What Are The Oldest Universities In The World?

Rooftop view of al-Qarawiyyin (or Al Quaraouiyine), established as an Islamic madrasa in Fes, Morocco in 869.
Rooftop view of al-Qarawiyyin (or Al Quaraouiyine), established as an Islamic madrasa in Fes, Morocco in 869.

10. Siena (1240)

The Siena University in Siena, Tuscany, Italy, is one of the oldest universities in the world which is still in operation. This was the first publicly funded university in Italy, and was established in 1240 under the original name of Studium Senese. The university, now most famous for its School of Law and School of Medicine, continues to draw large numbers of students. It had an enrolled student population of around 20,000 in 2006.

9. Naples, Frederico II (1224)

The Università Degli Studi Di Napoli, or the University of Naples, established in 1224, today serves as a state university with a coeducational teaching system. This ages-old university was established by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II to subdue the role played by the University of Bologna in the region. In those days, when most universities' attendances were initiated following the acknowledgement of students and scholars, the emperor pushed for the exact opposite. Instead, he forced all under his rule to attend no other university than that set up by him in Naples. Over the years, the university has managed to survive sporadic episodes of decline, and continues to serve students to this date. Today, it is one of the best universities in Italy in terms of research, and as such was listed among the top 100 world universities in 2015 on the basis of citations per published paper.

8. Padua (1222)

The University of Padua is a world class university with a very interesting past and a number of eminent alumni. It was started in 1222 by about 1,000 students, many of whom had transferred their studies there from the University of Bologna. It was initially a "student-monitored university", wherein its students elected the professors and determined their salaries. After a brief period of secession in 1228, the university rose back to power during the 15th and 16th Centuries to become one of the highest ranking universities in Europe. A number of eminent scholars of the Renaissance period, including Galileo, were alumni of this educational institution. Today, it is one of the best universities in the world, and 65,000 were reported to be studying in this institution in 2010.

7. Cambridge (1209)

Founded in 1209, the University of Cambridge is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. It was formed by a group of scholars who had escaped to Cambridge, England from the University of Oxford after a dispute with the local people in Oxford. The two universities of Cambridge and Oxford are often popularly referred to as ‘Oxbridge’, and share a long history of both cooperation and rivalry in the educational and athletic spheres alike. The educational system of the Cambridge University is extremely rich, encouraging the growth of a number of notable scholars throughout the years. Academically, the University of Cambridge always manages to secure its position among most top 5 universities of the world lists, and has produced 82 Nobel Laureates to date.

6. Paris (1160)

The University of Paris, established in 1160, was one of the prime factors responsible for the recognition of Paris as the capital city of France. During the 13th Century, the University benefitted from several privileges granted to the students and teachers of the University by the French monarchs, and also became an independent legal entity in and of itself. Theology was the most important subject taught here in its early past, followed by liberal arts, medicine, and canon (Catholic religious) law. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the University of Paris thrived still, becoming one of the premiere cultural and scientific centers of Europe. Its popularity was primarily due to its renowned band of teachers, as well as the massive repertoire of books founds in its large libraries. However, there are controversial contentions regarding whether or not the University of Paris can be regarded as one of oldest functioning universities in the world. This is because, in 1970, in the aftermath of the May 1968 worker and student protest events across France, the University of Paris was divided into 13 autonomous universities, and hence the existence of a single, centralised University of Paris ceased after this division.

5. Salamanca (1134)

The prestigious University of Salamanca was established in Salamanca, Spain in 1094, and provided a Royal charter of foundation in 1164 by King Alfonso IX. The charming location of this university in Salamanca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, also adds to its global appeal. Today, this university is world-renowned for its Humanities Department, especially in the area of language studies, and is an important seat of Spanish language education in Spain.

4. Oxford (1096)

The Oxford University, established in 1096 in Oxfordshire, England, is one of greatest universities in world. The university rose from a very humble beginning, originally lacking any of its own buildings, with lectures being conducted in rented halls, churches, and other such venues. In the 13th Century, theology became the predominant discipline taught at Oxford, while scientific studies became more popular towards the end of the 17th Century. The Oxford University Press, one of the most prestigious publishers in the world, was established there in 1478. Over the years, Oxford has produced a large number of notable scholars. Listed among these alumni are the physicist Robert Boyle, the astronomer Edmond Halley, such writers as Lewis Carroll and C.S. Lewis, 26 British Prime Ministers, and 27 Noble Prize winners.

3. Bologna (1088)

The University of Bologna, established in 1088 in the Italian city of Bologna, is one of the earliest universities to survive into our present time. During the 12th and 13th Centuries, the university served students from all corners of Europe, with civil and canon law being the most popular disciplines taught there. In the 13th Century, the Faculty of Medicine was introduced into Bologna University, which helped revive the practice of human dissection and other medical practices in Europe that had been lost for a long time in the Dark Ages. Women started gaining admission to this university in the 17th and 18th Centuries, alongside the introduction of additional scientific faculties. Currently, the University of Bologna enrolls around 85,000 students in its 11 schools, and continues to act as one of the most prestigious universities in the world.

2. Al-Azhar (970)

Though some would consider the list of the world’s oldest universities to stop at the University of Bologna, there are two other universities, often avoided for their religious inclinations and definitions as universities, that deserve to be placed in this list. The Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, Egypt, is an Islamic university that was established in 970 in the very same world famous Egyptian city. The Theological Faculty of Al-Azhar, referred to as the Ismaili Shia School, was established in 988, and later transformed into a school based on Sunni doctrines. Today, the academics at the university continue to revolve around the study of the Holy Qur’an and other aspects of detailed Islamic law. The faculties of medicine and engineering were established at a more recent date, in 1961. The university is highly regarded in the Islamic world for its propagation of both Islamic law and the Arabic language.

1. Al-Quaraouiyine (859)

Located in Fes, Morocco, is the ancient, and surviving, University of al-Qarawiyyin, also known as Al Quaraouiyine. According to the UNESCO and Guinness World Records, this is the oldest university still operating in the world. It was founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, the educated daughter of a wealth Muslim trader, and currently serves as one of the leading universities of the Muslim world. In 1963, the university was given recognition by Morocco’s modern state university system. The education here concentrates on Islamic religion, languages, and law, with special attention given to Maliki law (that in the tradition of Arabian Islamic scholar Malik ibn Anas, also known as Imam Malik). Teaching is delivered using the traditional Islamic methods. Students from all corners of Morocco and Islamic West Africa to the south attend classes at this university today.


More in World Facts