The title question appears to be a simple one but answering it requires a bit of context and categorization. The answer or list of answers may vary depending on the parameters set.
For instance, if we use the definition of a university as an institution that grants undergraduate and postgraduate degrees (Rashdall, 1895), the oldest one is found in Europe. But if we center on geographical regions, institutions from Africa and Asia would go on top of the list since they precede the ones established in Europe.
In this article, we will present a list of the oldest universities founded in medieval Europe. We will also provide information on the oldest universities found in other regions.
Universities have been around for hundreds of years. And with factors like world demographics and the rising demand for postsecondary education, we can unequivocally say that they will continue to exist well into the future. A study on the global demand for higher education estimates that there will be nearly 600 million students enrolled in universities around the world by 2040 (Calderon, 2018).
According to Reed et al. (2015), people study at universities due to external and internal factors. External factors typically include going to university to delay responsibility, earn others’ respect, prove they can do it, gain a high-paying job, meet others’ expectations, play varsity sports, and please their family. Internal reasons usually involve discovering life options, to meet a challenge, love for learning, to experience higher educations’ inherent value, experience courses, and to make better life decisions.
This is not to say, of course, that all universities will survive. Defunct centers of higher learning are not unheard of. That is why it becomes even more fascinating to take a look at some of the most ancient institutions that are still operating today. Their existence is proof of how they were able to adapt, stand the test of time, and still continue to deliver world-class education to students all around the globe.
Source: Calderon, 2018
The universities included on this list were established before 1500—prior to the spread of the Western model of higher education to the rest of the world. These universities have also retained their institutional structure from the time they were established and are still in operation today. We used The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2020 as our reference for citing the global rankings of each institution listed below. THE includes almost 1,400 universities across 92 countries and is considered as the largest and most diverse university rankings to date.
The University of Bologna was founded by Italian jurist, Irnerius, in 1088. Located in Bologna, Italy, this institution holds the record for being the oldest university that has not experienced even a brief suspension of its operations since its establishment.
In 2019, The University of Bologna ranked as the leading public university in Italy (Statista, 2020), and had 81, 220 students for the academic year 2017/18. There are 6,293 international students enrolled in the institution and it is one of the top universities participating in the Erasmus+ exchange program. It ranks 168th on The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020.
The University of Oxford was established in 1096 and is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Located in the United Kingdom, it experienced rapid expansion in 1167 when Henry II prohibited English students from attending the University of Paris. It runs the world’s largest university press, the largest academic library system in the country, and the oldest university museum. Moreover, the institution set a trend in college consolidation early on with its university city structure.
The university received more than 23,000 applications for undergraduate programs while over 30,000 students applied for postgraduate degrees in 2019. It welcomes about 3,300 undergraduate students and about 5,500 graduate places each year. Through its Opportunity Oxford program, the university aims to increase its intake of British undergraduates from low-income backgrounds to 25% by 2023. It ranks 1st on The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020.
The University of Cambridge was established in 1209 and granted the Royal Charter by King Henry III in 1231. It was established by a group of scholars who migrated from the University of Oxford to take refuge from political conflicts with the townspeople. Up to now, the two universities share many common features, which brought about the portmanteau “Oxbridge.”
Based on the university’s admissions statistics, there were 19,359 undergraduate applicants for the academic year 2019/20 with 3,528 students accepted into the institution. As for postgraduate applications, the university received 22,867 applications and accepted 3,919 students. It ranks 3rd on The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020.
The University of Salamanca was founded in 1134. In 1218, it was granted the Royal Charter of foundation by King Alfonso IX of Leon. Located in the city of Salamanca (approximately 200 kilometers west of Madrid), this institution holds the record for being the oldest university in the Hispanic world.
Aside from attracting students both from the communities of Castile and León and surrounding regions, the university also attracts more than 2,000 foreign students each year and is particularly known for its Spanish courses for non-native speakers. It ranks between 601-800th on The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020.
The University of Padua was founded in 1222 by students and professors from Bologna. Located in the city of Padua in the region of Veneto, Northern Italy, the institution propelled ideas that helped change the scientific and cultural history of humanity. It was the alma mater of Andrea Vesalio, founder of modern anatomy. It was also the place where astronomers Galileo and Copernicus observed the skies.
In the academic year 2018/19, the university enrolled 59,335 students (Statista, 2020), and ranked 2nd among the best universities in Italy, after the University of Bologna (Statista, 2020). It has also announced the availability of 100 scholarships in A.Y. 2020/21 for refugee students or students who have received international protection. It ranks between 201-250th on The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020.
The University of Coimbra was established in 1290 and is the oldest university in Portugal. It was originally located in Lisbon and transferred to Coimbra in 1308. It alternated between these two cities until finally settling in the city of River Mondego in 1537.
The university is also one of the founding members of the Coimbra Group, an international association of 39 universities in Europe founded in 1985. UNESCO has designated the University of Coimbra as a World Heritage Site on June 22, 2013.
The University of Vienna was established in 1365 by Duke Rudolph IV. It holds two records—one as being the oldest university in the German-speaking world, and two, as the largest educational institution in Austria, with more than 90,000 students.
The university does not have one main campus; instead, it has several academic facilities spread throughout sixty locations in the city of Vienna. It also maintains research and experimental departments for astrophysics, biology, and sports outside of Vienna—in the provinces of Lower Austria, Upper Austria, and Salzburg.
It is renowned for its Humanities programs and is associated with 20 Nobel prize winners. It currently offers 175 degree programs, 40 continuing education and training programs, and has approximately 2,700 students from around the world. Seventy percent of newly-appointed professors are foreigners and approximately 33% of the academic staff come from abroad.
Heidelberg University was founded in 1386 by Elector Palatine Rupert I in the small town of Heidelberg, Germany. It first offered instructions in theology, jurisprudence, and philosophy. Medicine was added two years later. The university’s first rector was Marsilius von Inghen of the Netherlands and the first professors came from Paris and Prague.
Today, the university has two more campuses in addition to the original one in Heidelberg, which houses its humanities programs. The campus in Neuenheimer Feld quarter offers programs in the natural sciences and medicine, while the campus in the inner-city suburb Bergheim houses social sciences programs. Instruction is usually in German but there are also several graduate programs offered in English and French.
Uppsala University was established in 1477 in Uppsala, Sweden, and is the oldest university in Sweden and in the Nordic countries. It was founded on the initiative of Archbishop Jakob Ulvsson of Uppsala, the Primate of the Catholic Church of Sweden. The university started out small with only 50 students and a few professors.
Today, the university has more than 40,000 students and nearly 5,000 teachers and researchers. It offers approximately 70 Bachelor programs and 70 Master programs. It also has international student exchange agreements with over 400 universities worldwide with approximately 1,420 incoming and 940 outgoing students.
The University of Copenhagen was founded in 1479 by King Christian 1 of Denmark. It is the oldest university and research institution in the country and the 2nd oldest university in the Nordic countries. It is a state-funded university with several campuses in and around the city.
With its 5,000 researchers and 39,000 students, the university has developed an international research and study environment with nine Nobel Prizes that have been awarded to researchers at the university. It also has a strong campaign towards becoming one of the world’s greenest campus areas. According to the university, it has achieved its 2020 target of reducing its CO2 emissions to 65% relative to values from 2006.
Vilnius University was founded in 1579. Located in Vilnius, Lithuania, it is the oldest university in the Baltic States and is one of the most famous in Central Europe. The institute started out as a Jesuit college in 1570 and was given its Royal Charter by King Stephen Bathory of Poland in 1579.
Throughout Lithuania’s history of foreign occupations, the university had taken different names and was controlled for a time by Russian and Polish secular authorities. It was also later on closed by the Nazis and resumed its activities in the autumn of 1944.
Today, Vilnius University has nearly 20,000 students and an academic and research staff of almost 3,000. It offers 12 Bachelor programs and 35 Master programs. The language of instruction for the programs include English, Russian, and Polish.
Ancient institutions that provided frameworks for scholarly activities in Asia and Africa date back centuries before the European medieval universities. These included Buddhist monasteries like the Nalanda in India (427 AD – 1197 AD) and imperial academies in East Asia such as the Taixue in China (circa 202 BC–220 AD) and the Daigaku-ryō in Japan (671 AD).
As for institutions that follow the model of a modern university, the oldest in Africa is the University of Karueein, while the oldest in Asia is the University of Santo Tomas. Both have retained their institutional continuity and are still operational today.
The University of Al-Karaouine (also written al-Quaraouiyine and al-Qarawiyyin) is considered by the Guinness World Records as the oldest or first university in the world, established in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco (Guinness World Records, n.d.). It was established by Fatima al-Fihri and subsequently became a spiritual and educational center during the Islamic Golden Age.
In 1963, the institution was finally incorporated into Morocco’s state university system. Education at the university centers on Islamic religious and legal sciences. Other secular subjects such as English and French are also available to students.
The University of Santo Tomas (UST) was established on April 28, 1611, in the city of Manila, Philippines by Miguel de Benavides, a Spanish clergyman and the third Archbishop of Manila. It received its Royal Charter from King Phillip III of Spain in the same year and was elevated as a Pontifical University in November 1645 by Pope Innocent X.
UST is one of the largest Catholic universities in the world in terms of students found in a single campus. As of A.Y. 2019/20, the institution reported a student population of 40, 375 students. Every year, the university receives around 80,000 applications. Only about 12,000 (15%) of those are accepted. It is known in the Philippines for its excellence in the disciplines of Nursing, Biology, Pharmacy, Medical Technology, Psychology, and Medicine.
After the 1500s, the European model of the modern university began to spread in other parts of the world. The British Empire and other European empires transplanted the university education model to the countries they colonized. Later on, even when old colonial systems diminished during the 20th century, the university model of education was largely kept intact in the once colonized territories.
Despite being relatively “new” versus its counterparts, experts acknowledge that the “Western model” epitomized by the American university is highly influential across the world that it comprises a combination of international influences (Altbach, 2007, 25, cited in Dakowska, 2017).
Harvard University is the oldest university founded in North America in 1636 and is named after its first benefactor, John Harvard. It is also the oldest institution of higher education in the United States. This private, Ivy League university is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was named in honor of the University of Cambridge in England.
During its early years, Harvard University mainly educated clergymen. Its curriculum gradually became secularized in the 18th century and later on became a modern research university after the American Civil War. As of A.Y. 2017/18, Harvard reported a total student population of 36,012 students.
Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo was founded in 1538 by Pope Paul III. Located in the Dominican Republic, the university had the four traditional schools of that time namely law, medicine, arts, and theology. Due to several political turmoils, the university had to close its doors several times throughout history until it finally obtained its autonomy on December 31, 1961.
At present, Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo has expanded to eight schools. These are Law and Political Science, Engineering and Architecture, Economics and Social Sciences, Agricultural Sciences, Humanities, Science, Health Sciences, and the Arts. As of 2017, its total student population stood at 195,011.
The University of Sydney in Australia was established in 1850 by William Charles Wentworth, an Australian explorer, author, politician, and journalist. The university is historically renowned for being one of the first universities in the world to admit students based entirely on merit and welcomed female students as early as 1881.
The University of Sydney has more than 70,000 total enrollments as of 2019. It also has the largest international student mobility in Australia with 400 exchange programs and 250 partner universities in over 40 countries.
Just like any other organization or institution, universities are not immune to problems that challenge their traditional systems. As explained in Deloitte’s article on the key global challenges faced by universities, geopolitical and economic factors are shifting and constantly putting pressure on these institutions to meet student expectations of better quality education at an affordable cost (Deloitte, n.d.).
In the U.S., for instance, a moderate budget for a four-year private college averaged $53,980, and $26,590 for an in-state public college (College Board, 2019). However, 80% of Americans do not believe that the typical college education is worth its cost (Deloitte, n.d.).
Globalization, distance learning, and the further growth of the Internet will impact the configuration of the university of the future (Thorne, 2001, reviewed in Grocock, 2002).
Universities must also incorporate emerging technologies that could help improve the teaching and learning experience, revolutionize research, and drive improved business operations against performance objectives (Deloitte, n.d.). Software such as Enterprise Resource Planning, Student Information Systems, and Customer Relationship Management are just some of the tools universities are increasingly investing in to improve their support systems for students and constituents.
Global competition is also pushing university boards to rethink their business models and establish a compelling competitive advantage in order to increase student recruitment for both local and international students. There is also the need to attract the best talents not only to build a diverse workforce but also to have a good team of academics with the right disciplines and expertise who can bring research income and boost global rankings for the institution (Deloitte, n.d.). This is particularly relevant to American universities given the large volume of foreign students who work in the US upon graduating.
All these challenges make us wonder how will universities in the future look like. We can only propose the idea that similar to the oldest universities that continue to survive to this day, agility and adaptability will be the key characteristics a university needs in order to remain relevant in the centuries to come.