7 Oldest Universities in The World

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Institutions of higher learning can trace their roots back to medieval times and the very first institutions to use the term university were established in the Kingdom of Italy, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire. Most universities evolved from much older monastic or religious schools and it is often hard to date when the schools became official universities.

All of the universities on this list can be traced back to various religious institutions in their country of origin and the buildings are usually a part of larger churches, mosques, or cathedrals. Eventually, all of these universities expanded their curriculum to include non-religious subjects and nearly all of them are still in operation today.

7. University of Padua

Year Founded 1222
Location: Padua, Italy
Still in Operation:  Yes

University of Padua photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Padua was founded in 1222 as a school of law and theology. Although 1222 is the first time the university was cited in a historical document, most historian believe that the school was around before that date. The university was started when a large group of students and teachers left the University of Bologna in the pursuit of more academic freedom.

More subjects were added to the school’s curriculum and by 1399 the university had been divided into two, a “Universitas Luristarum” for civil and Canon law and a “Universitas Artistarum” for the study of astronomy, dialectic, philosophy, grammar, medicine, and rhetoric. The Botanical Garden of Padova, which was established by the university in 1545, is one of the oldest gardens of its kind in the world and many people believe that it is the oldest academic garden.


6. University of Cambridge

Year Founded 1209
Location: Cambridge, United Kingdom
Still in Operation:  Yes

University of Padua photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Cambridge which was founded in 1209 grew out of an association of scholars who fled from the University of Oxford after disputes with its townspeople. The school was granted its royal charter in 1231 from King Henry III and it is the second oldest university in the English-speaking world. Cambridge consists of 31 constituent colleges and over 100 academic departments, which are organized into six schools.

The university is currently ranked as the world’s fourth best university by three ranking tables and has produced many notable alumni including 95 Nobel laureates, 15 British Prime Ministers, and ten Fields medalists. Isaac Newton is one of Cambridge’s most notable students and from the time he attended the university (late 17th century) until the mid-19th century, the university had a strong emphasis on applied mathematics, particularly mathematical physics – Cambridge still maintains a its strength in mathematics.


5. University of Paris

Year Founded c. 1150
Location: Paris, France
Still in Operation:  No

University of Paris photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Paris was founded in 1150 and operated until 1970 . The school was officially chartered in 1200 by King Philip II and recognized by Pope Innocent III in 1215. The university was commonly called the Sorbonne after its theology school, which was founded in 1257 by Robert de Sorbon and chartered by Saint Louis, King of France. Before disbanding in 1970, the University of Paris was considered one of the world’s best school for the humanities, notably theology and philosophy, and it introduced several academic standards and traditions that are still used around the world today such as doctoral degrees and student nations.

After the civil unrest that occurred in France in May 1968, which was triggered by student protests at the Sorbonne, the university was split into 13 autonomous universities in 1970. In 2010, these universities formed the Sorbonne University group and on January 1, 2018, they will form Sorbonne University, and re-open as recreation of the University of Paris.


4. University of Salamanca

Year Founded 1134
Location: Salamanca, Spain
Still in Operation:  Yes

University of Salamanca photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain and the third oldest university in continuous operation in the world. Like all ancient universities, the University of Salamanca started out as a Cathedral School and was founded in 1130. The school was granted a Royal charter of foundation in 1218 by King Alfonso IX and was officially recognized as a “University” in 1254 by King Alfonso X.

A year later, the school was chartered by Pope Alexander IV. The university is currently preparing to celebrate its eighth centennial in 2018 (based on its royal charter from 1218).


3. University of Oxford

Year Founded Between 1096 – 1167
Location: Oxford, United Kingdom
Still in Operation:  Yes

University of Oxford photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Oxford or more commonly known as just Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Although the university has no known foundation date, most historians agree that teaching at Oxford existed in some form since 1096. Around 1167, Oxford rapidly expanded as English students returned home after Henry II banned them from attending the University of Paris.

Several students fled from Oxford in 1209 after disputes with the townspeople and went to Cambridge where there formed the University of Cambridge – the two universities are often called “Oxbridge”. Oxford has stood the test of time and is a widely recognized and prestigious university. The school has produced many notable alumni including 28 Nobel laureates and 27 Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom.


2. University of Bologna

Year Founded 1088
Location: Bologna, Italy
Still in Operation:  Yes

University of Bologna photo source: Wikimedia Commons

The University of Bologna is the oldest university in continuous operation and was the first place of study to use the term “universitas”. The university was also the first to adopt the phrase “Alma mater” (Latin for “nourishing mother”, which alludes to the fact that schools provide intellectual nourishment to students) into academic usage as the school’s motto is “Alma Mater Studiorum”.

The school received its charter in 1158, but a committee of 19th century historians traced the university’s founding to 1088. While the university’s main campus is in Bologna, it has other campuses in Ravenna, Forli, Cesena, and Rimini (all in Italy) and an international branch center in Buenos Aires.


1. Al-Azhar University

Year Founded c. 972 AD
Location: Cairo, Egpyt
Still in Operation:  Yes

Al-Azhar University photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Although Al-Azhar University did not officially receive its university status until 1961, it was established sometime around 972 AD as a minor university whose purpose was to spread Shiite teaching in Egypt (also known as a madrasa). It is one of the only universities in the Arabic world to survive as a modern university and today it is the main centre of Arabic literature and Islamic learning in the world.

Al-Azhar added non-religious subjects, such as medicine and engineering, to its curriculum in 1961 and was granted university status.


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