The question in the title seems simple, but to answer it, you need to know some background information and put things into groups. Depending on the parameters set, the answer or list of answers may be different.
For example, if we use Rashdall’s (1895) definition of a university as a place that gives both undergraduate and graduate degrees, the oldest university is in Europe. But if we focus on different parts of the world, institutions from Africa and Asia would be at the top of the list because they came before those from Europe.
In this article, we’ll give a list of the oldest universities in Europe that were started during the Middle Ages. We will also tell you about the oldest universities in other parts of the world. It also ranks universities from a number of different points of view. Learners can use the rankings to compare schools and add to academic debates like the Yale vs. Harvard argument.
There have been universities for a very long time. And because of things like the changing population of the world and the growing need for postsecondary education, we can be sure that they will be around for a long time. According to a study on the demand for higher education around the world, there will be almost 600 million students in universities all over the world by 2040. (Calderon, 2018).
Reed et al. (2015) say that people go to college because of both outside and inside factors. Most people go to college to put off responsibility, gain respect from others, prove they can do it, get a high-paying job, meet other people’s expectations, play varsity sports, and make their families happy. Internal reasons usually have to do with exploring life options, taking on a challenge, loving to learn, seeing the value of a college education, taking classes, and making better life decisions.
This doesn’t mean that all universities will stay open, though. It is not unusual for colleges and universities to close down. This makes it even more interesting to look at some of the oldest institutions that are still in use today. Their very existence shows that they were able to change, stand the test of time, and still give students all over the world a world-class education.
1. Universities in Europe in the Middle Ages
The universities on this list were all founded before 1500, before the rest of the world adopted the Western model of higher education. The institutions that make up these universities have stayed the same since they were founded, and they are still running today. We looked at The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2020 to find out how each of the universities listed below ranked in the world. THE is a ranking of universities that includes almost 1,400 schools from 92 countries. It is thought to be the largest and most diverse ranking of universities to date.
Some of the most beautiful college campuses in the world are at these schools, which have kept most of their original buildings.
College of Bologna
In 1088, an Italian lawyer named Irnerius set up the University of Bologna. This university in Bologna, Italy, is the oldest one that has never stopped running for even a short time.
The University of Bologna was Italy’s best public university in 2019 (Statista, 2020). In the 2017-18 school year, it had 81,220 students. The school has 6,293 international students, and it is one of the best universities that takes part in the Erasmus+ exchange program. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 puts it at number 168.
College of Oxford
The University of Oxford has been around since 1096, making it the oldest English-speaking university. It is in the United Kingdom, and it grew quickly after Henry II stopped English students from going to the University of Paris in 1167. It runs the largest university press in the world, the largest academic library system in the country, and the oldest university museum. With its university city structure, the school was also one of the first to show how colleges could work together.
In 2019, the university got more than 23,000 applications for undergraduate programs and more than 30,000 for graduate programs. Every year, it has about 3,300 first-year students and about 5,500 graduate students. Through its Opportunity Oxford program, the university wants to bring in 25% more British students from low-income families by 2023. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 put it in first place.
The University of Cambridge began in 1209, and King Henry III gave it the Royal Charter in 1231. It was started by a group of scholars who left the University of Oxford to avoid political problems with the people of the town. So far, the two universities have a lot in common, which is how the name “Oxbridge” came about.
According to the university’s statistics on admissions, there were 19,359 undergraduate applicants for the academic year 2019/20, but only 3,528 were accepted. When it came to postgraduate applications, the university got 22,867, and only 3,919 students were accepted. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 put it in third place.
In 1134, the University of Salamanca was set up. King Alfonso IX of Leon gave it the Royal Charter of Foundation in 1218. This institution is the oldest university in the Hispanic world. It is in the city of Salamanca, which is about 200 kilometers west of Madrid.
The university gets students from Castile and León and the areas around it, but it also gets more than 2,000 foreign students every year. It is known for its Spanish classes for people who don’t speak Spanish as their first language. The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020 put it between 601st and 800th.
In 1222, students and teachers from Bologna started the University of Padua. The institution, which was in the city of Padua in the Veneto region of Northern Italy, helped spread ideas that changed the scientific and cultural history of the world. Andrea Vesalio, who was the first person to study anatomy, went to school there. It was also where astronomers Galileo and Copernicus looked up at the sky.
The university had 59,335 students in the 2018–19 school year (Statista, 2020), making it the second best university in Italy after the University of Bologna (Statista, 2020). It has also said that students who are refugees or who have been given international protection will be able to get one of 100 scholarships in the 2020/21 school year. On The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2020, it is between the 200th and the 250th best.
College of Coimbra
The University of Coimbra is the oldest university in Portugal. It began in 1290. It was originally in Lisbon, but in 1308, it moved to Coimbra. It went back and forth between these two cities until 1537, when it moved to the city of River Mondego.
The university is also one of the 39 universities in Europe that started the Coimbra Group in 1985. On June 22, 2013, UNESCO added the University of Coimbra to its list of World Heritage Sites.
Courtyard of Hercules in the University of Bologna’s main building, Palazzo Poggi.
Duke Rudolph IV began the University of Vienna in the year 1365. It holds two records: it is the oldest university in the German-speaking world, and it has more than 90,000 students, making it the largest school in Austria.
The university doesn’t have one main campus. Instead, it has a number of academic buildings in more than sixty places in Vienna. Outside of Vienna, in the provinces of Lower Austria, Upper Austria, and Salzburg, it also has departments for research and experiments in astrophysics, biology, and sports.
It is known for its programs in the humanities and has been linked to 20 Nobel Prize winners. It has about 2,700 students from all over the world who are enrolled in 175 degree programs and 40 programs for continuing education and training. Seventy percent of the newly hired professors are from other countries, and about 33 percent of the academic staff is made up of people from other countries.
In the small German town of Heidelberg, Elector Palatine Rupert I started Heidelberg University in 1386. At first, it taught people about religion, law, and philosophy. After two years, medicine was added. The first head of the university was a Dutchman named Marsilius von Inghen, and the first professors came from Paris and Prague.
In addition to the original campus in Heidelberg, which is where the humanities programs are located, the university now has two more campuses. The campus in the Neuenheimer Feld quarter has programs in medicine and the natural sciences, while the campus in the inner-city suburb of Bergheim has programs in the social sciences. Most classes are taught in German, but there are a few graduate programs in English and French as well.
Uppsala University is the oldest university in Sweden and the Nordic countries. It was founded in 1477 in Uppsala, Sweden. It was started by Archbishop Jakob Ulvsson of Uppsala, who was the head of the Swedish Catholic Church. When it first opened, there were only about 50 students and a few professors.
There are more than 40,000 students and almost 5,000 teachers and researchers at the university right now. About 70 Bachelor programs and 70 Master programs are available. It also has exchange agreements with over 400 universities around the world, through which about 1,420 students come to the school and 940 leave.
City of Copenhagen University
King Christian 1 of Denmark started the University of Copenhagen in 1479. It is the country’s oldest university and research center and the second-oldest university in the Nordic countries. It is a university that is paid for by the state and has campuses in and around the city.
With 39,000 students and 5,000 researchers, the university has become a place where people from all over the world come to study and do research. Nine Nobel Prizes have been given to researchers at the university. It also has a big push to make its campus one of the greenest in the world. The university says it has met its goal of cutting its CO2 emissions by 65% compared to 2006 levels by 2020.
In the year 1579, Vilnius University began. It is the oldest university in the Baltic States and one of the most well-known in Central Europe. It is in the city of Vilnius in Lithuania. In 1570, the institute began as a Jesuit college. In 1579, King Stephen Bathory of Poland gave the institute its Royal Charter.
During the times when other countries ruled Lithuania, the university had different names and was run by Russian and Polish secular authorities. It was also shut down by the Nazis, and it didn’t start up again until the fall of 1944.
Today, Vilnius University has close to 20,000 students and a staff of almost 3,000 people who teach and do research. It has 35 Master’s programs and 12 Bachelor’s programs. The programs are taught in English, Russian, and Polish, among other languages.
Austria’s University of Vienna. Photo by Alex Schuppich, from the website of the University of Vienna
2. Asia and Africa are home to the oldest universities.
Institutions in Asia and Africa that gave scholars a place to work date back hundreds of years before the medieval universities in Europe. These included Buddhist monasteries like the Nalanda in India (427–1197 AD) and imperial academies in East Asia like the Taixue in China (circa 202 BC–220 AD) and the Daigaku-ry in Japan (671 AD).
As for institutions that look like modern universities, the University of Karueein in Africa is the oldest and the University of Santo Tomas in Asia is the oldest. Both institutions have been around for a long time and are still running.
Guinness World Records says that the University of Al-Karaouine (also written al-Quaraouiyine and al-Qarawiyyin) in Fez, Morocco, was the first university in the world. It was founded in 859 AD (Guinness World Records, n.d.). It was started by Fatima al-Fihri and became a place of worship and learning during the Islamic Golden Age.
In 1963, the school was finally added to Morocco’s system of state universities. Islamic religious and legal studies are at the center of education at the university. Students can also study things like English and French, which are not religious.
Santo Tomas University
Miguel de Benavides, a Spanish priest and the third Archbishop of Manila, opened the University of Santo Tomas (UST) on April 28, 1611, in the city of Manila in the Philippines. In the same year, King Phillip III of Spain gave it its Royal Charter. In November 1645, Pope Innocent X made it a Pontifical University.
When it comes to the number of students on a single campus, UST is one of the biggest Catholic universities in the world. As of the 2019-2020 school year, there were 40,375 students at the school. About 80,000 people apply to the university each year. Out of those, only about 12,000, or 15%, are accepted. In the Philippines, it is known for how well it teaches Nursing, Biology, Pharmacy, Medical Technology, Psychology, and Medicine.
Al-Karaouine University in Fez, Morocco.
3. North America, South America, and Oceania have some of the oldest universities.
After the 1500s, universities in other parts of the world began to look like those in Europe. The British Empire and other European empires brought the model of a university to the countries they ruled. Even though old colonial systems fell apart in the 20th century, the university model of education stayed mostly the same in the places that had been colonized.
Even though it is relatively “new” compared to its competitors, experts agree that the “Western model” exemplified by the American university has a lot of influence around the world and is a mix of international ideas (Altbach, 2007, 25, cited in Dakowska, 2017).
University of Harvard
Harvard University is the oldest university in North America. It was founded in 1636 and named after John Harvard, the first person to give money to the school. It’s also the oldest college or university in the United States. This private Ivy League university is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which was named after the University of Cambridge in England.
In its early years, Harvard University mostly trained people to be priests. Its curriculum became less religious over time in the 1800s, and after the American Civil War, it changed into a modern research university. As of the 2017–2018 school year, there were 36,012 students at Harvard.
Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo
Pope Paul III set up the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo in 1538. The university, which was in the Dominican Republic, had the four traditional schools of that time: law, medicine, the arts, and theology. Throughout its history, the university had to close its doors several times because of political problems. It finally got its independence on December 31, 1961.
At the moment, there are eight schools in the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo. Law and political science, engineering and architecture, economics and social sciences, agricultural sciences, humanities, science, health sciences, and the arts. As of 2017, there were 195,011 students at the school.
William Charles Wentworth, an Australian explorer, author, politician, and journalist, started the University of Sydney in 1850. In history, the university is known for being one of the first in the world to admit students based solely on their abilities. It also accepted women as early as 1881.
As of 2019, more than 70,000 people have signed up to study at the University of Sydney. It also has the most international students of any university in Australia, with 400 exchange programs and 250 partner universities in over 40 countries.
Harvard University is in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is in the United States.
Challenges Facing Universities in the Future
Universities, like any other organization or institution, face problems that test the ways they have always done things. As explained in Deloitte’s article on the key global challenges facing universities, geopolitical and economic factors are always changing and putting pressure on these institutions to meet student expectations for a better education at an affordable price (Deloitte, n.d.).
In the U.S., a four-year private college with a moderate budget cost an average of $53,980 and an in-state public college with a moderate budget cost an average of $26,590. (College Board, 2019). But 80% of Americans don’t think the average college degree is worth the money (Deloitte, n.d.).
The future university will look different because of globalization, distance learning, and the Internet’s continued growth (Thorne, 2001, reviewed in Grocock, 2002).
Universities must also use new technologies that could help make teaching and learning better, change the way research is done, and improve business operations to meet performance goals (Deloitte, n.d.). Universities are investing more and more in tools like Enterprise Resource Planning, Student Information Systems, and Customer Relationship Management to improve how they help students and other people.
Global competition is also forcing university boards to rethink their business models and find a way to stand out from other schools in order to attract more students from both inside and outside the country. There is also a need to attract the best talent, not only to build a diverse workforce but also to have a good team of academics with the right disciplines and expertise who can bring research income and boost the institution’s global rankings (Deloitte, n.d.). This is important for American universities because so many foreign students find jobs in the US after they graduate.
All of these problems make us wonder what universities will be like in the future. We can only suggest that, like the oldest universities that are still around today, universities will need to be flexible and able to change in order to stay relevant in the centuries to come.