The universities of Oxford and the Cambridge are sometimes referred to collectively as Oxbridge. The two universities have a long history of competition with each other, as they are the two oldest and most famous universities in England (see Oxbridge rivalry).
Oxford is a member of the Russell Group of research-led British Universities. It has recently come top of some league tables which rank universities in Britain. Oxford is, like Cambridge and others, a member of the Coimbra Group, a network of leading European universities, and the LERU (League of European Research Universities).
As well as the collegiate level of organisation, the university is subdivided into department on a subject basis, much like most other universities. Departments take a major role in graduate education and an increasing role in undergraduate education, providing lectures and classes and organising examinations. Departments are also a centre of research, funded by outside bodies including the major research councils; while colleges have an interest in research, most are not subject specialist in organisation.
The main legislative body of the university is Congregation, the assembly of all academics who teach in the university. Another body, Convocation, encompasses all graduates of the university, was formerly the main legislative body of the university, and until 1949 elected the two Members of Parliament for the University. Convocation now has very limited functions, chief of which is to elect of the (largely symbolic)Chancellor of the University, most recently in 2003 with the election of Chris Patten. The executive body of the university is the Hebdomadal Council, which consists of the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Colin Lucas, heads of departments and other members elected by Congregation. Apart from the present House of Congregation, there is also an Ancient House of Congregation which somehow survived the university reforms in the 19th century and is summoned today for the sole purpose of granting degrees.
The academic year is divided into three terms, each of eight weeks' duration. Michaelmas term lasts from early October to early December; Hilary normally from January until before Easter; and Trinity normally from after Easter until June. These terms are among the shortest of any British university, and the workload is intense.
In recent years, Oxford has made greater efforts to attract pupils from state schools, and admission to Oxford and Cambridge remains on academic merit and potential. Around half of the students in Oxford come from state school backgrounds.
Unlike the most selective American universities, Oxford (and Cambridge) are public institutions seeking only the best students, and do not practise "legacy preference": where for example children of affluent parents who attended Harvard are far more likely to be successful in the applications process than those who have no previous link with the university.
Students successful in early examinations are rewarded with scholarships and exhibitions, normally the result of a long-standing endowment, although when tuition fees were first abolished the amounts of money available became purely nominal: much larger funded bursaries are available on the basis of need for current and prospective students. ("Closed" scholarships, which were accessible only by candidates from specific schools, exist now only in name.) Scholars, and exhibitioners in some colleges, are entitled to wear a more voluminous undergraduate gown; "commoners" (i.e. those who had to pay for their "commons", or food and lodging) being restricted to a short sleeveless garment. The term, "scholar", in relation to Oxbridge, therefore has a specific meaning as well as the more general meaning of someone of outstanding academic ability. In previous times there were "noblemen commoners" and "gentlemen commoners", but these ranks were abolished in the 19th century.
Oxford has produced four British and two foreign Kings, 46 Nobel prize-winners, 25 British Prime Ministers, six saints, 86 Archbishops and 18 Cardinals. More complete information on famous senior and junior members of the University can be found in the individual college articles. Note that an individual may be associated with two or more colleges, as an undergraduate, postgraduate, and/or member of staff.
There is a second university at Oxford - Oxford Brookes University, formerly known as Oxford Polytechnic, whose entrance requirements are less stringent. It is located on a campus in the eastern suburbs of the city. There are also a number of independent "colleges" which have nothing to do with the university but are popular, particularly with overseas students, perhaps because they allow their students to state truthfully that they have studied at Oxford; these institutions vary considerably in the standard of teaching they provide.
Ruskin College, Oxford, an adult education college, though not part of the university, has close links with it.