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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 are here today are significant for their historic legacies and for proving their ability to adapt to modern contexts and remain relevant in a globalized world in spite of intense competition.

Here we cover some of the oldest universities in the world, all of which feature in one of the QS rankings. Most are located in Europe, due to the particularly impressive number of longstanding and prestigious universities in this region, but there’s also an African representative to consider.

This is not intended to be a list of the 10 oldest universities in order of establishment, but instead highlights 10 of the oldest universities which also have a high international ranking.

1.  University of Bologna

University of Bologna

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 enrolment of around 87,760 students, of which 6,400 are international students. Famous alumni include three popes, numerous businessmen and several Italian politicians. The University of Bologna is ranked 160th in the QS World University Rankings® 2021.

2. University of Oxford

University of Oxford

Location: United Kingdom

Established in: 1096-1167

With an alumni list that includes 28 UK Prime Ministers, 20 Archbishops of Canterbury, 12 saints, 27 Nobel laureates, 50 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.

Currently fifth 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 nearly 24,300 and operating the largest university press in the world.

3. University of Salamanca

University of Salamanca

Location: Spain

Established in: 1134

The University of Salamanca was founded in 1134 and given the Royal Charter in 1218, making it Spain’s oldest institution, after the now defunct University of Palencia.

Located to the west of Madrid, 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 ranked in the 601-650 range* of the QS World University Rankings 2021 and caters to around 26,746 students across its nine campuses.

4. University of Paris

Sorbonne University

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, although it 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 Sorbonne University (a new merger of Paris-Sorbonne University and Pierre and Marie Curie University, ranked 83rd in the world) and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (joint 287th).

Discover more of the top universities in Paris here.

5. University of Cambridge

University of Cambridge

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 is now ranked seventh in the world.

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 around 23,247 students, of which 5,340 come from outside the EU.

6. University of Padua

University of Padua

Location: Italy

Established in: 1222

The University of Padua – 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.

Currently ranked joint 216th in the world rankings, after rising 18 places this year, the Università di Padova is notable for its revolutionary early research in astronomy, law, medicine and philosophy.

It now hosts around 62,500 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

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 joint 392nd in the world rankings (up 32 places in 2021), teaching a wide range of programs to a student community of around 80,000. Among its most famous historic alumni is the philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas.

8. University of Siena

University of Siena

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 ranked 651-700 in the world (down from 601-700 in 2020).

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 163,000 tourists who come for the food, the art, the museums and the medieval heritage.

9. University of Coimbra

University of Coimbra

Location: Portugal

Established in: 1290

Although originally established in the Portuguese capital in 1290, the University of Coimbra (431st 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 student community of just over 24,000, the University of Coimbra has been through many radical reforms, and for decades in 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

Location: Egypt

Established in: 970 AD

Despite not gaining university status until 1961, Al-Azhar University deserves a mention in this list as it was originally 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 41st in the QS Arab Region University Rankings 2019. In addition to traditional studies, the school also offers programs in business, economics, science, medicine, engineering and agriculture.

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Did you know…? The oldest university in the world is Africa’s University of al-Qarawinyyin, founded in 859 and located in Fez, Morocco. 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).

*For more information about ranking categories, and answers to other frequently asked questions, click here.

This article was originally published in July 2015. It is updated after every QS World University Rankings® launch to incorporate the latest rankings positions, most recently in June 2020.

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Laura Tucker's profile image
Written by Laura Tucker
Laura is a former staff writer for TopUniversities.com, providing advice and guidance for students on a range of topics helping them to choose where to study, get admitted and find funding and scholarships. A graduate of Queen Mary University of London, Laura also blogs about student life.

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89 Comments

Yes, UAEU is one of the top universities in the Middle East which also ranks 5th in Arab region. The only university which has been recognized for having 9 different colleges ranging from business administration, engineering, food, literature and language,etc.

Furthermore it is also ranked in the top 5 universities in Abu Dhabi.

How is it?

this is incorrect, the first ever university made in the world was an islamic one in morocco, fez named al-Qarawiyyin university. this shows how islamophobic this page is.

Hi Lina, The article is 10 of the oldest universities in the world, not the ten oldest universities in the world. Also, if you read the 'did you know?' section at the end, there is reference to al-Qarawiyyin university being the oldest university in the world. I hope this helps :) 

Dear all,
I Googled the ;The oldest university; the first article pops up is this one.
However; I read the comments and did my research and found out that
non of the oldest universities that are registered on GUINNESS is mentioned here.

Oldest higher-learning institution, oldest university
https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/oldest-university
First University in the New World
https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/first-university-in-the-new-world

I would have understand the writers point of view if she tweeted that on her account BUT publishing an article in such a well-known website is a huge responsibility and should be as clear as possible. The fact that most of the comments have enlightened the writer, since there is no way to contact her, about the correct information and the post still here without adding the REAL FIRST university to the list raises a red flag!

thank you for spreading awareness! the first university was made in MOROCCO by a women!

I think the things you covered through the post are quiet impressive, good job and great efforts. I found it very interesting and enjoyed reading all of it.

I think the things you covered through the post are quiet impressive, good job and great efforts. I found it very interesting and enjoyed reading all of it.

Laura, I agree with Varu. You missed Takshila. your research should be correct and proper

The way some people hate Afrika they prefer not to show that some things come from it even if they knew. The oldest is not European but Afrikan, al-Qarawinyyin.

you missed Takshila university ? 600 bc

Sorry but the first university in the world is al karuone The oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world is the University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco. The University of Bologna, Italy, was founded in 1088 and is the oldest one in Europe.

No that is an islamic school. It is completely oppositional to a university in that it is based onm teaching dogma. Universities teach knowledge based on research. Completely different thing.

It is still a university just because it is in a Muslim country does not mean it only teaches about Islam the university of al Qarawiyyin was the first to give out educational degrees. I have been there and there is people of many cultures getting a degree in euroscience/chemistry and in teaching it is NOT an Islamic institution it is a university in a Muslim country

You better learn history first OR get out of your euro-centric mind.

Again this is an islamic institution. Cannot be compared with what we call a university today.

An institution that concerns post-secondary education where legal sciences and linguistics are being taught apart from Islamic studies. That's the textbook definition of a university. I fail how the fact that it's Islamic nullifies its status as a university. Also in case you didn't know, Islamic jurisprudence is a very valid academic discipline with its own deep and intricate concepts as a result of centuries of research-driven work by various scholars with diverse backgrounds.

And this is exactly how history gets rewritten and white-washed! Your list is totally inaccurate and misses out a good few institutions on the basis of you not seeing them as credible due to their ranking or reputation, conveniently leaving out AFRICAN education institutions. I wonder why? If your list is about ranking then please kindly adjust the TITLE of your article, so we do not mislead future generations coming across this information. Im tired of the euro-centric and inaccurate depiction of history.

Wrong information the oldest university on earth is al-Qarawiyyin in Fes Morocco the founder was a woman Fatima Al Fihriya .it was found in 859 AD and still operating till these days.
Please don't spread wrong informations

It is absolutely fundamental to a university that it is teaching knowledge which is based on empirical research. This is an islamic "university". It a completely different entity to a university. Dogma vs. empirical knowlewdge!

This list is flawed. It should be renamed to, the oldest universities from a eurocentric world. There are other universities which are still existing in Asia when Europe was in the dark ages.

Hey,
I found your article truly amazing and interesting, it is quite useful for me obvious. Thanks for sharing your great post. Keep Posting!

Thanks & Regards
Namita Singh

Shame on you tbh !!

That's soo wrong , the oldest University in the history is the university of al-Qarawiyyin. It was found in 859 and is the oldest existing, continually operating higher educational institution in the world according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records !!!

And you here didn't even bother yourself mentioning it. That's soo shame on you , you guys are losing credibility by doing that.

Hi Bader, 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.

Actually what you are doing is called glorifying the west. Ignoring the world and putting west in front has been the habit of white western people. Get down from the high horse

This is incorrect information. As usual Africa is constantly grossly overlooked. What a shame.

World's first university was established in Takshila founded in 600 BC to 500 AD. This university is in India - Bihar (Nalanda University). If you want to check Nalanda University go through http://veda.wikidot.com/tip:world-first-university-takshila
this given link, and please google for this details. It is world first university that is oldest university in the world.

University of Karueein
The oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world is the University of Karueein, founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco. The University of Bologna, Italy, was founded in 1088 and is the oldest one in Europe.

I'm so sorry but you've missed out at this stage, the first university in the world is not Bologna but the University of Al-Qaraouine in Fez at Morocco it was built in 859 a long way before the one of Bologna.
I hope you'll take this consideration.

Kindly tell me about ,DE MONT FORT UNIVERSITY,

well written post. It`s so useful…thank you

Al Quaraouiyine (Fes City ~ Morocco ) was founded with an associated madrasa, in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant named Mohammed Al-Fihri.
According to UNESCO, and a number of other scholars, Al Quaraouiyine is considered to have been a university since its founding and therefore that it is the oldest university in the world. According to Yahya Pallavicini, the university model did not spread in Europe until the 12th century, and was found throughout the Muslim world from the founding of Al Quaraouiyine in the 9th century until at least European colonialism. According to Encyclopædia Britannica, universities had existed in parts of Asia and Africa prior to the founding of the first medieval European universities

Please could you check again. The oldest in all Muslim countries university el zitouna in tunisia since 737 older then

I'm MAJHARUL ISLAM I'm from Bangladesh, know i stay in kunming China my experience in Medical or Hospital medicine surgery other. so you are help me,

University al karawieen , Fez Morocco founded 859

El zitouna Tunis was the first in all Muslim countries since 737

if you could just search on Wikipedia you will find this '' It was first established in 737 as a madrasa and subsequently as university in 1956''

Hmm. Its me again. I am serwesen from Chinese.

hello all. thanks for approved.

1/ University of the villagers in Morocco - founded in 859

hi everyone. it is great site. thanks for all.

Nalanda University existed in 5th century and
Takshashila University existed in 7th century both in India and were learning hubs of while Asia for centuries until Muslim King Khilji invaded and burnt them

Taxila also known as Takshashila, flourished from 600 BC to 500 AD, in the kingdom of Gandhar. 68 subjects were taught at this university . This was the oldest university of the world.

Please check your facts or change the title :)

Hi Divya, 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. 

The oldest operating university in the world is AlQaraweyeen in Morocco that was established why an 18 year old woman called Fatima Zahra Alfrihriya after she received a huge inheritance after the death of her father. She started it off as a mosque in the remembrance of her father then questioned what do kids do when they are finished with their primary scripture teaching.. she decided that they should be allowed to carry on learning in their areas of interest, therefore started teaching astronomy, maths, medicine ..etc. So stop being jealous of non-european civilisations and remember that Algebra is an Arabic word, for example.

The Qarawyine University should definitely figure in such a list or else it's biased and inprecise, thus unscientific, irrelevant, and not to be trusted. I quote : Guinness World Records names this university the oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world.

El zitouna Tunis since 737 was first in all Muslim countries.

These are renowned universities. My home city of Toulouse, France is the location of the second oldest university of France established by Dominican monks in 1229 - University of Toulouse - in the building that is now known as the Jacobin Convent .

I can't help but notice a bit of prejudice in this article. First the oldest university founded was by a Muslim woman (Fatima) for women. Second, after each university there is a bit of information on it including location, yet number 10 Al-Azhar University in Cairo Egypt an Arab Muslim country, just so happens to lack having any information. Not even it's location, Instead there is a, "did you know" section. Coincidence?

Hi Shereen, sorry you were disappointed with this article, please be reassured that no prejudice was intended - the lack of information on Al-Azhar University was accidental, as a result of reuploading this for an update recently. Thank you for bringing it to my attention, and it's now been corrected. Also, this is not intended to be a list of the actual 10 oldest universities in the world, just a selection of 10 of the oldest.