It is the oldest English university and just walking down the narrow cobblestone lanes, huge quadrangles, colorful spring gardens, libraries, museums, and various colleges, one is enveloped by a sense of intellectual and architectural magnificence. Last week (May 9-17) I had a great experience of spending time at University of Oxford, and got to see most of the town including the beautiful museums and tour some of the colleges, yes they charge an admission fee but definitely worth it .
Walking is the best way to explore the town, it is compact and so beautiful that it compels you to see all the historic colleges and discover the roots of excellence in education in the English speaking world. For example All Souls College is a graduate studies institution that, on average, admits only 5-6 students (called fellows) per year and all applicants (about 180) have to sit for a two day exams. History and reverence for learning is apparent everywhere, especially at the main library the Bodleian - a group of five buildings and a book collection of over 11 million! The center building was completed in 1602 but the original structure predates it by almost three hundred years. The library was named after Thomas Bodley who donated his collection of books and bequeathed his fortune to it. But every college has its own library as well.
The origin of the word Oxford is the confluence of the Thames and Cherwell rivers where the cattle/cows/ox crossed; now of course when you go near the rivers in spring or summertime, you will lots of boats expertly punted or rowed by students, athletes and visitors. The Botanic Gardens are along the river, and the grassy lawns and walkways are a great place to picnic and enjoy a Pimm's cup, the quintessential English warm weather drink. Nowadays, mixed amongst the college students are lots of tourists – European school children on study trips and global travelers (plenty from China and India) and some who come to see the places that were featured in the Harry Potter films.
Many of British philanthropists, royalty and churches spent vast amounts of money to build the various colleges through the past 8 centuries, and established scholarships for children from poor families to get a classical education if they met the academic requirements. Of course the famous Rhodes scholarship is open to US born college graduates, and many Indian American students apply and some do win that award to immerse themselves in the intellectually challenging and world class education. Some US based students often opt for the summer study abroad programs at Oxford. If there is a comparable city in India, it would be Pune,with a similar reputation for good education and research institutes, it is said that India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called it the Oxford of India.
The University of Oxford’s 38 colleges have produced a great number of writers e.g. Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dr. Seuss; world leaders and politicians (Bobby Jindal, Bill Clinton, Manmohan Singh, Indira Gandhi), 50 Nobel prize winners, world renowned scientists including Edmund Halley, Edwin Hubble, Stephen Hawking, Tim Berners-Lee who invented world wide web. All University of Oxford students (average of 400 per college) at these 38 colleges study under a tutorial system with close academic supervision by professors and weekly seminars, these students are referred to as reading for their degree. Apart from the regular courses, a major focus is on small teaching groups, known as tutorials that take place in the colleges. Every week, a student meets his/her tutor for each subject, along with 1 or 2 other students and engage in an exchange of ideas. Therein lays the secret to academic excellence at Oxford - smart students, individualized classes and a lot of hard work.