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Oldest Universities Around the World

September 2, 2014

Many of us may look back at our days spent in college or at university as some of the best days of our lives. The intellectual challenge of learning a subject we loved, the bonds forged with great teachers, and the friendships that last a lifetime are memories we look back upon as we move ahead in our busy professional lives. We may pause to reflect on our university years as annual rankings of universities appear, to check if our alma mater figures on the list, but has one ever wondered, which are the world’s oldest universities? Many of the oldest universities in the world have long and illustrious histories. Read on to find out more about the oldest universities around the world.

According to the Oxford Dictionary a university is “A high-level educational institution in which students study for degrees and academic research is done.”

The word university is derived from the Latin phrase “universitas magistrorum et scholarium,” which means a “community of teachers and scholars.”

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, some of the earliest centers of learning were established by the Sumerians around 3,500 BC, and the oldest educational institution that has been continuously in operation is the University of Al-Karaouine, in Fez, Morocco, which was founded in AD 859. However, if we consider the university as we know it today, the oldest university in the world is the University of Bologna, Italy, which was founded in 1088.

The World’s Oldest Universities

The oldest universities around the world are renowned centers of learning where numerous scientists and scholars have extended the frontiers of human knowledge. Read on to find out more about the oldest universities in the world.

University of Bologna – Italy (founded in 1088)
University of Oxford – United Kingdom (founded in 1096)
University of Paris – France (founded in 1150) [later became the Sorbonne]
University of Modena and Reggio Emilia – Italy (founded in 1175)
University of Palencia – Spain (founded in 1208)
University of Cambridge – United Kingdom (founded in 1209)
University of Salamanca – Spain (founded in 1218)
University of Montpellier – France (founded in 1220)
University of Padua– Italy (founded in 1222)
University of Naples Federico II – Italy (founded in 1224)

Oldest University in America: Harvard University, USA (founded in 1636) – “America’s oldest university”
Oldest University in Africa: University of Al-Karaouine– Fez, Morocco (founded in 859)
Oldest University in Asia: University of Santo Tomas in España, Manila (founded in 1611)
Oldest University in Australia: Sydney University (founded in 1850)

*While ancient Greece, India, China, and the Middle East had many centers of learning, they have not all survived to the present day or were not Universities as the term is understood today. Therefore they are not shown here.

The University of Bologna – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Bologna, Italy
Founded: in 1088
Motto: Nourishing mother of the studies
Famous alumnus: Guglielmo Marconi (inventor of the radio)
The University of Bologna is not only the world’s first higher-learning university, it also gave us the word “university” (universitas), which was coined when this institution was founded. The world’s oldest university received a charter from the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa in 1158, but it had begun operating in 1088, making it the oldest continuously operating university in the world.

Today the university has branches in Cesena, Forlì, Imola, Ravenna, and Rimini in Italy and a center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It has a center of excellence called Collegio Superiore di Bologna.

Today the university has 11 Schools with 33 departments. It is particularly known for teaching Law. It currently has around 85,000 students.

The degree awarded by the university is called Laurea or Laurea breve. Laurea breve is awarded upon successful completion of a 3-year course, while Laurea specialistica or Laurea magistrale is awarded after a student completes a 2-year course.

In the year 2010, by QS World University Rankings, the University of Bologna was ranked 32nd in the world for Law, and 176th in the world overall.

The University of Oxford – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Oxford, United Kingdom
Founded in: 1096
Motto: The Lord is my Light
Famous alumnus: David Cameron (Prime Minster of the UK)
In 1167, King Henry II of England banned English students from studying at the University of Paris because England and France were in a period of hostility. A community of scholars already existed at Oxford from 1096, and this grew into a renowned center of learning and the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Oxford University today consists of 38 colleges, spread over the scenic town of Oxford. The Sheldonian Theater built from 1664 to 1668 by Sir Christopher Wren hosts the university’s degree ceremonies and concerts. The Botanic Garden, which is a part of the University is the oldest botanical garden in the UK, containing over 8,000 plants. Oxford permitted women to study for degrees at the university on 7 October 1920.

Oxford University’s Bodleian Library has over 11 million volumes (after the British Library, it is the second-biggest library of the UK) and the Ashmolean Museum is the oldest University Museum in the world. The university’s publishing arm, Oxford University Press is the world’s largest university press and publishes around 6,000 new books annually.

As many as 58 Nobel Laureates have either studied or taught at Oxford and 26 British Prime Ministers have studied at Oxford.

The University of Paris – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Paris, France
Founded: around 1150
Motto: Here and anywhere on Earth
Famous alumnus: Simone de Beauvoir (feminist writer)
The University of Paris was established in the middle of the 12th century. It received recognition as a university between the years 1160 and 1250. The University of Paris and the University of Bologna became the standard for all future universities.

The University of Paris has undergone many changes over the years, including being closed thrice: first in 1229, involving student riots and struggle for power between the student class, Church, and secular leaders, then in 1940 when the German army invaded France, and in 1968 during the Cultural Revolution, when student protests became widespread.

In 1970, the University of Paris was partitioned into 13 autonomous universities. Four of these institutions are located in the Sorbonne building, a college founded by Robert de Sorbon in 1257. Three of these institutions bear the name “Sorbonne.”

Today the 13 autonomous universities, which emerged from the University of Paris are spread over three academies (Academy of Paris, Creteil, and Versailles) in the region called Île-de-France. The university is dedicated to the study of arts, law, medicine, and theology.

The University of Modena and Reggio Emilia – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Modena and Reggio Emilia, Italy
Founded in: 1175
Famous alumnus: Sandro Pertini (Former President of Italy)
The University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, which is located in both these cities in Italy, was founded in 1175, but was replaced in 1338 by three public lectureships. These were suspended in 1590 and the university was then reopened in the 1680s, after which it received an imperial charter in 1685.

The University of Modena and Reggio Emilia has 12 faculties of which four are in Reggio Emilia and eight in Modena. The university currently has more than 20,000 students.

The University is known for its botanical garden called the Orto Botanico di Modena. It was started by Duke Francesco III d’Este in 1758 and was included in the university grounds in 1772. It contains around 1,400 species of plants and includes a large herbarium as well as several greenhouses.

Today the university has many modern faculties, including a Department of Engineering, Department of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Communication Sciences, and Department of Biosciences and Biotechnologies.

The University of Palencia – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Palencia, Spain
Founded in: 1208
Famous alumnus: St. Dominic (Founder of the Dominican order)

The University of Palencia was the first university of Spain and was established at the request of the Bishop TelloTéllez de Meneses by the Spanish King Alfonso VIII between 1208 and 1212. It became a center of learning in the arts and sciences and the model for future universities in Spain.

However, the University of Palencia began to lose its prominence in the aftermath of the death of its founder and the rise in prominence of the University of Salamanca. Many professors and students moved to Salamanca to study, further depleting the University of Palencia of its human resources.

The University of Palencia continued to function and received a papal bull (a letter of authority) from Pope Urban IV in 1263 that permitted the students and professors the privileges of the University of Paris. Nevertheless, the decline continued and the growth of the University of Salamanca nearby had an impact on the future of the University of Palencia. The University came to a close around 1264, when its faculties and students were transferred to the University of Valladolid. Thus, though the University of Palencia is no longer in operation in its original form, it lives on in the institutions that it has inspired and which succeeded it.

The University of Cambridge – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Cambridge, UK
Founded in: 1209
Motto: From here, we gain enlightenment and precious knowledge
Famous alumnus: David Attenborough (wildlife broadcaster)
Cambridge University was founded by a group of scholars, who left Oxford after a disagreement with the townspeople, and set up an alternative center of learning on the banks of the river Cam.

Cambridge was the first university in England to receive a royal charter, which it received from King Henry III of England in 1231. The first college in Cambridge, Peterhouse, was founded by Hugh Balsham, Bishop of Ely in 1284. In 1881, Cambridge permitted female students to attend the university. Today, Cambridge is the only university in the UK that still has three colleges (Lucy Cavendish, Newnham, and Murray Edwards) that are for women-only. Cambridge today consists of 31 colleges and has more than 100 departments.

The University’s publishing arm, Cambridge University Press is the oldest publishing house in the world and is currently the world’s second-largest university press.

As many as 90 Nobel Laureates have been associated with Cambridge.

Cambridge has an endowment fund of around £4.9 billion, which is the largest of any non-U.S. university. Bill Gates of Microsoft donated US$210 million via his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, to set up the Gates Scholarships for non-UK students to attend postgraduate courses at Cambridge.

Illustrious scientists associated with Cambridge, include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Francis Crick and James Watson, Ian Wilmut, Jane Goodall, and Stephen Hawking.

The University of Salamanca – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Salamanca, Spain
Founded in: 1218
Motto: What Nature doesn’t give, Salamanca won’t provide
Famous alumnus: Miguel de Cervantes (author)
The University of Salamanca began functioning in 1134 and received a royal charter from King Alfonso IX in 1218. It received the formal title of “University” from King Alfonso X in 1254, and was recognized by an order of the Pope Alexander IV in 1255. Once it was established, it attracted many students and teachers from the University of Palencia, which was established earlier.

When Christopher Columbus was seeking the support of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella for his expedition to discover a new route to the Indies, he submitted his plans to a panel of geographers at the University of Salamanca.

Today, the University of Salamanca is renowned for its center for the study of the Spanish language that attracts more than 2,000 international students every year, and the centers for economics humanities, and law. The library at the University of Salamanca has a collection of over 906,000 volumes.

The University of Montpellier – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Montpellier, France
Founded in: 1220
Famous alumnus: Nostradamus (French apothecary famous for his prophecies)
The University of Montpellier started as a series of schools founded in the 12th century. The school of law was founded by the legal scholar Placentinus, who came from Bologna in 1160, while the school of medicine as early as 1137 was known for the excellence of its physicians at Montpellier . The various schools came together in the form of a university by 1220, which was formally recognized by a letter of authority by Pope Nicholas IV In 1289.

During the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, teachers from the school of law at Montpellier were involved in drafting a new civil code known as the Napoleonic Code, which still forms the basis for the legal code in France.

The University of Montpellier is also home to the oldest botanical garden in France, called the Jardin des plantes de Montpellier, formed in 1593.

The University was unable to function during the French Revolution, so the faculties of science and letters were reopened in 1810. In 1969, the University of Montpellier was reconstituted and officially re-founded. It now consists of three parts, University of Montpellier 1, which has a focus on the humanities, University of Montpellier II specializes in Science and Technology, and The Paul Valéry University, Montpellier III specializes in the social sciences, arts, and languages.

The University of Padua – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Padua, Italy
Founded in: 1222
Motto: Liberty of Padua, universally and for all
Famous alumnus: Nicolaus Copernicus (astronomer)
The University of Padua was originally founded in 1222 as a law school and became famous for its excellence in astronomy, medicine, and philosophy from the 15th to the 18th centuries.

The pioneering astronomer Galileo Galilei held the chair of mathematics at the University of Padua between 1592 and 1610. As a result of the conflicts in the Italian peninsula, the University had to suspend teaching in the years 1237-1261, 1509–1517, and 1848-1850.

The University established a botanical garden, the Botanical Garden of Padova in 1545, which is known for its collection of herbs and rare plants. The University also has a History of Physics Museum and eight other museums.

A Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, became the first woman to be awarded a Doctor of Philosophy degree by the University of Padua on 25 June 1678.

The University of Padua has expanded to other locations to reduce the overcrowding of its earlier faculties. A new Institute of Management Engineering was set up in Vicenza in 1990 and an Agricultural Science and Veterinary Medicine center at Legarno in 1995. Other places are planned for further re-deployment: Rovigo, Feltre, Conegliano, Treviso, Asiago, etc.

University of Naples Federico II – Oldest University Around the World
Location: Naples, Italy
Founded in: 1224
Motto: A source of Science and a Seedbed of Doctrine
Famous alumnus: Thomas Aquinas (theologian and philosopher)
The University of Naples is named in honor of its founder the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick (Federico) II, who established this center of learning on 5 June 1224. It is considered to be oldest state-supported institution of higher education and research around the world.

Fredrick II established the university in order to develop young scholars, who could become bureaucrats, administrators, and lawyers in his regime. He also wanted to provide scholars a place to study within his kingdom, so that they would not need to travel to other cities, such as Bologna, which was in a state of conflict with Naples at the time. In its early years, the University of Naples faced competition from the well-established school of medicine at Salerno, the Schola Medica Salernitana, and schools of law and theology at Rome.

The University of Naples Federico II presently has 13 faculties (Agriculture, Architecture, Economics, Pharmacy, Sociology, Letters and Philosophy, Law, and others) with over 95,000 students (as per 2010 data), and is considered among the best universities in Italy.