Cam 101, Part 1: College versus University

01Oct06

This weekend is the ‘official’ move-in for most Cambridge students, including the undergraduates and UK nationals who had no reason to arrive early. As such, the town has suddenly blossomed with new life, and I think it’s time to write a little bit about where I live.

Part one of this series will focus on the idea of a ‘college’ in the Oxbridge sense of the word.


(Image from Wikipedia)

Terms that are not familiar in the US are in boldface.
The idea of Oxbridge (i.e. Oxford-Cambridge) colleges is completely foreign to Americans, though slighly less so for Canadians. Unlike the US where ‘college’ and ‘university’ are interchangeable words, the Cambridge colleges are relatively autonomous academic entities that, together with the departments, form the university at large. The best analogy from popular culture are the four houses of Harry Potter.

For undergraduates, the college provides housing and teaching. Undergraduate teaching is based on small supervision groups in which a fellow (roughly faculty associated with the college) presides over a few students in what is effectively a  more involved and personal discussion section. Students also attend lectures hosted by the university’s departments (as one would in the states), but these seem to be almost secondary to the personally-tailored education of the supervision.

Graduates do most of their work within their department, but are associated with a college primarily to provide a social base. Graduates can also live in college and be supported by college funds.

Fellows are the senior members of a college and include the master (the head of the college), professors, and post-doctoral associates. Fellows play a dual role: they are associated as professors/lecturers (like an associate professor)/researchers in their department as well as being senior members of the college. What’s interesting is that faculty can either be elected and supported by their department (in which case they then become associated, but not paid, by a college), or by their college (in which case they become associated, but not paid, by the appropriate university department).

The undergraduate, graduate, and senior communities as institutions are known as the Junior Common Room, Middle Common Room, and Senior Common Room. There are also actual physical rooms by these names that are only for those who are at least as senior as their name (e.g. a graduate may use the JCR, but an undergraduate may not use the MCR). At Trinity, my college, the MCR is known as the “BA Society” (with an associated “BA room“) since all its members hold bachelor’s degrees. The SCR is just referred to as ‘the fellows’ (to the best of my knowledge) with an associated fellow’s lounge.


A photo of myself in the fellow’s lounge at Trinity, under a portrait of Isaac Newton. Before you report me to the authorities, I was a guest of a fellow and so was allowed to be there!



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