The term “university” comes from the Latin term “Universitas magistrorum et scholarium”, which roughly translates to “community of teachers and scholars”. Merriam-Webster defines the university as an institution of higher learning, providing facilities for teaching and research, and authorised to grant academic degrees. In most countries these centres of higher education might be termed as ‘a university’ by a government agency, but in some countries such as the United States, there is no national standard for its definition. Many global institutions of higher learning can trace their roots back to medieval times. These ancient institutions have stuck around for centuries, proving their ability to not just adapt to a modern context and time, but maintain a superlative standard through it all. We bring you some of the oldest universities in the world with a view of their historic heritage as well as their contemporary outlook towards education.

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When And Where Were Some Of The World’s Oldest Universities Set?

1. University of Al-Karaouine (Morocco, 859)

Oldest Universities In The World, University Of Al-Karaouine
Founded by a wealthy Tunisian woman, Fatima Alfehri, daughter of a rich merchant, Al Karaouine University and its affiliated mosque are among the world’s oldest

According to the Guinness World Records, the University of Al-Karaouine is considered the “oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world”. Also known as  Al-Quaraouiyine University, the university was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 in Fes, Morocco. While it was originally founded as a community mosque with an associated school, it was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963. Today, the University of Al-Karaouine concentrates on Islamic religious and legal sciences. It heavily emphasises and particularly focuses on Classical Arabic grammar, linguistics, and Maliki law as well.

Also read: 10 of the best cities to visit in Morocco

2. University of Bologna (Italy, 1088)

Oldest Universities In The World, University of Bologna
Inner yard of Archiginnasio of Bologna that now houses the Municipal Library and the famous Anatomical Theatre

Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna holds the title of the oldest university in the world. As the name suggests, it’s located in Bologna, Italy, and has an enrollment of around 85,500 students, of which 30,000 are postgraduates. This university has never been out of operation and in the past only used to teach doctorate studies, but today has a diverse range of programs at all levels.

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3. University of Oxford (UK, 1096-1167)

Bodleian Library Oxford UK, Oldest Universities In The World

Considered one of the premium Ivy League Colleges in the world, the University of Oxford was established somewhere between 1096 to 1167. It is known to be the oldest university in the English-speaking world and is a widely recognised and prestigious university. Catering to a student community of nearly 24,000 and operating the largest university press in the world, it has produced many notable alumni including 28 Nobel laureates and 27 Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom.

Also read: 44 of the most beautiful places to see in the UK

4. University of Salamanca (Spain, 1134)

Oldest Universities In The World, University of Salamanca
Cathedral of Salamanca, Castilla y Leon region, Spain

The University of Salamanca was founded in 1134 with a royal charter in 1218. It is the oldest university in Spain and the third oldest university in continuous operation in the world. Located in west Madrid, it was this institution where Christopher Columbus obtained royal support for his expedition that discovered North America in the late 15th century. Today it caters to over 30,000 students across nine campuses.

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5. University of Paris (France, 1160-1250)

Oldest Universities In The World, University of Paris
Sorbonne University main building and square in Paris in spring

Established between 1160 and 1250 in Paris, the University of Paris is known as one of the first established universities in Europe. Often known as ‘la Sorbonne’, it was officially chartered in 1200 by King Philip II and recognised by Pope Innocent III in 1215. Following the French Revolution, the university was suspended from operating between 1793 and 1896, and in 1970 it was divided into 13 autonomous institutions, all scattered throughout the city.

Also read: 12 of the best day trips from Paris

6. University of Cambridge (UK, 1209)

Cambridge University (King's College Chapel), Oldest Universities In The World
Cambridge University (King’s College Chapel)

One of the oldest universities in the world, the University of Cambridge was founded in 1209 and grew out of an association of scholars who fled from the University of Oxford due to political conflict. The university was granted its royal charter in 1231 by King Henry III, and today it hosts around 19,147 students, of which 4,450 come from outside the EU. It is the second oldest university in the English-speaking world and consists of 31 constituent colleges and over 100 academic departments, which are organised into six schools.

Also read: 6 places you have to see in Cambridge

7. University of Padua (Italy, 1222)

Oldest Universities In The World, University of Padua

Founded in 1222, the University of Padua began as a school of law and theology. Although the official date is listed as 1222 in a historical document, some evidence suggests it might have been founded even earlier. Located in the city of Padua, the university is said to have started when a large group of students and teachers left the University of Bologna in pursuit of more intellectual freedom. With nine museums and one of the oldest academic botanical gardens, the Botanical Garden of Padova, the school hosts around 62,000 students. 

8. University of Naples Federico II (Italy, 1224)

Oldest Universities In The World, University of Naples Federico II
The University of Naples Federico II (Italian: Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II)

In 1224, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Federico II founded the University of Naples Federico II. Located in Naples, the university is the oldest publicly funded university in the world. It offers a wide range of programs to a student community of around 100,000. Among its most famous historic alumni is the philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas who was responsible for combining the theological principles of faith with the philosophical principles of reason.

9. University of Siena (Italy, 1240)

Oldest Universities In The World, University of Siena
‘Piazza del Campo’ square

Located in the small city of Siena in the Tuscany region, the University of Siena was founded in 1240. As it is situated in a small city with a total number of 20,000 students, almost half of the city’s entire population is enrolled in the university. The school is a part of the city centre, which itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and receives over 163,000 tourists annually.

10. Al-Azhahar University (Egypt, 970 AD)

Al-Azhahar University
Source: Flickr

Although the Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, did not gain the status of a university until 1961, it was originally established as early as 970 AD. The university started as a ‘madrasa’ that taught students from primary to tertiary levels. Despite being one of the oldest universities in the world, over time the school evolved. Today it teaches academic subjects along with traditional sciences, such as business, economics, science, medicine, engineering, and agriculture.

Also read: 11 things you should not miss in Egypt

A Trip Back In Time With The Oldest Universities In The World

These centres of higher education have been around for hundreds of years, and even millennia in some cases. And while many have split into different autonomous colleges or been incorporated into a different institution altogether, each has evolved and adapted with time. The universities which began as monastic or religious schools slowly expanded their curriculum to include non-religious subjects. A read through the oldest universities in the world gives us an idea of how much human beings have valued knowledge. Today these universities are known for imparting education as they are known for their historical relevance. Let us know if you have visited any of these prestigious old universities before!


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