Universities have existed, in different forms, with different ideas, in human history since the Medieval Ages. The universities that we know and compete for today are extensions and developments of these institutions that have been there since the fifth century. However different they might have been, one thing has remained constant throughout – the need to explore and push the boundaries of knowledge.
If you want to go back into the annals of time, then this is a complicated question with many answers – since history is never that simple. Many would say that Plato’s, The Academy, was the first university in the real sense of the word. Others would name Nalanda and Takshila (which we briefly discuss a little below).
This is why, for the sake of this article, we’re looking at modern history and also the ones that are still functioning today.
Modern history, however, has attributed the term “oldest university”, in the western definition of the term, to the University of Bologna which was established between 1088 and 1190 CE. Founded in the Italian city of Bologna, it became recognized across continents as a respectable school for canon and civil law. With a history spanning almost 950 years, the “first university” continues to function today.
If you google the world’s oldest university, there is also a chance that the name Al-Qarawiyyin pops up. What is the story there? How does one reconcile this answer with the University of Bologna?
Here’s the story.
Al-Qarawiyyin (also known as the university of Al-Karaouine) was founded as a mosque by Fatima al-Fihri in 857-859 CE in Fez, Morocco, during what is considered to be the Islamic Golden Age. Effectively running as a Madrasa till World War II, it was given university status in 1963. It is because of this recognition that Al-Qarawiyyin is a-posteriori considered to be the oldest institution in continuous operation for higher education, especially by UNESCO and the Guinness world records. It is still one of the most prestigious universities in the Arab world.
The Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt also has a similar story. Founded in 970 CE as a Madrasa (a center for Islamic learning), it was awarded university status in 1961 and has developed a modern curriculum of secular subjects (business, economics, science, medicine, engineering, and agriculture, to name a few), ensuring its survival.
In Asia, the oldest university that continues to be in operation is the University of Santo Tomas (established in 1611), located in the Philippines. You could ask – What about Nalanda and Takshashila? History teachers have always talked about how they are some of the oldest universities. Where do they fit in?
If you are thinking this, you are absolutely right. Archeological records show that Nalanda was established in 427 CE and is still considered to be the first residential university. In addition to Buddhist philosophy, the university also taught grammar, medicine, logic, and mathematics.
The University of Takshashila is even older. Dating back to the 10th Century BCE, the university was particularly renowned for science, especially medicine, and the arts, but both religious and secular subjects were taught.
If that is the case, why aren’t they featured in detail in this list? Well, the answer is simple. All the other universities listed here continue to operate today. Except for temporary closures during wars and other calamities, the universities have continued their legacies for hundreds of years. You can enroll yourself in them, learn and graduate from them.
Unfortunately, Takshashila was abandoned around the 5th century CE, and Nalanda by the beginning of the 13th century. The ruins of these two historical sites attract thousands of tourists even today. However, in 2010, the Nalanda University Act was passed by the Government of India to re-establish Nalanda University and encourage regional networking and collaboration between the University and existing centers of excellence in East Asia. In September 2014, the University opened its doors for the first batch of students, a historic development after a gap of nearly eight hundred years.
The oldest university in the US is Harvard University, Massachusetts, which was established in 1636.
Can you imagine how cool it would be, to be a part of such universities? They offer so much more than education. They are epicenters of culture and physical proof of history unfurling in front of our eyes.
What are the oldest schools in the world?
When we look back at history, it was almost impossible to separate religious studies or theology from higher education. The buildings were part of churches, cathedrals, or mosques. With time religious studies took the back seat in these universities, and these universities expanded their curriculum to every other secular field of study. Many of the oldest universities have split into different colleges or have been modernized beyond all recognition.
What we are fascinated by are some of the world’s oldest universities that continue to operate today. So what follows is not a list of the oldest universities in order of establishment, but instead an article on the oldest universities, which also have a high international ranking according to the QS University ranking.
Established in 1088 by a guild of students and having never been out of operation, the University of Bologna holds the title of the oldest university in the world and the first degree-awarding institution of higher education.
For a very long time, the university only taught doctorate studies, but now the university has a diverse range of programs at all levels. The university is historically notable for the teaching of canon and civil law and currently offers 232-degree programs. The university has an enrolment of 87,760 students, of which 6,400 students are international students. The university is ranked 166th in the QS world university ranking 2022.
Dante Aligheri (author of the Divine Commedia), Nicolaus Copernicus (Astronomer who suggested the heliocentric model), Marconi (inventor of the radio), Enzo Ferrari (founder of Ferrari), Umberto Eco (philosopher and writer),
Needing no introduction, the University of Oxford has attracted students from near and far for over 900 years. The oldest university in England and the second oldest university in the world in constant operation, this university remains at the pinnacle of global education, ranking world number 2, according to QS Rankings.
The University of Oxford has one of the best alumni associations, including 28 UK prime ministers, 20 Archbishops of Canterbury, 27 Nobel laureates, and 50 Nobel prize winners. The evidence suggests that the university came into operation in early 1096. Presently the university comprises 39 autonomous colleges affiliated with the university, and nearly 24,300 students are pursuing their education at the university, out of which 43% are international students.
John Donne (16th-century poet), William Tyndale (translator of the Bible in the 16th century), Edmund Alley (Astronomer), Dr. Samuel Johnson (first person to have curated a dictionary), Adam Smith (father of modern economics), Oscar Wilde (poet, playwright), Indira Gandhi (former PM of India), Bill Clinton (former President of the U.S.), the list goes on.
Current Student population:
There is a library bell at Oxford University that has not stopped ringing for more than 175 years.
The oldest university in Spain and the third oldest operational university in the world, the University of Salamanca was founded in 1134 and was given the royal charter by King Alfonso IX in 1218.
Located to the west of Madrid, this university currently has 26 faculties offering 81 courses at undergraduate and postgraduate levels. The University of Salamanca is ranked between 601 – 650 on the QS ranking and presently caters to about 27,000 students across the nine campuses. The university is well known for research courses, social sciences, legal science, and technical fields.
Vincente de Valverde (Bishop of Cuzco in the 16th century), Diego de Torres Villarroel (Spanish writer in the 18th century), Luis Martín-Santos (Author of Time of Silence), Pedro Nunes (Portuguese mathematician), Antonio Perez (Secretary of king Philip II of Spain), David Muir (American journalist)
Current Student Population:
Christopher Columbus’s expedition received patronage from Spanish royalty, King Ferdinand II and Isabella I. He made a case for his expedition at the University of Salamanca.
Established sometime between 1160 and 1250, the University of Paris is also known as La Sorbonne. Since the medieval ages, this university has carved a name for itself, especially in the discipline of humanities, particularly in theology and philosophy. At the time of its inception, this university was associated closely with the cathedral school of Notre Dame de Paris.
Although we consider this to be one of the universities in continuous operation, it was suspended between 1793 and 1896, following the French Revolution. Presently there are 13 autonomous universities affiliated with the University of Paris and have a total of 26 departments which are divided into three areas of study. It stands 248th in the QS Global ranking.
St Thomas Aquinas (Italian Catholic Philosopher in the 13th century), Marie Curie (chemist, first two-time Nobel laureate), Simone de Beauvoir (writer, philosopher, feminist), Pope Benedict XVI, George Buchanan (Scottish historian), Normal Mailer (American Author)
Another university needing no introduction, Cambridge University has attracted scholars and students alike since 1209. The origin of this world-class university is closely intertwined with that of Oxford. Oxford was already over a century old during its inception. In the year 1209, disputes between the scholars at Oxford and the local townspeople reached their peak. Fearing violence, a group of Oxford scholars ran northeast and settled in the town of Cambridge. Soon, they instituted an organization that grew to be the University of Cambridge.
Since then, the university has grown rapidly, becoming one of the richest universities in Europe. Today, it is an aggregation of a variety of educational institutions including 31 semi-autonomous colleges and over 150 academic departments. The academic departments are categorized under 6 schools: School of Arts and Humanities, Biological Sciences, Clinical Medicine, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Physical Sciences and Technology. It also houses the world’s oldest publishing house and the second-largest university press in the world, Cambridge University Press.
Sir Issac Newton, Alan Turing, Francis Bacon, Sylvia Plath, Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, and many more. 121 Nobel laureates are alumni of Cambridge.
Current Student Population:
The Corpus Christi Clock on the university campus is a famous attraction as it tells time precisely to a hundredth of a second, every fifth minute. Otherwise, the clock speeds up, slows down, and even stops to show the relativity of time.
Noted for its revolutionary research in astronomy, law, medicine, and philosophy, the University of Padua was set up in Italy in 1222 by a group of students who moved from Bologna. “Universa Universis Patavina Libertas” (meaning: Paduan freedom is universal for everyone) is the motto that has shaped the university in its quest to defend freedom of thought.
After the World Wars, the University opened faculties of Education, Agricultural Sciences, and Psychology and, in the 1990s, faculties of Veterinary Medicine, and Economics Business Administration.
Giovan Battista Morgagni (founder of Pathological anatomy),
William Harvey (discoverer of the circulation of the blood), Giuseppe Tartini (musician and composer), Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (first woman in the world to graduate in a university, in 1678).
Among the list of old universities of the world, the University of Naples Federico II stands out as it is the oldest public non-sectarian university in the world, meaning, it was secular since its origins. Established in 1224 by Frederick II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, this university is located in Naples and continues to be in the top 100 best universities in the world.
Today, it has 13 different faculties ranging from Agriculture to Veterinary medicine. The university hosts almost 70,000 students, including the under and postgraduates.
St Thomas Aquinas (theologian and philosopher), Samantha Cristoforetti, (astronaut and commander of the International Space Station), Luigi Palmeri (physicist), Enrico de Nicola, Giovanni Leone and Georgio Napolitano (three former presidents of Italy)
Established in 1240 in the city of Siena in Tuscany, the University of Siena also stands a testament to how places of higher education flourished in Italy, especially in the English-speaking world of the 13th century.
Today, the University of Siena is best known for its Schools of Law, Medicine, Economics, and Management. It hosts about 20,000 students who make up almost half the population of this small city.
Pope John XXI, Richard Goodwin (mathematician and economist), Pope Julius III, Virginia Angiola Borrino (Professor of Medicine and the first woman to serve as head of a University Pediatric Ward in Italy)
Although established in 1290 in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon, the University of Coimbra was relocated a number of times before finding its home in the city of Coimbra in 1537. The oldest university in Portugal, this university has played a central role in the development of higher education in the Portuguese-speaking world.
Today, the university offers bachelor’s master’s, and doctoral degrees in almost all major fields. It is divided into 8 faculties. In 2013, UNESCO declared this university a World Heritage Site.
Egas Moniz(Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1949), Pedro Nunes (mathematician), Luís de Camões (Portuguese national poet)
A public university based in Italy, the University of Perugia was founded in 1308. One of the continuously operating universities, except during times of war, the University of Perugia today boasts of 16 different faculties supported by a staff of 2,300 people.
Pope Nicholas IV, Ruggero Oddi (physician), Monica Belluci (actress), Suze Rotolo (musician and artist)
Current Student Population:
These universities have stood the test of time and continue to play major roles in the global ed-scape. If any of these stories have inspired you and you wish to be part of any of these universities that stood the test of time, be in touch with us, www.tcglobal.com.
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