Putney Bridge

The Famous Oxbridge Boat Race & the British University System

Every April, Britain’s two oldest universities have a standing face-off in the Thames.

When & Where?

Running between Putney Bridge and Chiswick Bridge about 7 km farther west and passing through Hammersmith and Barnes, the race between both men’s and women’s teams of Oxford and Cambridge universities is run upstream but timed to coincide with the incoming flood tide for the fastest possible current. Therefore, dates and times vary slightly from year to year.

Believe it or not, this event, which, together with the Cheltenham Festival, marks the beginning of the British Season, attracts the crowds, who gladly gather on the riverbank to enjoy a drink and, hopefully, the first clear spring days after the long winter. An average 250,000 watch the race along its course every year and over 5 million viewers follow it on TV – the Boat Race is actually one of the BBC’s most highly-viewed sporting events.

The Men’s Boat Race ready to start in Putney Bridge.

What is it like?

As sporting events go, unless you run or ride your bike alongside the riverbank, it is fairly brief. From Putney Bridge you just see them go and on Chiswick Bridge you just see them arrive and, well, yes, win (and throw the winning team cox into the Thames, which is always fun to watch). But the build-up to the race is great in the most English of ways. Bridges along the course and the people gathered around them are dressed up in shades of blue (light blue for Cambridge and dark blue for Oxford), spirits are high, and pints do not last long.

The Race was first run in 1829 and it has become an annual event since 1856 for the men’s and since 1964 for the women’s teams. It is indeed a British national institution. The University of Cambridge is the current champion and, also, the one that has won the race the most times – the score stands 84-80 for the men and 44-30 for the women.

Cambridge, Oxford, and Britain’s universities

These universities are the oldest ones in Britain and two of the oldest universities in the world. The universities of St Andrew’s and King’s College in Scotland have also been around since the Middle Ages.

The 19th century saw the arrival of King’s College London and UCL, which shook the status quo by admitting non-Anglicans but also by pioneering the study of modern languages (way to go, UCL!).

British universities are classified in many different ways; however, the most well-known categories are:

  • Ancient universities: the ones founded before the 17th century (Oxford, Cambridge, St Andrew’s, King’s College, etc).
  • University of London and its colleges
  • Grey brick universities: the ones founded before the Victorian era.
  • Red brick universities: civic universities founded in provincial cities during the Victorian era.
  • Plate glass universities: founded in the 1960s
  • The Open University: created to offer distance learning around the world in 1968

Some universities have also formed groups around common missions; the Russel Group, for example, focuses heavily on public research, whereas the University Alliance gathers business-focussed ones.

Studying in the UK

As you can see, the whole structure and setup can be a bit confusing. What is certain, though, is that, with the exception of The Open University, all UK universities share a common admission system for undergraduate applicants managed by UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) and that all international students must take (and pass) an English language test, such as the academic branch of the IELTS, before applying.

Tuition fees are also charged differently depending on where students are from. British and, for now, EU students pay a reduced ‘local’ tuition fee, while overseas or international students are charged higher fees. Please note that, in order to be eligible for ‘local’ tuition fees, one must have lived in Britain or a European Union Member State for the three years prior to applying.

Students live in campuses and student accommodation buildings around their universities. In London, the area around Euston Square in the university area, as it is home to many of London’s universities. The world-famous London School of Economics is in Strand, near Covent Garden, and King’s College London, where my sister works, has its research laboratories in Guy’s Campus, off London Bridge.

The British university system is long-standing, complex, and highly competitive. The race to the top is tough and, often, upstream… but sitting in class absorbing all that knowledge and feeling one’s mind grow and expand…

I loved and treasured my student years? Did you too?

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” ~Nelson Mandela

Useful Resources

  • UCAS – Universities & Colleges Admissions Service
  • IELTS – English Language Test

Photo taken by MCL from Putney Bridge

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