Cambridge outperforms all other British universities to achieve second place in the latest QS World University rankings, which emphasise research. In our league table, the university is second only to Imperial College London for research quality, according to our analysis of the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021). Cambridge remains ahead of all other institutions which share its broad academic range across the sciences and arts.
Graduates have glittering prospects. Almost 93 per cent were in professional-level jobs or further study 15 months after the end of their degree, the latest Graduate Outcomes survey found, ranking Cambridge second on this measure, again behind Imperial. Handshake, Cambridge’s careers service, offers one-to-one support to undergraduates and alumni.
Cambridge’s 31 colleges dominate the city centre, providing a more intimate setting than Oxford, its bigger-city counterpart. Although open applications are allowed, it is better to visit Cambridge before applying to decide which college most appeals – a historic building on the busy tourist trail or a modern block out of the limelight. Applicants can consult a full range of statistics that reveal sharply differing social and subject mixes between the colleges. All have a long list of illustrious alumni.
Most lectures are returning to in-person delivery. Students are expected to spend between 42 and 46 hours a week on their studies during high-pressure eight-week terms. But social life thrives, regardless.
State sector admissions are rising overall (reaching 71 per cent) but Cambridge remains at the bottom of our social inclusion index, which considers only the numbers arriving from non-selective state schools (48.5 per cent, the second-lowest proportion). Only Imperial College London accepted more students from independent or selective state schools. However, the academic giant continues to work hard to diversify its intake.
A new foundation year for disadvantaged students may be a game-changer. The first 52 students begin next month, with fees and living costs covered. Five applicants chased each place through a rigorous process of interviews and assessments. Entry requirements are BBB at A-level (120 Ucas tariff points) reduced from the standard A*A*A or A*AA. Professor Stephen Toope, the university’s vice-chancellor (and the role’s 346th incumbent), said: “It is an innovative programme that aims to reach an entirely new field of Cambridge candidates, and to transform lives.” The extensive eligibility criteria cover free school meals, household income below £25,000, the loss of a parent or carer while at secondary school, moving secondary school two or more times, and late diagnosis of special educational needs such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism.
Foundation year students who achieve 65 per cent in their exams can move on to a full degree course on one of the university’s 18 courses in the arts, humanities or social sciences — or an undergraduate course elsewhere. The university also works with social mobility charities such as the Sutton Trust and Target Oxbridge while individual Cambridge colleges have links with different areas with low records of sending students to Russell Group universities. Their work focuses on breaking down admissions barriers for those unfamiliar with the Cambridge application process via mentoring and other outreach work.
But it took the Stormzy Scholarships, launched in 2018, to help Cambridge attract more applications from black students, a traditionally underrepresented group. The number of black British students rose to 137 in 2020, up from 58 in 2017.
Financial support is extensive. In 2020-21 the university spent £9.3 million on Cambridge Bursaries of £3,500 a year for UK students. These are offered to students from homes with annual incomes of £25,000 or less, tapering to £100 for households with an income of up to £62,215. The bursary is in some cases supplemented by individual awards from colleges. About one in four students received some sort of financial aid in 2021 and the university expects to provide a consistent level of support in future.
A new “design tripos” degree — bringing together architecture, engineering and materials science in a single degree — will be introduced in 2024. Cambridge has refined its course offering to just 30 undergraduate courses across about 65 subject areas. After the rise in admissions in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, the number of students starting courses in 2021 decreased by about 9 per cent against rising applications (up about 12 per cent year-on-year).
Despite a heavy workload, students throw themselves into extracurricular activities, with a plethora of theatre and music societies and lively college bars to choose from. There is a thriving student media and sports facilities are outstanding, especially for popular rowing and cricket.
Catering is available but not compulsory in college accommodation. What is compulsory, however, is that throughout their studies, students are required to live during term-time within the university “precincts” — defined as being within a three-mile radius of Great St Mary’s Church.