsidised by the UK government. It is also the oldest university in the English-speaking world, with evidence of teaching at Oxford as far back as 1096. To put this in context, the world’s oldest university, Bologna, was founded in 1088, and the University of Salamanca in 1134. Cambridge University was not founded until the early 13th century.


A tourist arriving in Oxford might expect to see a big main gateway leading to a large university campus. In fact, Oxford University is divided into no less than thirty-nine separate colleges that are spread out throughout the city. Each has its own name and was founded at a different time in history. Each has its own library, student bar, and dining room. The dining room at Christ Church College, for example, was the model for the Great Hall at Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. Most also have a chapel. Some colleges have beautiful gardens; Magdalen College even has its own park with deer in it!

Christ Church College


There are many other university buildings around the city. These include the huge Bodleian library —or “the Bod”, as students often call it—, the Ashmolean Museum, with its famous collection of mummies, the Sheldonian Theatre, built in the 17th century, where graduation ceremonies still take place in Latin, as well as the neoclassical Clarendon Building, the original site of Oxford University Press, responsible for the Oxford English Dictionary.

Bodleian Library


Until the early 19th century, Oxford and Cambridge were the only two universities that existed in the UK, and the word ‘Oxbridge’ is often used to refer to the two universities together. It’s typical for members of Oxford University to refer to Cambridge University as “the other place”, and vice versa. About 24,000 students now study at the University of Oxford. Add to that 18,000 students from the city’s other university, Oxford Brookes, and you have a lot of students in Oxford during term time —about a quarter of the city’s population.

the great educator

The University of Oxford doesn’t have a central campus but is divided up into thirty-nine separate colleges. If you look at an aerial photo of Oxford you can see the outlines of these colleges. Most of them have grassy quadrangles (‘quads’) and together they cover a large area of the city, especially in the centre. The colleges vary in size but on average about five hundred students live and study in each one.


While we know that some kind of teaching was taking place in Oxford by 1096, there is no exact date or act that marked the foundation of the university as an educational centre. To find out more about the University of Oxford’s fascinating history, Speak Up contacted Felicity Lewington, a member of the Oxford Guild of Tour Guides. She began by explaining how the prestigious university evolved into today’s elaborate system of colleges.

Felicity Lewington (English accent): There is no foundation date for the university. It seemed to arise out of the monasteries that developed during the Middle Ages. Four very powerful monasteries arose. And it’s in the monasteries that teaching took place. One of the things that we mustn’t forget is that the Church, as well as being a religious foundation, was a great educator as well. So, it’s in the monasteries where teaching takes place within the city. Then, gradually, over time, we then find that we have charismatic teachers. These masters, as they were known, gathered around them scholars who were interested in learning together but living together. And so you have these brotherhoods of learning and these were halls of residence


From the early days, wealthy benefactors secured funds for Oxford and ensured that it could evolve as a learning institution. The latest college is Reuben College, a graduate-only college that was established in May 2019. It was named after the Reuben family, the second richest family in the UK, who hold an educational trust.  

Felicity Lewington: Over periods of time, these halls of residence  went dissolved away and we have colleges endowed by rich and powerful benefactors. And the college system is the system that has survived the test of time. Because these early benefactors gave income that could be reinvested over time and so that secured the finances and it secured the fact that they could then build, and so throughout the city you have these ancient colleges.


Oxford University played a special role during the English Civil War, a battle that was fought between Royalists and Parliamentarians in the mid-17th century. Lewington describes what happened.

Felicity Lewington: London fell to the Parliamentarians, and so the king, Charles I, had to leave London very quickly and swiftly and he came to the second most important city in England at that time, and that was Oxford. So, he sets up his government in Oxford. He lives in Christ Church, which is one of the largest of the thirty-nine colleges here. He has rooms, an apartment within the college. His wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, joins him for a period of time. And she’s housed, with her huge retinue, in Merton College, which is literally a few minutes away from Christ Church College. They requisition some of the University buildings, so for example the Divinity School Room, which is one of the big teaching rooms —it still exists to this day— was used as their parliament, the Royalist Parliament. 


The university has a long list of famous alumni: women and men who went on to become world leaders, Nobel prize winners, actors, athletes and more. Lewington highlights two of the university’s most famous literary alumni. 

Felicity Lewington: When the modern students are in these ancient colleges, they’re walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest writers, scientists, thinkers of their age. And Oxford is very famous for having produced many great writers. Everybody would recognise the name J. R. R. Tolkien as the writer of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Well, he was a student at Oxford just before the First World War. He went to Exeter College in 1912. And he wrote his book though as a professor. He came back to Oxford as what is known as a ‘don’. The teachers at Oxford are not called ‘teacher’ or ‘professor’, they’re given a very polite Latin name, ‘don’, meaning ‘gentleman’. And so he came back as a don and he wrote his great books as a don in Oxford. 


Science is also of particular importance at the university, and one of its most famous graduates was computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, who went on to invent the world wide web. 

Felicity Lewington: We also have scientists, and we’ve got a very interesting woman called Dorothy Hodgkin, who in 1964 was the first female to be awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry. And we have a name that very few people actually recognise, but you all use the technology that he devised, and that is the world wide web. Tim Berners-Lee was a graduate from Oxford who then went to work at CERN in Switzerland, and felt that the most important thing was that computers should be able to talk to each other, something that hadn’t happened before. And you then had this revolution that has allowed us all to communicate.


The expression ‘town and gown’ is used to describe the two sectors of Oxford inhabitants:  ‘town’ refers to people who live in the city but are not part of the university, while ‘gown’ refers to university members. A ‘gown’ is the black academic robe that University of Oxford students have to wear when taking exams. Although today the University of Oxford is at the vanguard of research and learning, traditions like gown-wearing are a reminder of the university’s nine-hundred year history.

Bridge Oxford

Felicity Lewington: The university is famous for some of its rituals that are known throughout the world, and others that are not. Well, one ritual that many people do know is the uniform that students wear at Oxford. No other university in the UK wears any kind of uniform. It’s called ‘sub fusc’, from the Latin ‘sub’ meaning ‘under’, and ‘fusc’, ‘dark’. And it’s the remains of the ancient priests’ garments because of the early university’s links to religion. These dark gowns are worn on exam days and for other important times within the university terms. When they wear them for exams, the men —the male students— have to wear a black suit with a long black gown over it, they have to wear what’s known as white tie. This is a scratchy white shirt with a bow tie, which they have to tie themselves. Women wear black skirts or black trousers, a white shirt and a little black tie.


Another more colourful tradition is that of wearing colour-coded flowers, specifically carnations, into exams. Lewington talks more about it. 

Felicity Lewington: On examination days, another ritual has really taken off in the last few years, and that is friends giving you flowers to wear to show the different days of the exams. On the first day of your exam, because your exams last over several days, students wear a white carnation. That shows that they are on the first day of their exams. On the penultimate day of the exam, they wear pink, and on the final day of their exams, they wear red, and then they go mad when the exams are finished.  

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