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Enlightened Minds’ Derby: Oxford vs. Cambridge

Enlightened Minds’ Derby: Oxford vs. Cambridge Rewarding rivalries

In the beginning, there was the… bludgeon – in an episode of the “town vs. gown” saga. The first faction – that of the trueborn townsfolk; the second one – of the academics – alien and politically privileged as opposed to the locals. In 1209, following a harsh clash between the two Oxford factions – NB: a town with academic activity dating as far back as 1096 –, several studious individuals fled to Cambridge and laid the foundation of the university with the same name, yet bringing with them the same social tension. Nicknamed “Oxbridge”, given their common historical and institutional features, the two venerable English universities have developed a mutual condescension over time. Though aristocratic and non-aggressive, it was seemingly even more defiant in its staunch refusal to “name the other”: i.e., to those in Cambridge, Oxford remains, bluntly, “the other place”. Centuries of “grey-matter” warfare, following the original battle of fists, led to these two universities accumulating both intellectual/human and financial capital. Their combined wealth: £21bn!

The (spiritual, but also material) riches of the two universities are backed by a (how else if not) rich history. Oxford features big names in the fields of universal art / science / politics. From Oscar Wilde (the mouthpiece of the English “aestheticism” and a condemner of the Victorian prudishness via “The picture of Dorian Gray”) to the fantasist, fantastic and fabulous Lewis Carroll, the “father” of Alice..., C.S. Lewis, the “chronicler” of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien and his rings of popularity. From Edmond Halley (better known for the comet of the same name than for the crucial role he played in the editing of Isaac Newton’s referential “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica”) to Robert Boyle (who was concerned with breathing new life into knowledge – both revealed and reasoned); from zealous adventurers (politically-correctly disburdened of civilizational merits in the post-cultural-colonialism era), such as Walter Raleigh, Richard Burton or Cecil Rhodes, to the “Iron Lady” – Margaret Thatcher. This illustrious assembly is crowded.

Cambridge counterattacks through Newton himself. As the big figure of the seventeenth century Scientific Revolution, he prepared the ground for James Clerk Maxwell (and the understanding of electromagnetism), J.J. Thompson (and the openings towards electron...ics) and Ernest Rutherford (and the breakthroughs into nuclear physics). And here as well we record the announcement of the discovery of the DNA (at a pub near the Cavendish Laboratory, frequented, after hours, by the RAF pilots and where, in 1953, Francis Crick announced his and James Watson’s discovery, whilst “patriarchally” forgetting to include Rosalind Franklin in the story). If we add the names of the naturalist Charles Darwin, of the economist John Maynard Keynes or of the newly-seated King Charles III, the popularity race against Oxford becomes an extremely tight one, with uncertain denouement. However, going by the sports wisdom according to which “the track records don’t compete, the players do”, the practical confrontation takes place, ultimately, on the labour market.

In relation to the score of “occupancy” (on the labour market) between Oxford and Cambridge, we are definitely talking about a market for excellence. According to Bloomberg, both cities attract a highly qualified workforce, the number of vacant jobs reported per 100,000 employees being at 140% (Oxford) and 270% (Cambridge) above the national average, ready to be filled by candidates from their very own university nurseries. The big companies seek to plant themselves in the two city complexes, seemingly unbothered by the high workforce costs, which are thousands of Euros/Pounds greater than their equivalents in the rest of the United Kingdom, while the alliance between academia and corporate capital mass-produces “spin-outs”. These types of enterprises, which ensure the continued existence of specific research ideas, are at home in Oxbridge: from 2011 onwards, Oxford produced 205 of them, while Cambridge produced 145. Why? Because the PhD programmes, for instance, do generate intellectual property (IP) and abound in entrepreneurialism.

If Oxbridge looks longingly towards something, it is the fact that the American learning and innovation ecosystems are the ones who set the tune in terms of productivity and new jobs creation, especially in the fields that appear to become the industries of the future – the IP-rich deep-tech and life-sciences, to use Anglo-Saxon slang. The Bay Area, around San Francisco – on the American West Coast –, Boston – on the East Coast – and, right behind them, Cambridge (visibly ahead of Oxford, specifically through its more developed entrepreneurial side) are the liveliest spaces around the world when it comes to the academia-business symbiosis – with the warning that there are signs of lethargy present even in the fiefdom of competitive, creative and capitalist British cosmopolitanism, an empire powered-by and empowering industriousness and innovation worldwide. On a map of innovation that is now bursting with the US and China, not to mention other incumbents, the Commonwealth of the globetrotter Brits has its smart HQs in London... as well as at Oxbridge.


Photo source: Gândul Anonimului (“Dialog” [“Dialogue”], by Anton Rațiu).



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