20 Oldest Universities in the World

May 1, 2024

oldest universities in the world

As of today, there are over 25,000 universities that exist around the world. Centers of higher education have been around for generations, and universities have had to adapt in the face of changing societies. You can imagine that in the history of these institutions, some were able to survive, while many have not. Yet in the face of local and global transformation, universities around the world have persisted to provide an education one way or another. The histories of these remaining universities are often as impressive as their alumni.

Additionally, if you are looking for the 25 Oldest Colleges in the U.S. (Click Here)

Here are 20 of the oldest universities in the world:

1) University of Al Quaraouiyine

The University of Al Quaraouiyine was founded in 859 in Fez, Morocco and is the oldest university in the world. Also written as Al-Karaouine, the university was initially created to be a mosque and now stands as a leading institution in the Islamic Golden Age. Scholars had long considered the university to be a madrasa until after World War II. And it wasn’t until 1963 when the University of Al Quaraouiyine was incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system. As the notion of a “university” held a distinctly European interpretation, scholars had considered Al Quaraouiyine a madrasa up until 1963.

2) Al-Azhar University

Founded in 970 in Cairo, Egypt, Al-Azhar University stands as one of the oldest Islamic universities in the world. As it was also considered to be a madrasa up until 1961, Al-Azhar University remains as one of the world’s oldest universities that has heavily influenced Islamic religious and intellectual thought. Since 1961, the university has modernized and offered secular courses. Examples include business, economics, and medicine, and they also added an Islamic women’s faculty. Al-Azhar University’s library is considered the second most important library in Egypt, following the Egyptian National Library and Archives.

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3) University of Bologna

Located in Bologna, Italy, the University of Bologna joins this list of oldest universities in the world. It was founded in 1088. The University of Bologna is a public research university that also ranks as the oldest university in Europe. It was also the first institution that offered degrees in higher education. Today, there are around 90,000 students enrolled at the university. Perhaps you’ve heard of Nicholas Copernicus, one of the university’s many notable alumni. The University of Bologna was also where Bettisia Gozzadini became the first woman to earn a university degree and teach at a university.

4) University of Oxford

It may come as no surprise that Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world. While there is no clear date as to when the university was founded, it is known to have been founded in 1096. Oxford currently has 44 colleges, where some of the oldest colleges like University College and Balliol College were founded between 1249 and 1264. The university’s notable alumni include 50 Nobel Prize winners, 27 Nobel laureates, 30 UK Prime Ministers, and the list goes on. Additionally, it remains as one of the best UK universities for US students and runs the largest university press in the world.

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5) University of Salamanca

The University of Salamanca, situated in Salamanca, Spain, was founded in 1134 and is one of the world’s oldest universities. Among its many contributions, the university is the alma mater to poet and astronomer Fray Luis de León, who studied Canon Law in 1541 at 14 years old. The university also played a pivotal role in transforming the Renaissance through education. Today, the University of Salamanca has nine campuses and over 26,000 students.

6) The University of Paris

Most often recognized as the Sorbonne, the University of Paris joins the list of oldest universities in the world as it was founded in 1150. In the Middle Ages, the University of Paris was a leader in philosophical and theological thinking. After the French Revolution, the university was not in operation between 1793 and 1896. Since 1970, the university has been spread across the French capital with its 13 independent colleges. Today the highest ranking of them are Sorbonne University and Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University.

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7) University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge, founded in 1209, is the second oldest university in the UK. It is also one of the oldest universities in the world. Cambridge has had an amicable rivalry with Oxford University for centuries, and their annual Boat Race against each other has taken place since 1829. Moreover, like Oxford, the university has a collegiate system and there are currently 31 colleges at Cambridge. Among Cambridge’s many famous alumni is Francis Crick, who won the Nobel Prize after discovering the structure of a little thing called DNA.

8) University of Padua

The University of Padua is located in Padua, Italy (or Padova in Italian) and was founded in 1222. As one of the oldest universities in the world, the university has been a leader of medical education since the Renaissance. Also recognized for its significant contribution to early research in astronomy, law, and philosophy, it is one of Italy’s few medieval institutions operating today. The University of Padua has nine museums and one of the world’s oldest academic botanical gardens. It hosts over 62,000 students today and has several international student exchange programs.

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9) University of Naples Federico II

In 1224, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick II, founded the University of Naples Federico II. Located in Naples – Italy’s third largest city and one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities – the university today has over 100,000 students. Over centuries, the University of Naples Federico II has made large contributions to the fields of philosophy, law, and science. The famous philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas is among its historic alumni.

10) University of Toulouse

Standing as one of the world’s oldest universities, and one of Europe’s oldest universities, the University of Toulouse was founded in 1229. The university was created as part of the Treaty of Paris and primarily offered an education in theology. In 1969, the French government divided the university into Toulouse 1 Capitole University, University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès and Toulouse III – Paul Sabatier University.

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11) University of Siena

Founded in 1240, the University of Siena is one of the world’s oldest public universities. Located in Italy’s small town of Siena, the university today has over 20,000 students – about half of the town’s population. In 1321, the University of Siena attracted a large number of its students when many left the University of Bologna protesting. Lastly, the school campus is part of the city center, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

12) University of Valladolid

Firstly, Spain’s University of Valladolid was founded in 1241 and remains one of the oldest universities in the world. The public research university has made historic contributions to the fields of law, philosophy, and theology. Arts and music are also strongly supported at the University of Valladolid, evinced by its theater group founded in 1984 and its UniversiJazz festival. Today, the university has over 26,000 students and 2,300 professors, and has seven campuses spread across four cities.

13) University of Montpellier

Located in Montpellier, France, the University of Montpellier was founded in 1289 and joins the list of oldest universities in the world. Recognized for its contribution to the field of medicine, the university was famous for its debates around Black Death in the 14th century. The University of Montpellier has the world’s oldest medical school still functioning and continues to impact scientific research.

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14) University of Macerata

The University of Macerata, founded in 1290, is located in the northeastern Italian countryside, sitting within medieval stonewalls. Today, the university continues to bolster their education in the humanities, legal studies, and social studies. Many courses are also offered in English, making it an attractive choice for international students. Lastly, the seven departments include Cultural Heritage, Economics, Education Sciences, Law, Literature and Philosophy, Media Studies, and Political Sciences.

15) University of Coimbra

Although it was founded in 1290 in Lisbon, the University of Coimbra moved its home several times due to different ruling kings. Eventually, in 1537, the university was moved to Coimbra and still remains as the oldest university in Portugal. The university’s efforts in technological and scientific research have only attracted more students over the years. It remains as one of Europe’s best research universities, and students can find one of Portugal’s strongest supercomputers on campus. Additionally, the university’s impressive architecture has made it a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

16) Complutense University of Madrid

The Complutense University of Madrid was founded in 1293 and is one of Spain’s most respected universities. Joining this list of oldest universities in the world, Complutense offers students the opportunity to study engineering, humanities, social sciences, or sciences. Some notable alumni from the university include Albert Einstein and Queen Sofia of Spain.

17) Sapienza University of Rome

Sitting in Rome, Italy, Sapienza University of Rome is one of the world’s oldest universities as it was founded in 1303. Pope Boniface VIII founded the university as he was concerned that other universities were veering away from theological teaching. Today, it is the largest university in Europe and offers courses in the applied sciences and humanities. Fun fact: “sapienza” means “wisdom” in Italian.

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18) University of Perugia

Founded in 1308, the University of Perugia joins the list of oldest universities in the world. It was initially established as one of Italy’s “free” universities and became a studium generale, which was a medieval university at the time. Today the university has 16 faculties and offers its main courses in Perugia and Terni. Additionally, it offers specialized programs in the Umbria region. Lastly, the University of Perugia’s official seal is of Saint Herculan and the rampant crowned griffin.

19) University of Florence

Perhaps you’ve heard of the names Leonardo Da Vinci or Dante Alighieri? The University of Florence, founded in 1321 in Florence, Italy, is the alma mater of many figures who have helped change the world. Playing a prime role in the Renaissance, the university still maintains its reputation as a transformative higher education institution. Today it has 12 schools and over 50,000 enrolled students.

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20) University of Vienna

Austria’s University of Vienna is considered to be one of the oldest universities in the German-speaking world. Founded in 1365 by Duke Rudolf IV during the Holy Roman Empire, the university has witnessed some of the world’s most catastrophic events. It has survived attacks from the Ottoman Empire of the 16th century. Further, it survived Nazi occupation during World War II. The University of Vienna today has 15 faculties and over 88,000 enrolled students.

Past Meets Present – Oldest Universities in the World (Continued)

Every origin story of a university differs from another. But the very word “university” stems from “universitas magistrorum et scholarium,” which translates to “community of teachers and scholars.” At the heart of every university, students and faculty are to come together in a safe community that nurtures the learning mind. Thankfully, some of the oldest universities in the world have continued to strive towards this tradition.

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