Date of Publication: 17 February 2020
Ever wondered what the 10 oldest universities in the world are?
While the modern day experience at university may feel pretty different, the concept of higher education is actually pretty ancient – with evidence dating back to the 12th century.
If you take a look at some of the best universities in the world, you will see that they have their feet deeply rooted in Europe, mostly located in France, Britain, Spain, and, most predominantly Italy – where, during Medieval times, papal decrees looked to share their knowledge and insight across the country with noble scholars.
But which universities are the oldest? And do they still exist today?
Take a look at our list of the 10 oldest universities in the world below to find out the answers to these questions and more.
Not only does our list include the historic and, at one point in their lifetime, the top universities in the world, but it also includes the oldest university in the UK, one which is right on Oxford Summer Courses’ doorstep! Take a look at them below.
- University of Coimbra, Portugal – 1290
Kicking off the list at number 10 is the University of Coimbra, which was established in the year 1290 by King D. Dinis.
Despite being originally founded in the country’s capital, the University of Coimbra has been relocated a number of times between the cities of Coimbra and Lisbon, before permanently settling near the Mondego River in 1537 at a palace which was granted by King John III. The reason being
This impressive university is rich in history and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting hundreds of thousands of tourists from all over the world who are eager to visit the university’s ancient Cathedral, Monastery and tower.
But for students looking to enrol at the university today, they will enjoy classes in the more modernised parts of the institution, across the various schools and research centres which are dotted around the city.
There are also a number of modern amenities, including a university sports stadium, restaurants, bars, halls of residences, libraries and common rooms.
- University of Siena, Italy – 1240
Nestled in the heart of Tuscany, the University of Siena is the ninth oldest university in the world.
Like many universities at the time, the university was founded as a result of the migration of students from the University of Bologna, seeking an institution independent of the Pope’s influence.
Today, it welcomes just a small cohort of students in comparison to its Italian partners on this list. At around 20,000 enrolments per year, the university’s influence still dominates the city, making up almost half of Siena’s entire population.
The city itself is also of historic importance, having been declared as an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Not only does this make it an inspiring city for its students to further their academia, it also attracts tens of thousands of tourists each year who seek to immerse themselves in culture, enjoying its food, art, museums and medieval history.
- University of Naples Federico II, Italy – 1224
Dating back to 1224, the University of Naples is the third-oldest university in Italy, aptly located in Naples – one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.
The university was founded by Frederick II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of Sicily. Eager to create an educational institution that was not heavily influenced by the Pope, the university sought to put an end to the dominance of the universities of northern Italy and stand as an independent institution. But despite this rather radical launch, it wasn’t until 1987 that the university decided to rename itself and include ‘Federico II’ in the title, in acknowledgement of its founders.
The long history of the university is also an impressive one, with notable alumni such as the theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, who not only studied but also taught at the university. Other influential figures to have graduated from here include former Italian presidents Giovanni Leone and Enrico De Nocila, as well as Estee Lauder CEO Fabrizi Freda.
Today, the university continues to operate, with a focus on building exchange programmes that improve international relations and the the wellbeing for society as a whole. For example, in 2004 the university created their ‘Gulunap’ initiative, which aims to train doctors from some of the poorest areas in central and eastern Africa and increase the number of medical professionals available on the continent.
- University of Padua, Italy – 1222
Having been established in 1222, the University of Padua is the second oldest in Italy, after the University of Bologna (one of the oldest universities in the world).
When it was first established, the university was founded as a Law school by a group of Bologna students looking for academic freedom.
Today, the university continues to be one of the most popular in Italy and Europe. In the CWUR rankings for top universities in the world, the University of Padua is ranked 164th in the world and second in Italy.
It is comprised of 32 departments and 8 schools, offering a whole range of subjects including: Agricultural Studies, Law, Engineering, Medicine, Politics, Veterinary Medicine, as well as a number of other social sciences and humanities subjects.
Home to around 60,000 students, the sizable campus has plenty of resources for its students and staff, including its own university hospital, a museum, library, and 14 different halls of residence.
- University of Cambridge, UK – 1209
One of the most common questions students ask on our Cambridge courses is; ‘how old is Cambridge university?’ Well, it isn’t the oldest university in the UK, but it’s certainly historic, and full of prestige.
It is widely believed that the University of Cambridge was founded in 1209 by a group of Oxford students after they fled the city to escape the ‘town and gown’ riots which took place between the townspeople and scholars. As a result of its disorderly origins, it is believed that the authorities in Cambridge only allowed scholars under the supervision of a ‘master’ to reside in the town, in order to prevent possible troubles.
It also meant that only one college was created at first – Peterhouse College – which was founded in 1284 by the Bishop of Ely (Hugo de Balsham). It then took the next three centuries for another of the university’s 15 colleges to be found where, in 1318, Cambridge was formally recognised as a studium generale by Pope John XXII.
Continuing to inspire students today with its rich history, the University of Cambridge is currently ranked as the second best university in the UK, and one of the leading higher education institutions in the world.
Home to just 18,000 high-achieving students and 9,000 staff members, the university is comprised of 31 colleges, some of which date back to the 13th century!
Today, the university is particularly renowned for their excellence in Mathematics, having produced some of the most famous British scientists, including Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin and David Attenborough.
- University of Paris, France – 1160 – 1250
Recognised as one of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Paris is one of the largest universities in the country, welcoming over 60,000 full time students each year.
While the university’s exact date of establishment is unknown, there is evidence of teaching having been conducted between the years of 1160 – 1250.
It’s an institution that’s steeped in history; between the years of 1793 and 1896, there was a brief suspension in operation following the French Revolution. In addition to this, in the year 1970, there was a complete overhaul of its structure, where the university was divided into 13 autonomous colleges. Of these, Sorbonne University and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne are two of the most recognised, holding the highest rankings for the original university.
- University of Salamanca, Spain – 1134
The University of Salamanca was the first higher education institution to have been granted the title of ‘university’ in Spain, when, in 1254 it was crowned by the King of Castile and Leon, Alfonso X and Pope Innocent IV.
Situated in West Madrid, the University of Salamanca has disputed dates over its establishment. The university today claims to have been founded in 1218 by Alfonso IX of Leon in 1218, however James Trager’s book, People’s Chronology which includes a year by year history of human events lists the date as 1134. Regardless of this, it still remains the oldest university in Spain that still operates today.
In fact, it is considered to be the most prestigious university in the country, often being dubbed the “Oxford of Spain.”
Welcoming around 30,000 students each year, the University of Salamanca is an important study of the humanities, made up of the colleges of law, liberal arts, science and other academic units. It’s also an internationally-recognised Spanish language centre, drawing in more than 4,000 foreign language learners each year.
- University of Oxford, UK – 1096
When students join us for their summer courses, one of the most frequently asked questions they have is ‘how old is Oxford university?’
The oldest English-speaking university still in existence, the University of Oxford is still consistently ranked as one of the best universities in the world, as well as the leading higher education institution in the UK.
While the exact founding date is slightly disputable, evidence of teaching dates back to 1096, with some claiming it was established earlier than that! This makes it the University of Oxford the oldest university in the UK.
Today, the university is dotted around Oxford’s historic city centre, comprised of 44 different colleges and halls, with a library system that holds over 13 million printed items.
Boasting an alumni list that includes several British Prime Ministers, Archbishops of Canterbury, Nobel laureates, Nobel Prize winners, 2 Oxford Summer Courses CEOs and many more astounding individuals, it’s no surprise that it is one of the most desirable institutions for students to apply to – with over 20,000 applications reaching them each year.
- University of Bologna, Italy – 1088
The oldest higher education institution in Europe, the University of Bologna was established in 1088 and has been open since the very first day it was created.
Known by its Latin motto as the ‘Nourishing Mother of the Studies,’ it is home to around 85,000 students, of which around a third are postgraduates. For a long while, the university only taught doctorate studies, but today, it offers a range of programmes open to students of all levels.
Attracting many prominent figures from science and the arts, notable alumni include famous fashion designer, Giorgio Armani; screenwriter, Michelangelo Antonioni; and opera director, Liliana Cavani.
Today, the university has a multi-campus structure, with teaching locations in Bologna and across the Romagna region, including Cesena, Forli, Ravenna, and Rimini, with a permanent headquarter in Buenos Aires since 1998 which coordinates their research in association with Latin America.
- University of Karueein, Morocco – 859 AD
Coming in at number one as the oldest university in the world, the University of Karueein – also known as the University of al-Qarawiyyin is situated in Fez, Morocco.
Still in operation today, it is one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the historic Muslim world. Education here focuses on the Islamic religious and legal sciences, with emphasis on Classical Arabic grammar and Maliki law.
Interestingly, the university was allegedly founded by a female refugee – Fatima al-Fihri – yet it was only recently (1940) that the university began to accept women to study there.
Students at the University of Karueein range between the ages of 13 and 30, with some studying towards high-school diplomas, and others studying university-level bachelor’s degrees. Famous alumni include Pope Sylvester II – who is believed to have introduced Arabic numerals to Europe after studying at the university in the 10th century; Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who became one of the most prominent Torah scholars.
Want to visit the oldest universities in the UK?
There’s nothing more inspiring than attending a summer course in an historic university city, one that’s steeped in academic achievement and renowned for its world-leading research.
We offer summer courses in the cities of the two oldest universities in the UK: Oxford and Cambridge. Giving students an introduction to life at these prestigious universities, as well as their internationally-acclaimed teaching, you could find yourself studying in the same places that inspired influential figures such as Sir Stephen Hawking, Charles Darwin, and T.S. Eliot.