- Lani Seelinger
Some of us try to hide our ages as we get older – not so with these universities, who display them proudly at every opportunity, and for good reason. Although the earliest universities didn’t exactly look like modern ones do — especially as they generally only accepted men — they were still the beginnings of a vital educational institution. Here is a list of the oldest continually operating universities in the world.
University of Perugia, 1308
One of the early public universities, the University of Perugia was founded in 1308 and was immediately recognized 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 call Luca Pacioli, the father of accounting, one of its more well-known former faculty members. Nowadays, it has an enrollment of about 31,000 across its faculties in the Umbria region.
Sapienza University of Rome, 1303
Given its date of founding, it’s no surprise that Sapienza University of Rome has racked up its fair share of Nobel Laureate alumni and professors. In addition to its place as the 11th oldest university in the world, Sapienza was also the first pontifical university, created by Pope Boniface VII. 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 in Bologna and Padua (you’ll find them below) had gotten out of his control.
Complutense University of Madrid, 1293
Although it has, understandably, undergone numerous changes in its 800+ year history, the Complutense University of Madrid still finds itself tenth on the list of the oldest universities in the world. It remains the largest and one of the most prestigious universities in Spain, with famous alumni including politicians, writers and scientists.
Perhaps most notably it was one of the first universities to award a doctorate to a woman, an event which took place in 1785.
University of Coimbra, 1290
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 landing 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, becoming cosmopolitan in the process. Thanks to its age and impressive campus, the university was awarded a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2013.
University of Valladolid, 1241
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 now 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.
University of Siena, 1240
Siena is a small town, and the 20,000 students at the University of Siena make up almost half of the town’s population. This wasn’t always the case, as it started with less than ten teachers and only as many students as they could handle.
The university benefited from major protests at the University of Bologna in 1321, which sent a number of students to the welcoming arms of the University of Siena.
University of Naples Federico II, 1224
It is perhaps no surprise that Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the emphasis on science and learning that came with it, would also have been the birthplace of the university.
This is why the University of Naples Federico, founded in 1224, is the sixth oldest university in the world and yet only the third oldest in Italy. It is, however, the oldest publicly funded university in the world, and it never had any connection to the church – a rarity at the time of its founding.
University of Padua, 1222
The University of Padua actually owes its existence to the University of Bologna, which, as the first university in the world, likely had a good deal of influence on other universities. In this case, a number of teachers and students felt ideologically restricted in Bologna, so they broke off to create a new university where they would have more intellectual freedom. While they have a long and commendable list of alumni and former faculty, perhaps most notable are a couple of the astronomers – Galileo and Copernicus, to be exact.
University of Cambridge, 1209
One of the most storied universities in the world, Cambridge was another university founded when a number of scholars decided to break away from an existing university, which in this case was Oxford.
Now, over 800 years later, Cambridge ranks among the top in the world for scholarship and funding (they have the largest endowment of any university outside of the US), in addition to having a stunningly beautiful campus.
University of Salamanca, 1164
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 recognized 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 American Indians.
University of Oxford, 1096
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 the instruction 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.
University of Bologna, 1088
Everything has to have a point of origin, and we can trace this university’s point of origin to Bologna in 1088. It came together gradually, as foreign students in the area banded together and began to demand that the locals treat them better. Their numbers, organization, and power grew, and culminated in the birth of the university.
It can count Dante as one of its former professors, and has apparently managed to keep its quality fairly consistent; the Italian newspaper La Repubblica ranked it first academically in Italy for five years running.
University of Karueein, 859
Guinness World Records names this university the ‘oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world’. The University of Karueein, also known as the Al Quaraouyine University, was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 in Fes, Morocco, as a community mosque with an associated school.
Today the university still exists, offering studies in Islamic studies, legal sciences, comparative jurisprudence and more.