The 10 Oldest Universities In The World

These are the oldest universities in the world, with their location and their year of foundation.

Oldest Universities in the World

When we talk about universities, places come to mind where many people, sometimes from the most remote places, share all kinds of knowledge, promoting reflection and critical thinking.

Although today there are thousands of universities that we can find around the globe, originally these institutions were scarce and were limited to the European continent, at least if we look for institutions that coincide with the classic definition of “university”.

Below we will discover which are the oldest universities in the world, in addition to seeing their origins and we will take the opportunity to make special mention of institutions that, although they did not emerge as universities, have a lot to do with it.

These are the oldest universities in the world, and their location

Universities are centers for sharing culture, knowledge of all kinds and promoters of critical thinking and reflection. A country that lacks universities is a very limited country, which does not have much to offer the rest of the world in terms of culture and education. Universities have become, at least in the first world, economic and cultural engines as indispensable as industry, commerce and tourism.

The first institutions properly called “universities” have their origin in medieval Europe. At this time there were centers called “studium generale” or “general study”, centers in which different disciplines were taught.

In turn, general studies had its origins in ancient clerical schools that had opened their doors to non-religious men. Although the title “university” would not appear until 1254, there are several educational centers prior to this date considered the first universities.

1. University of Bologna, Italy (1088)

It is not known with certainty when the University of Bologna was founded, but it is accepted that it must have been around 1088. This is the first university founded, although the word “university” and the idea behind it would not emerge until two centuries later .

The University of Bologna is known for initiating formal higher studies in the Western world and, for 30 years, it has been the center from which the Bologna Agreement originated, with which European university centers unified study plans establishing academic mobility as a mechanism to facilitate mutual recognition of academic credits.

Originally he specialized in law and had a great reputation in this discipline. Among the great historical figures who have attended his classes we have figures such as Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca, Thomas Becket, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Copernicus, Marconi and Umberto Eco. Today about 80,000 students are enrolled.

University of Bologna

2. University of Oxford, UK (1096)

As with Bologna, it is not known for sure when the University of Oxford was founded, remembering that it must have been around 1096. In 1167 King Henry II of England prohibited the English from studying in France, which The number of students at this university increased and, since then, it became the most prestigious study center in the Anglo-Saxon country. It is currently widely known for its humanities programs.

Among his most notable students we have John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Indira Ghandi, Adam Smith, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Robert Hooke, Robert Boyle, Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins. Almost 50 of its graduates have been Nobel laureates and, today, this institution welcomes 20,000 students, carefully selected for their merits.

Oxford University

3. University of Cambridge, UK (1209)

The founding of the University of Cambridge has a lot to do with Oxford. In 1209 a group of Oxford academics left the institution settling in Cambridge after the execution of two students accused of rape. With the passage of time, Cambridge was configured as a prosperous and novel student community and, by 1231, this university received the approval and protection of Henry III. Out of this would emerge a historic rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge, it continues to this day.

His most prominent students and teachers include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Sir Francis Bacon, Stephen Hawking, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, John Milton, Alan Turing, Charles of Wales, Emma Thompson, and Sacha Baron Cohen. It is more impressive than Oxford, since Cambridge has produced up to 90 Nobel laureates. He stands out especially in science.

University of Cambridge

4. University of Salamanca, Spain (1218)

In 1218 the general study of Salamanca was founded, a year that is taken as the founding date of its current university. In 1253 the University of Salamanca received this title by an edict of King Alfonso X the Wise, being the oldest Spanish-speaking university in the world. In 1255 Pope Alexander IV recognized the universal validity of the degrees that were offered in it, and granted him the privilege of having his own seal.

Since it was founded, it has remained active for almost 8 centuries, having among its students such important figures for Spanish history and culture as Fray Luis de León, Fernando de Rojas, Hernán Cortés, Luis de Góngora, Calderón de la Barca and Miguel de Unamuno, who was not only a student but also a rector. It currently has 30,000 students.

University of Salamanca

5. University of Padua, Italy (1222)

As happened to Oxford with Cambridge, in Italy there were also splits. In 1222 a group of students and professors from the University of Bologna, eager for greater freedom of expression, moved to Padua and, there, founded what would eventually become a new University.

Among the most excellent students of this institution we have figures such as Nicolás Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Gabriele Falloppio and Mario Rizzetto. Today it has 60,000 students.

Padua University

6. University of Naples Federico II, Italy (1224)

This institution was founded by Frederick II in 1224, although the name of the monarch was not added until 1987. The University of Naples was the first secular university in the world and, today, has 100,000 students.

7. University of Siena, Italy (1240)

The University of Siena was founded in 1240 and received the papal blessing in 1252. Among its most famous teachers we have Pietro Ispano, who later became Pope John XXI.

This institution is especially renowned for its schools of Law and Medicine, welcoming some 20,000 students a year.

8. University of Valladolid, Spain (1241)

The University of Valladolid is another of the oldest higher institutions that we can find in Spain. As with many other European universities, there are several theories about its foundation, the most widely accepted being that it was founded in 1241 and is believed to have been the result of the transfer of the General Study of Palencia. It currently has about 25,000 students.

9. University of Murcia, Spain (1272)

Although it is often said that it was founded by Alfonso X in 1272, it is not so clear. Although it is currently a fairly modest university, overshadowed by other institutions founded later such as the University of Barcelona, ​​the Complutense of Madrid or the University of Valencia, it has been one of the greatest cultural references during the Middle Ages. It currently has about 30,000 students.

10. University of Coimbra, Portugal (1290)

The University of Coimbra was founded by King Dionysius I of Portugal in 1290, receiving that same year the papal blessing. In 1377 the university was transferred to the capital, Lisbon, where it remained until 1537 when it returned to Coimbra. Since June 2013 it has the honor of being considered a World Heritage Site and, currently, some 20,000 people study there. It gives its name to the Coimbra group, an association that brings together the 38 best universities in Europe, including Salamanca.

Special mentions

As we said, the idea of ​​”university” is European. In its origins it was the Pope of Rome who practically took the right to recognize an educational institution as a university through papal bulls that certified it. In other words, the Catholic Church was the one that decided whether to give a university degree to a higher education center. This is why, strictly speaking and taking the medieval western idea of ​​the university, an Islamic, Buddhist or secular institution was not a university because it had not been recognized as such by the Pope nor was it Christian.

But this is no longer the case. Today the only universities that are founded with the approval of the Catholic Church are those that call themselves Catholic universities. The more than 20,000 universities around the globe have not received their degrees because the Pope has so decided, but because they have met various criteria to be considered superior centers for the dissemination of knowledge of all kinds.

A university is understood as a center in which all kinds of knowledge are shared, whether or not they are related to religion. If we take this into consideration and review the centers that have exercised this function throughout history, we have universities outside of Europe that are much older than the University of Bologna. In fact, we could say that the first university founded in Europe would be Plato’s Academy in Athens, around 388 BC, which many consider to have served as a model for medieval universities.

Next we are going to discover four educational centers that could well be considered universities, insofar as they have served as centers of higher education.

1. Nalanda University, India (450)

Nalanda University was a Buddhist institution founded in 1193, which disappeared 800 years later after the Muslim Turks under the command of Muhammad Bajtiar Jalgi. In its heyday it had a university population of 10,000 students. It was re-founded in 2014 on a new campus located 10 kilometers away from its original location.

2. University of Al-Karaouine, Morocco (859)

Al-Karaouine or Qarawiyyin University is probably the oldest active university in the world.

Located in Fez, Morocco, the story behind its founding is very interesting, since it is one of the very few universities in the world that has been founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, of good education and wealth, who was fasting for 18 years it took to build this university. Ironically, it was not until recently that women were allowed to enroll in the institution.

This university is included in UNESCO and also appears in the Guinness Book of Records. Despite this, the title of “university” itself was received in 1963, abandoning its former status as a madrassa. Its original operation is very different from the current one, since in its origins it was an Islamic educational center like any other, while today it has exercised a more secular teaching.


3. Al-Azhar University, Egypt (972)

Another important university in the Islamic world is Al-Azhar. Located in Cairo, this university, currently secular, has been the oldest academic-religious institution in the Muslim world. It is considered the most prestigious, especially if you study the Sunni religion.

4. Al-Nizamiyya University, Iraq (1065)

Finally we have the Al-Nizamiyya University of Baghdad. Originally, it was part of a series of schools that were set up by Nizam al-Mulk, an Iranian statesman, vizier of the Seljuk sultans. Its original curriculum encompassed Islamic religious studies, Arabic literature, Islamic law, that is, Sharia, and arithmetic. In the same way that the University of Bologna served as a model for later European universities, Al-Nizamiyya served for the universities of the Arab world.

Bibliographic references:

  • Haskins, Charles Homer (1923). The Rise of universities. Cornell University Press.
  • Huff, Toby E. (1993). The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 978-0521529945.
  • Cardini, Franco (1994). Universities of Europe. Anaya, Great Works. ISBN 978-84-8162-988-0.

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