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Wednesday, July 01, 2015 at 10am

10 of the Oldest Universities in the World

10 of the Oldest Universities in the World main image


Centers of higher education have been around for hundreds of years, and even millennia in some cases. But not all withstand the test of time. Over the centuries, many of the world’s oldest universities have disbanded, split into autonomous colleges or become modernized beyond all recognition.

The ancient institutions that have stuck around are significant not only for their historic legacies, but also for proving their ability to adapt to modern contexts and remain relevant in a globalized world in spite of intense competition. Many of the oldest universities in the world are also among the most prestigious and popular, offering a rich mixture of historic heritage and contemporary outlook.

Here we cover 10 of the oldest universities in the world, all of which feature in one of QS’s latest ranking sets. Most are located in Europe, due to the particularly impressive number of longstanding and still-operating universities in this region, but there’s also an African representative to consider…

1.  University of Bologna

 University of Bologna, Italy

Location: Italy

Established in: 1088

The ‘Nourishing Mother of the Studies’ according to its Latin motto, the University of Bologna was founded in 1088 and, having never been out of operation, holds the title of the oldest university in the world. Until relatively modern times, the university only taught doctorate studies, but today it has a diverse range of programs at all levels. Located in Bologna, Italy, it has an enrollment of around 85,000 students, of which 30,000 are postgraduates. Famous alumni include three popes, numerous businessmen and several Italian politicians. The University of Bologna is ranked 182nd in the QS World University Rankings® 2014/15.

2. University of Oxford

University of Oxford, UK

Location: UK

Established in: 1096-1167

With an alumni list that includes 26 UK Prime Ministers, 20 Archbishops of Canterbury, 12 saints, 27 Nobel laureates, 47 Nobel Prize winners and one Sir Stephen Hawking, the University of Oxford is as respected as it is old. While the university’s exact foundation date remains a little vague, evidence of teaching dates as far back as 1096, and some claim it was established even earlier. Current at joint 5th in the world rankings, the University of Oxford is truly one of the highest ranked and oldest universities in the world, catering to a student community of around 22,000 and operating the largest university press in the world.

3. University of Salamanca

 University of Salamanca, Spain

Location: Spain

Established in: 1134

Another of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Salamanca was founded in 1134 and given the Royal Charter in 1218. Spain’s oldest institution, after the now defunct University of Palencia, the University of Salamanca is located to the west of Madrid. To add to its historic aura, it was the institution where Christopher Columbus made a case to obtain royal support for his Indies expedition in the late 15th century. The University of Salamanca is now ranked in the range of 481-490 in the QS World University Rankings and is host to over 30,000 students across nine campuses.

4. University of Paris

 College de Sorbonne, University of Paris, France

Location: France

Established in: 1160-1250

Established between 1160 and 1250 in the French capital, the University of Paris, often known as ‘la Sorbonne’, is known to have been one of the first established universities in Europe. As history goes, the University of Paris was suspended from operating between 1793 and 1896, following the French Revolution. Today, the University of Paris is scattered throughout the city, having been divided into 13 autonomous institutions in 1970, all of which maintain the high reputation of the original university. Of these 13, the highest ranked are Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC, 115th in the world rankings), Université Paris-Sud (209th) and Université Paris Diderot - Paris 7 (210th).

See more of the top Parisian universities here.

5. University of Cambridge

 University of Cambridge, UK

Location: UK

Established in: 1209

Established in 1209 by a group of scholars leaving the University of Oxford due to political conflicts, the University of Cambridge today marginally out-ranks its elder, currently at joint 2nd in the world alongside Imperial College London. Sharing many common traditions, Oxford and Cambridge maintain a healthy sense of rivalry, which comes to a head in the famous annual Boat Race event.

Cambridge has more than 18,000 students, of which 6,000 are postgraduates.

6. University of Padua

 La Specola Tower, University of Padua, Italy

Location: Italy

Established in: 1222

The University of Padua – in Italian Università di Padova or UNIPD – was founded in 1222 (although some evidence puts it before this date) and is one of a number of medieval universities in Italy still operating today. Currently ranked 262nd in the world rankings, the Università di Padova is notable for its revolutionary early research into astronomy, law, medicine and philosophy. It now hosts more than 40,000 students in the city of Padua, the setting of William Shakespeare’s famous play The Taming of the Shrew. In 1545, the Università di Padova established the Botanical Garden of Padova, now one of the oldest academic gardens in the world. It also runs nine museums.

7. University of Naples Federico II

University of Naples Federico II, Italy

Location: Italy

Established in: 1224 (1258)

Founded in 1224 by Frederick II, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, the University of Naples - Federico II is located in Naples, Italy’s third largest city and one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The University of Naples Federico II is placed 345th in the world rankings, teaching a wide range of programs to a student community of around 100,000. Among its most famous historic alumni it boasts philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas.

8. University of Siena

University of Siena, Italy

Location: Italy

Established in: 1240

Located in the small city of Siena in the Tuscany region, the University of Siena is another of the oldest universities in the world with a strong global standing, currently at 471-480 in the world rankings. With enrolment numbers upwards of 20,000, the University of Siena campus comprises almost half of the city’s entire population. The city center itself, also of historic importance, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is visited annually by over 160,000 tourists who come for the food, the art, the museums and the medieval heritage.

9. University of Coimbra

University of Coimbra, Portugal

Location: Portugal

Established in: 1290

Although originally established in the Portuguese capital in 1290, the University of Coimbra (351st in the world rankings), was relocated a number of times by demanding kings, finally ending up in Coimbra, the country’s third largest urban center and home to much Roman-era history. With a current student base nearing 25,000, the University of Coimbra has been through many radical reforms, and for decades of the 18th century it was the only operating university in Portugal. In 2013, the University of Coimbra was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in recognition of its historical buildings, open courtyard, cultural traditions and stunning city-wide views.

10. Al-Azhar University

Al-Azhar University, Egypt

Location: Egypt

Established in: 970 AD

Despite not gaining university status until 1961, Al-Azhar University was established as early as 970 AD in Cairo, Egypt. Originally a ‘madrasa’, teaching students from primary to tertiary level, Al-Azhar University was first known as a center of Islamic learning but has since developed a modern curriculum of secular subjects, ensuring its survival. Through its time, the school has seen much political instability, most notably in the 12th century when a new dynasty took power and destroyed over 100,000 texts. Today, Al-Azhar University is ranked 701+ in the world rankings, and 37th in the QS University Rankings: Arab Region 2015, with a current enrollment of approximately 20,000 students. In addition to traditional studies, the school also offers programs in business, economics, science, medicine, engineering and agriculture.


Did you know…? The oldest university in Asia was founded in 1611 (University of Santo Tomas, the Philippines), the oldest university in the US was established in 1636 (Harvard University, Massachusetts), and the oldest university in Australia was established in 1850 (University of Sydney, New South Wales).

Tags used in this blog post

1. Takshashila (700 BCE) located 50km west of Rawalpindi in

Pakistan was the world's first and oldest university. Students

from Babylonia, Greece, Arabia and China studied there. Over 60

different courses were offered. Maurya Emperor Chandragupta and

his minister Chanakya (The author of Arthashastra) were products of

the university. It was operational for 800 years. It was excavated

in 1913 and listed as World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1980. The

university was referenced in the writings of chinese travellers Fa

Hian and Huien Tsang.

2. Nalanda (5th century CE) in the kingdom of Magadha (present

state of Bihar in India). Now the site is located 95km south-east

of Patna in Bihar, India. Students from China, Korea, Japan,

Tibet, Mongolia, Turkey, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia studied

there. Chinese scholar Xuan Zang and Yijung carried lots of

scriptures to china and later translated them into chinese.

Details about the university could be found from the writings of

British Indologist Vincent Arthur Smith (The Oxford History of

India). It remained operational for 800 years and was destroyed by

Muhammad-i-Bakht-yar Khilji in 1200 CE. It was first surveyed by

Francis Buchanan-Hamilton in 1811 and was excavated in 1915 by

Alexander Cunningham and the Archaeological Survey of India.

3. Vikramashila (783 CE) located 13km north-east of Kahalgoan, in

Bhagalpur district of the state of Bihar in India was established

by King Dharmapala in 783 CE. It was destroyed by Muhammad-i-

Bakht-yar Khilji around 1200 CE. It was excavated in 1972-82 by

the Archaeological Survey of India.

4. Pushpagiri (3rd century)
5. Odantapuri (8th century)
6. Somapura (8th century)
7. Munshiganj (9th century)
8. Jagaddala (1100 CE - 1207 CE)
9. Vallabhi (6th century)

The title of this article is completely misleading people. This article is talking about the 10 oldest universities in EUROPE not in the world. Your explanation cant be an excuse for writing this kind of lies, because those who doesnt know would believe it.
Even google has more accurate information than this article. Its sad that it comes from people who work in universities.

Hi Rass. Thanks for your comment and apologies for any confusion. This article was not intended to highlight the 10 oldest universities in the world - rather it talks about 10 of the oldest universities which are also ranked among the world's best. This is explained in the introduction, so hopefully no one has taken it to mean something different.

Laura, you titled this article, '10 of the Oldest Universities in the World' then say, 'this article was not intended to highlight the 10 oldest universities in the world.'

If there is any confusion it is because you caused it.

The most excellent undergraduate metropolis in the UK following London and Edinburgh is house to frequent composition festival and prides on continuous extra instance potential.

actually the oldest university in the world is University of al-Qarawiyyin founded in 859

Hi Nader. Thanks for sharing! The list above isn't aiming to list the oldest universities in order of age - instead, we've chosen to highlight 10 universities which are impressively old and also perform well in the international university rankings. Hope that clarifies a little, and thanks for your interest :)

Perhaps you can make it explicit in the article; in its current form it is misleading. Further, regarding al-Qarawiyyin, not that it is the oldest as per UNESCO and Guinness records, unlike others it was privately founded by a woman (Fatima al-Fihri) - not church or state like most european universities. Also, its alumni are richer (compared to Oxford which you highlight), they include a Pope (Sylvester II) and a Rabbi (Maimonides) to name the few. However, I do understand that QS perhaps only wants to highlight popular universities which is OK for PR and media attention. :)

Hello, thanks for your comment, and apologies if you thought this article was misleading. As the title suggests, the article aims to list 10 of the oldest universities, not the actual 10 oldest - this is because the universities listed here are not only some of the oldest in the world, but are also the universities which consistently rank highly and are widely respected. 

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