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Education: A-Z Of Universities: Oxford

Age: Almost 900.

Address: Spread across the city of Oxford, its dreaming spires, meadows, quadrangles, chapels and museums have inspired writers from Chaucer to James Fenton.

Ambience: The oldest university in Britain and probably the most famous in the English-speaking world, Oxford is a vast, sprawling institution. Lovely - though occasionally draughty - buildings date from every century. Good shopping in a generally affluent city. Great walks in Christchurch Meadows, Mespots and Port Meadow. But the city is also under terrific environmental pressure, containing as it does a world-famous university, a centre of medical excellence and Rover car factories.

Vital statistics: Life centres around the 39 autonomous colleges where the 11,000 undergraduates and 4,400 postgraduates mostly live, eat, socialise and are taught. Colleges vary in character and facilities - eg, Merton known for its food, New College for its niceness, Balliol for its brains. All colleges except St Hilda's are now mixed. Independent school and southern students are over-represented, but efforts being made to change that. Terms still last only eight weeks. Tutor/student ratio 1 to 3 at most.

Added value: An Oxford degree helps you get a job. Its graduates have one of the lowest unemployment rates - just 2.6 per cent last year were still out of work six months after going down.

Easy to get into? Noooooooo. Entrance now based on conditional offers, typically AAB at A-level. Almost all students interviewed.

Glittering alumni: 25 British PMs, including Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher; the American President, Bill Clinton; the BBC director general, John Birt; TV personalities Angus Deayton and Michael Palin; scientists Dorothy Hodgkin, Richard Dawkins, Erasmus, Edmund Halley and Stephen Hawking; Cardinal Basil Hume; huge number of writers, plus the media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the singer Kris Kristofferson.

Transport links: Get on yer bike. Oxford is flat and small enough. Good bus and rail services to London.

Who's the boss? Dr Colin Lucas, Master of Balliol and an expert on the French Revolution.

Teaching rating: Rated 23 out of a maximum of 24 in engineering; 23 in materials; 21 in modern languages.

Research: Came first out of 101 universities in the 1996 research assessment exercise. Twenty-five departments awarded tip-top 5*.

Financial health: In the black but heading into the red next century, according to a recent financial model from KPMG.

Nightlife: Cheap beer in college bars. Most colleges have balls (if you can afford the ticket). Otherwise frequent bops, plenty of theatre, debating, politics and eating out at the Carfax chippy or Cowley Road.

Cheap to live in? No. Costs pounds 48 a week on average to live in university accommodation (minus food); pounds 50-pounds 60 to live out.

Buzz-sentence: I donned my subfusc but it didn't help me pass my collections because I was so worried about paying my battells. (Wearing a cap and gown didn't help me pass my exams because I was so worried about paying my college bill.)

Next week: Oxford Brookes