Sunday, April 6, 2014

University of Cambridge--colleges versus departments

I’m currently a graduate student at the University of Cambridge. Recently, my mother Jodi came to visit me, and she wanted to tour the school and take pictures. She asked me the classic question: ‘Where is the University?’ It’s not that simple. Buildings belonging to the University of Cambridge are scattered throughout the town of Cambridge, and while some belong to a University-wide network of infrastructure, many are the property of individual colleges. This all can be rather confusing, so my mom asked me to explain the university/colleges/departments system.

Pembroke, one of the 'old colleges'
Every student at the University of Cambridge belongs to a residential college. The University includes 31 colleges. 16 are the so-called ‘old colleges’ (founded before 1596), and the remaining 15 are ‘new colleges’ (founded after 1800). (My college is Corpus Christi; the most famous are King’s, Trinity, and St. John’s. These are all ‘old colleges.’) Your college provides housing, a dining hall, and lots of social events. They can also offer funding for travel or lessons, and many colleges have their own scholarships to help fund students’ studies. However, your college does not determine your subject. Because in some subjects, the college provides tutors for first- and second-year undergrads, a very few subjects are not offered by some colleges. However, you can study most any subject at most any college. What matters more than subject in choosing a college are history, culture, reputation, and funding. Some colleges are richer and more prestigious than others, and therefore have more money to finance student endeavors. These colleges tend to be more competitive than the less wealthy colleges. Students applying to the University indicate first- and second-choice colleges, but it is possible to get into the University but not one of the colleges you chose. In that case, you are ‘pooled’ and assigned to a college that needs more incoming students that year. A few colleges have special restrictions: three are all-female, and six are restricted to post-graduates or mature (i.e., older) students.

Corpus Christi, my college
Students tend to have a lot of pride in their college, and colleges compete against each other in all the usual sports (above all, rowing). Some colleges also have counterparts at Oxford (for instance, there’s a Corpus Christi Oxford as well as a Corpus Christi Cambridge), and annual ‘swaps’ including friendly competitions in many events are common. At the University level, the Cambridge colleges are united by a sense of superiority to Oxford, with one exception: a popular saying goes, ‘I’d rather be at Oxford than St. John’s.’ (St. John’s College has a reputation for snobbish elitism and has thereby earned the dubious honor of being Cambridge’s most-hated college.)

A sign in front of the Sidgwick site, which houses my academic department
Almost entirely separate from your college is your academic department. This is where you attend lectures and other events related to the subject you study. The departments are dispersed around Cambridge in ‘sites’—the Sidgwick site, for instance, includes English, languages, history, theology, philosophy, law and criminology. Some sites are quite far from the center of town, so colleges near those sites often contain a high proportion of people studying those subjects. Physicists, for instance, are unusually common at Churchill College, which is relatively close to the West Cambridge site (the far-from-everything-else home of the physics department).

I think that pretty much explains the university/college/department system. It’s far from the most confusing thing about Cambridge (that would probably be the slang), but it’s definitely an important structural aspect of the University to understand if you’re considering applying.