Some of us try to hide our ages as we get older, but this is not the case with these universities, who display them proudly at every opportunity, and for good reason. Although the earliest universities looked a lot different to modern ones – especially as they generally only accepted men – they marked the beginnings of education as we now know it. Here is a list of the oldest continually operating universities in the world.
University of Macerata, 1290
Located in the Marche region of Macerata in central Italy, this university has over 11,000 students across seven faculties. The University of Macerata’s main focus is on the humanities and social sciences.
One of the early public universities, the University of Perugia was founded in 1308 and was immediately recognised by the pope at the time, Pope Clement V. Before that, it had already existed as a place of study, but this recognition raised it to a studium generale. Numerous popes have studied within its walls, and it can count Luca Pacioli, the father of accounting, as one of its more well-known former faculty members. Nowadays, it has an enrolment of about 28,000 students.
Given its date of founding, it’s no surprise that the Sapienza University of Rome has racked up its fair share of Nobel laureate alumni and professors. In addition to its place as the 12th oldest university in the world, Sapienza was also the first pontifical university, created by Pope Boniface VIII. It wasn’t entirely for selfless purposes – he wanted a university where he could keep a closer eye on the theological teachings, as the universities of Bologna and Padua (you’ll find them below) had escaped his control.
Two hundred years after the founding of the first university, Portugal decided to get in on the action with the University of Coimbra. Originally established in the capital city of Lisbon, it moved around a few times before settling in Coimbra, a city located in central Portugal. The student body is about 24,000, and the university hosts thousands of international students every year. Thanks to its age and impressive campus, the university was awarded a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2013.
Moving just a little bit east to Spain, we get to the University of Valladolid. It was founded in what is now the autonomous region of Castile and León, and today has seven campuses stretching across the whole region. At the time of the university’s birth, Spain did not exist as the political entity it currently is, so like all of the universities mentioned here, it has lived through many changes.
Siena is a small town, with the 20,000 students at the University of Siena making up almost half of the town’s population. The university’s student population grew massively in 1321 after a number of University of Bologna students switched to the University of Siena following major protests at the former.
The University of Naples Federico II, founded in 1224, is the seventh oldest university in the world and yet only the third oldest in Italy. It is, however, the oldest publicly funded university in the world. Founded by Frederick II, the Holy Roman emperor, the university was not connected in any way to the Church, which was a rarity at the time.
The University of Padua actually owes its existence to the University of Bologna, as a number of teachers and students felt ideologically restricted at the latter, so they broke off to create a new university where they would have more intellectual freedom. The university’s list of alumni and former faculty includes famed astronomers Copernicus and Galileo.
One of the most storied universities in the world, the University of Cambridge was founded when a number of scholars decided to break away from the University of Oxford. Now, over 800 years later, Cambridge ranks among the top universities in the world for scholarship and funding (it has the largest endowment of any university outside of the US), as well having a stunningly beautiful campus.
The University of Salamanca was the first university founded in what would eventually become Spain, and like the aforementioned University of Valladolid, it is also located in Castile and León. While its origins are a bit hazy, teaching began here sometime around 1094, and it was officially recognised by the king of León in 1164. One particularly notable discussion to have taken place within the walls of the University of Salamanca revolved around Christopher Columbus—first about whether his proposed trip west from Spain would be feasible, and second about how he and his men should have treated the Native Americas.
While there is some dispute among the oldest universities about their earliest founding dates, it is at least clear that the University of Oxford was the first university in the English-speaking world – although lessons likely would have taken place in Latin. It gained a significant boost in terms of numbers and importance in 1167, when Henry II banned English students from studying at the University of Paris.
Although Frederick I granted the university a royal charter in 1158, the origins of the University of Bologna can be traced back to 1088. For many years, students could only study cannon and civil law. It can count Dante as one of its former professors, and the university has seemingly managed to keep its quality fairly consistent, with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica often ranking it first academically in Italy.
Guinness World Records names this university the “oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world”. The University of Al-Karaouine, also known as Al-Quaraouiyine University, was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 in Fes, Morocco, as a community mosque with an associated school. The university still exists today, offering studies in Islamic studies, legal sciences, comparative jurisprudence, and more.
The Complutense University of Madrid remains the largest and one of the most prestigious universities in Spain, with famous alumni including politicians, writers, and scientists. In 1785, it became one of the first universities to award a doctorate to a woman.