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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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Collegiate Summer Reading: The Cambridge Colleges

— The Collegiate Way often makes recommendations for residential college summer reading, and the recommendations offered in previous years are as good today as they were when originally posted.

This summer (or winter, for visitors from the antipodes), we add one more title to the list: the compact and handsome Central Cambridge: A Guide to the University and Colleges by Kevin Taylor (Cambridge University Press, 1994). This is part picture book, part university reference, and part tourist guide, illustrated throughout with beautiful photographs of the university and the residential colleges. The preliminaries give a brief overview of the history of the university and the relationship between the university and the colleges, and the main body of the text provides descriptions of each of the colleges in the central part of the city. “The college system,” the author tells us,

began in 1284 with the foundation of Peterhouse, and by 1400 seven of the present-day colleges existed in some form (including Trinity, which did not adopt its modern identity until 1546). The number had risen to 16 by 1800; and in the nineteenth century the University itself underwent a rapid expansion, partly in response to the rise of science in a fast-changing world. In the twentieth century 14 additional colleges were formally affiliated to the University—some of them Victorian institutions newly recognised, others new foundations…. This brings the total to 31, ranging in size from Trinity, with about 700 undergraduates and 250 postgraduates, to Lucy Cavendish, with about 100 undergraduates and 50 postgraduates.

Only 26 of the colleges have the word ‘College’ in their familiar title. Four retain the word ‘Hall’ instead, and then there is Peterhouse. The heads of the colleges also go by different titles, ranging from Master (the most common), to President (six colleges), Principal (two), Mistress (one), Provost (one), and Warden (one).

Everyone in higher education should be familiar with the history and structure of Cambridge University, and Central Cambridge can serve as an ideal introduction to this ancient embodiment of the collegiate way of living.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021