Centers of higher education have been around for hundreds of years, and even millennia in some cases. But not all withstand the test of time. Over the centuries, many of the world’s oldest universities have disbanded, split into autonomous colleges or become modernized beyond all recognition.
The ancient institutions that have stuck around are significant not only for their historic legacies, but also for proving their ability to adapt to modern contexts and remain relevant in a globalized world in spite of intense competition. Many of the oldest universities in the world are also among the most prestigious and popular, offering a rich mixture of historic heritage and contemporary outlook.
Here we cover 10 of the oldest universities in the world, all of which feature in one of QS’s latest ranking sets. Most are located in Europe, due to the particularly impressive number of longstanding and still-operating universities in this region, but there’s also an African representative to consider…
1. University of Bologna
Established in: 1088
The ‘Nourishing Mother of the Studies’ according to its Latin motto, the University of Bologna was founded in 1088 and, having never been out of operation, holds the title of the oldest university in the world. Until relatively modern times, the university only taught doctorate studies, but today it has a diverse range of programs at all levels. Located in Bologna, Italy, it has an enrollment of around 85,000 students, of which 30,000 are postgraduates. Famous alumni include three popes, numerous businessmen and several Italian politicians. The University of Bologna is ranked 182nd in the QS World University Rankings® 2014/15.
2. University of Oxford
Established in: 1096-1167
With an alumni list that includes 26 UK Prime Ministers, 20 Archbishops of Canterbury, 12 saints, 27 Nobel laureates, 47 Nobel Prize winners and one Sir Stephen Hawking, the University of Oxford is as respected as it is old. While the university’s exact foundation date remains a little vague, evidence of teaching dates as far back as 1096, and some claim it was established even earlier. Current at joint 5th in the world rankings, the University of Oxford is truly one of the highest ranked and oldest universities in the world, catering to a student community of around 22,000 and operating the largest university press in the world.
3. University of Salamanca
Established in: 1134
Another of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Salamanca was founded in 1134 and given the Royal Charter in 1218. Spain’s oldest institution, after the now defunct University of Palencia, the University of Salamanca is located to the west of Madrid. To add to its historic aura, it was the institution where Christopher Columbus made a case to obtain royal support for his Indies expedition in the late 15th century. The University of Salamanca is now ranked in the range of 481-490 in the QS World University Rankings and is host to over 30,000 students across nine campuses.
4. University of Paris
Established in: 1160-1250
Established between 1160 and 1250 in the French capital, the University of Paris, often known as ‘la Sorbonne’, is known to have been one of the first established universities in Europe. As history goes, the University of Paris was suspended from operating between 1793 and 1896, following the French Revolution. Today, the University of Paris is scattered throughout the city, having been divided into 13 autonomous institutions in 1970, all of which maintain the high reputation of the original university. Of these 13, the highest ranked are Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC, 115th in the world rankings), Université Paris-Sud (209th) and Universit Paris Diderot – Paris 7 (210th).
5. University of Cambridge
Established in: 1209
Established in 1209 by a group of scholars leaving the University of Oxford due to political conflicts, the University of Cambridge today marginally out-ranks its elder, currently at joint 2nd in the world alongside Imperial College London. Sharing many common traditions, Oxford and Cambridge maintain a healthy sense of rivalry, which comes to a head in the famous annual Boat Race event.
Cambridge has more than 18,000 students, of which 6,000 are postgraduates.
6. University of Padua
Established in: 1222
The University of Padua – in Italian Università di Padova or UNIPD – was founded in 1222 (although some evidence puts it before this date) and is one of a number of medieval universities in Italy still operating today. Currently ranked 262nd in the world rankings, the Università di Padova is notable for its revolutionary early research into astronomy, law, medicine and philosophy. It now hosts more than 40,000 students in the city of Padua, the setting of William Shakespeare’s famous play The Taming of the Shrew. In 1545, the Università di Padova established the Botanical Garden of Padova, now one of the oldest academic gardens in the world. It also runs nine museums.
7. University of Naples Federico II
Established in: 1224 (1258)
Founded in 1224 by Frederick II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the University of Naples – Federico II is located in Naples, Italy’s third largest city and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The University of Naples Federico II is placed 345th in the world rankings, teaching a wide range of programs to a student community of around 100,000. Among its most famous historic alumni it boasts philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas.
8. University of Siena
Established in: 1240
Located in the small city of Siena in the Tuscany region, the University of Siena is another of the oldest universities in the world with a strong global standing, currently at 471-480 in the world rankings. With enrolment numbers upwards of 20,000, the University of Siena campus comprises almost half of the city’s entire population. The city center itself, also of historic importance, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is visited annually by over 160,000 tourists who come for the food, the art, the museums and the medieval heritage.
9. University of Coimbra
Established in: 1290
Although originally established in the Portuguese capital in 1290, the University of Coimbra (351st in the world rankings), was relocated a number of times by demanding kings, finally ending up in Coimbra, the country’s third largest urban center and home to much Roman-era history. With a current student base nearing 25,000, the University of Coimbra has been through many radical reforms, and for decades of the 18th century it was the only operating university in Portugal. In 2013, the University of Coimbra was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in recognition of its historical buildings, open courtyard, cultural traditions and stunning city-wide views.
10. Al-Azhar University
Established in: 970 AD
Despite not gaining university status until 1961, Al-Azhar University was established as early as 970 AD in Cairo, Egypt. Originally a ‘madrasa’, teaching students from primary to tertiary level, Al-Azhar University was first known as a center of Islamic learning but has since developed a modern curriculum of secular subjects, ensuring its survival. Through its time, the school has seen much political instability, most notably in the 12th century when a new dynasty took power and destroyed over 100,000 texts. Today, Al-Azhar University is ranked 701+ in the world rankings, and 37th in the QS University Rankings: Arab Region 2015, with a current enrollment of approximately 20,000 students. In addition to traditional studies, the school also offers programs in business, economics, science, medicine, engineering and agriculture.
Did you know…? The oldest university in Asia was founded in 1611 (University of Santo Tomas, the Philippines), the oldest university in the US was established in 1636 (Harvard University, Massachusetts), and the oldest university in Australia was established in 1850 (University of Sydney, New South Wales).