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(From left) Carin, Emma and Matt Handley of Oxford and Matt Hazell and Richard of Cambridge at Calcutta Club. Picture by Anindya Shankar Ray

Did you know students of Oxford can earn the coveted “blue” blazer only if they represent their university in sports against Cambridge and vice-versa? And in Cambridge, there’s the super-exclusive Hawks’ Club, where you can get a membership only if you are a “full blue” or a “half-blue”? That’s how seriously the two oldest universities of Britain take their rivalry.

They’ve done so for 800 years, since 1209, when Cambridge was founded by scholars taking refuge from hostile townsmen in Oxford. Debating may not have entered the “blue league” yet, but six members of the blue-blooded Oxbridge fraternity are in town to argue themselves blue on Sunday evening at the Calcutta Club The Telegraph International Debate 2012. The motion? “Populism not policy defines parliamentary democracy.”

Before they took on each other in the first Oxford vs Cambridge debate in India, Metro caught up with five of the visiting students to feel the pulse of this riotous rivalry.

Matt Handley of Team Oxford took the opening shot. “Initially the rivalry was far more intense because these were the only two big universities. Now you have many more universities in the League Tables with Oxford and Cambridge. So the rivalry now is more a part of the heritage. The rivalry is still evident in sporting competitions like the Boat Race and the rugby matches, which was last weekend.”

So, who won, we asked. “Oxford won it… third time in a row!” came the smug reply.

“The thing is, if Cambridge wins every year, it’ll get so boring. So occasionally, we ‘let’ them win. It is entirely possible that you guys could win the debate on Sunday, but it’s not necessarily because you were better!” quipped Richard Coates, a Cambridge law student.

Debating matters

Rivals they may be but Oxford and Cambridge have more in common with each other than with any other institution. As Emma Livingston of Oxford put it, “The way the two do debating is different from everywhere else, so we are always going to be pitted against one another… because no one else has a union the same way, which is not a students’ union but a public speaking union.”

The Cambridge Union Society is the largest society at Cambridge. Founded in 1815, it is the oldest student debate society in Britain, older even than Oxford, which formed the Oxford Union Society in 1823, following the Cambridge model. Other than holding student debates and being an emblem of free speech, the unions are known for hosting guest speakers of the highest stature — from the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa to Winston Churchill and Julian Assange.

A student can become a member after paying an initial member fee. “That gives you access to go watch the Union debates and see the guest speakers. They also get benefits like their own libraries, their own bars. Also you can then represent the university in various competitions and get travel and other expenses for outstation competitions like the European and the World Championships. Or get invited to India!” smiled Matt of Oxford, on his second debating trip to Calcutta this year.

And it is because they are always being “lumped” together, victory against the other is extra sweet. “Beating Oxford, in the many opportunities that we’ve had to do it, is extra sweet. Because it adds something when you take out those who are supposed to be your big rivals. Even though it is kind of a joking rivalry, it is nice to beat the other people. But it fluctuates. Sometimes Oxford is better, sometimes Cambridge,” said Richard.

Calcutta calling

To come for the Calcutta debates, the students had to send in their applications to the Union selection committee. “I hadn’t been to India and I really wanted to come. Also, I thought, if I came through this route, I would get to see a side of India that I wouldn’t experience as just a tourist,” said Richard.

So, what has the Calcutta experience been like?

“Marvellous,” they echoed. They seemed much impressed with the wit and wisdom of the city students they were up against at the Alsoc Challenge Debate at the St. Xavier’s auditorium on Friday, “particularly their interjections”.

Emma of Oxford had heard about Calcutta from teammate Matt Handley, who was in town in March for The Telegraph National Debate 2012. “He came back with such positive feedback that I just had to come,” smiled the pretty lady.

Fun campus

Going back to the rivalry, we asked them which was the cooler place to be. Carin Hunt, the quiet one, took guard for Team Oxford.

“It’s more fun being at Oxford. There’s nothing to do in Cambridge. Oxford is where the cool people go, where the attractive people go.”

Matt Handley took over. “It’s really cool. You can go drink at this pub called The Eagle and Child in Oxford, which is where the Inklings used to meet, which was J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.” Then there’s Alice in Wonderland and the Great Hall of Hogwarts, we added.

“Yes, there’s less of Cambridge in books and fiction but you can go sit in the garden where Isaac Newton went, ‘Ah, gravity!’ That’s pretty cool,” grinned Matt of Cambridge.

“Oxford has produced more Prime Ministers,” chipped in Emma. Eight out of 11 British Prime Ministers counting back from Tony Blair have come out of Oxford.

“Oxford likes to boss people around. We like to fix the world, you know, quietly solving world problems, discovering DNA, gravity, evolution…,” shot Richard.

“Well, Adam Smith went to my college,” countered Emma, a student of history and economics at Balliol College, Oxford.

“And just as Oxford can point to some things in popular culture like Tolkien, Cambridge can point to modern things like Monty Python. We can point to modern culture and athletics. We are not just people who are squared away working to be Nobel laureates. We are people who become actors, great comedians, who run for England as a part of the athletics team,” said Richard.

More recently The Inbetweeners came out of Cambridge, as did Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Sacha Baron Cohen.

Dress it up

One of the big differences between the two universities is the dressing up for exams. Oxford students have to wear the ceremonial gown and cap for examinations. The long-haired drummer-debater Matt of Cambridge had much to say: “I think it is quite quaint. But I like being able to get up on an exam day and put on the first clothes I see on my floor.”

Matt of Oxford: I really, really like it [exam gowns].

Richard of Cambridge: Is it not really uncomfortable?

Carin of Oxford: Yeah, there are these practical annoyances but what it does is it gives you a sense of community. Like when you are walking down, everyone knows you are going to an exam and you get looks like ‘Oh, hard luck!’ It is one of those things in Oxford that you don’t like to admit to liking because it makes you sound quite lame. But it is really cool!

Matt of Oxford: Also, when I put on the gown, I feel ‘Okay I’m in business’!

Emma of Oxford: It’s not just the gowns or caps, there are these little weird ribbons that girls have to wear and then we have to wear carnations.

Carin: You have to colour co-ordinate them with your exams. For the first one you have to wear white, the middle ones you have to wear pink and for the last one, it’s red. And everyone knows it’s your last exam.

Matt of Oxford: The progression from white to pink to red is meant to symbolise how much blood you’ve shed.

Carin: Oscar Wilde used to dye his carnation green!

Richard of Cambridge: I think people in Cambridge are clever enough to know which exam they have without a little flower!

Debate and dress code: Oxbridge ADDA before argument

What: Calcutta Club The Telegraph International Debate 2012, sponsored by the Ashok Hall Group of Schools and Royal Challenge Music CDs.

Where: Calcutta Club lawns.

When: 6.30pm on Sunday.

Who: Team Oxford — Visiting students Matt Handley, Carin Hunt and Emma Livingston, plus Calcutta alumni Ranjan Roychowdhury and Rudrangshu Mukherjee will speak for the motion.
Team Cambridge — Visiting students Richard Coates, Matt Hazell and Clara Spera, plus Calcutta alumni Rajat K. Ray and Sugata Bose will speak against the motion.

Motion: Populism not policy defines parliamentary democracy.

Moderator speak: “It’s going to be like a Brazil vs Argentina football match! The students from the two universities have been through rigorous selection procedures to be a part of this debate,” smiled Kunal Sarkar of Calcutta Debating Circle, the moderator for the evening.

Club speak: “This is the first time students from Oxford and Cambridge are debating in India, and on a topic that is so important and relevant today. One of the main reasons we decided to hold this debate was to facilitate a cultural exchange between India and Britain and expose the youth of the city to an education system that is acknowledged across the world,” said Dilip Kumar Saha, the president of Calcutta Club.

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