Fittingly, the word ‘university’ (which stems from the Latin meaning ‘a community of teachers and students’) originated at Bologna University – which is the longest standing university in the world at 926 years old. Amazingly there are even, arguably, a few older establishments, with records of centres of learning which resemble the modern university well over a millennium ago in places like Morocco, in 859, and Egypt in 970.
These dates are fairly stunning to most students, given that Harvard, which proudly claims to be ‘America’s oldest university’ is a mere 370 odd years old. However, these early universities in North Africa and the Middle East do not make it onto this list because unlike Bologna, Cambridge and Oxford, the universities either do not exist today or didn’t function uninterrupted throughout the upheavals of history.
Throughout the last thousand years universities have acted as centres of learning, hot beds of controversy, and petri dishes for scientific discovery. According to the exciting sounding International Journal of Scientometrics and Informetrics there are over 17,000 universities world wide – an enormous range of choice for the increasing numbers of students flocking abroad looking for a slightly different college experience.
Whether age is really a measurement of quality is a different question, and many of these universities are often accused of being behind the times, in terms of their course, teaching methods, or the balance (either racial, social, or economic) of their student populace. However, a thousand years of professors and students milling around courtyards, attending or giving lectures, and debating the finer points of academia must count for something. And which, of the many universities worldwide, can proudly state that they’ve truly withstood the ultimate test – that of time? This is the list of the world’s 10 Oldest continuously functioning universities.
10. University of Coimbra: 1290
Originally set up in Lisbon by King Dinis during 1290, this university was quickly moved to the town of Coimbra near the coast of Portugal. However, this wasn’t final and over the next few hundred years the university would be moved back and forth between Coimbra and Lisbon according the whims of the various kings of Portugal.
The university was recently added to the UNESCO World Heritage Program, and for good reason; as you can see in the above picture, the university campus features a huge open courtyard, but what isn’t visible is the stunning view visible from these historical buildings.
9. University of Macerata: 1290
Students studying certain subjects at the University of Macerata will enjoy the feeling of being taught within the old centre of the university, within the ancient medieval walls. For those of us currently enjoying the arctic or aquatic conditions which are washing over America and Western Europe, the thought of studying in a hill town in central Italy with a year round Mediterranean climate might be enough incentive to up sticks and head for the airport.
8. University of Valladolid: 1241
The University of Valladolid is situated north of Madrid, in the Castile-Leon region in Spain. The medieval facade pictured above is a somewhat misleading depiction of the university, as it disguises the more modern building behind it which replaced the original fifteenth century architecture.
The university now boasts a large-ish population, with over 32,000 students and 2000 teachers. Although the original university remains the flagship, it has now spread to four separate campuses in different cities to cater for this size of student body. For those interested in learning Spanish, the university has acted as a magnet for international students wishing to improve their language skills since 1940, when Valladolid started offering classes to foreigners.
7. University of Siena: 1240
In 2006, the student body of the University of Siena consisted of 20,000 people, which is almost half of the population of the beautiful Italian town in which it sits. The university is one of the multiple seats of learning which can claim papal recognition, which it received over 700 years ago. In 1240 Post Innocent IV called for a tax on all of the residents of Siena who rented rooms to students, the proceeds from which went to pay for the teacher’s wages. This made the university the earliest example of a publicly funded institute of learning in Italy.
6. University of Naples Federico II: 1224
This university, situated in the south of Italy is named after its founder, Frederick II the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. It was originally intended to train the empire’s “curia regis” (the ministries and governing apparatus), such as judges, bureaucrats, and lawyers. Frederick also hoped that the university would facilitate the ‘cultural development of young students’ without them having to travel to the enemy city of Bologna.
For the last 790 years the university has followed on from these lofty beginnings, producing a constant stream of politicians, engineers, philosophers, and lawmakers to serve Italy.
5. University of Padua: 1222 (probably older)
Although Padua is only the second oldest university in Italy, it consistently ranks highest in the country, and is as a result the destination of most of Italy’s visiting international students. At any given time the university contains 65,000 students, who can choose from a wider range of courses options than the two originally on offer in 1222: Theology and Law. The modern university has now spread across the city of Padua, and also has bases across the rest of the north of Italy.
4. University of Salamanca: 1218
For the 300 years following the founding of the University of Salamanca it was one of the best in Europe, ranking alongside Oxford and the Sorbonne, but since then it has declined in world rankings. Like Oxford and Cambridge the university is made up of a number of smaller colleges, which were originally founded to enable poorer students to study, however for a long time these colleges were run by a series of large Spanish families, which became somewhat Mafia-esque before they were mostly destroyed by Napoleon. The most notable alumni of the university is Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, which is arguably the first ever novel.
3. University of Cambridge: 1209
Founded way back at the beginning of the thirteenth century, Cambridge is the second oldest university in the English speaking world. Originally formed by a group of scholars who left Oxford after a disagreement with the local community. It is now formed of 31 colleges, many of which were first formed so that students would pray for the souls of the founders whose hospitality they enjoyed.
The university boasts many famous alumni including Isaac Newton, Stephen Hawking and Alex Turing, who are credited with the discovery or development of a range of mathematical and scientific advancements such as gravity and the first computer.
2. University of Oxford: 1167
In the great rivalry between Cambridge and Oxford, Oxford at least wins the battle of time. The oldest university in England has no actual date of foundation, though there exist record of teaching from as early as 1096. However it is known that there was a large growth in the student body from 1167 and so this is the date that is commonly chosen. As with Cambridge, the university is composed of over forty colleges, each of which exist as autonomous units.
Each year is made up of three short terms during which the students attend tutorials in college, and lectures in a centralised departmental location. As with most American colleges, the majority of undergraduates are between 18 and 22; there is however no concrete age limit for students, and as a result there are some infamous cases of graduations at the age of 12 and 13.
1. University of Bologna: 1088
The history of the founding of the oldest university in the world is fascinating: the university first appeared in the form of groups of foreign students called ‘nations’. These foreign students stuck together to avoid punishment for the crimes of their nations, which at the time was a viable threat. Eventually, these groups of ‘nations’ started to form together to create a ‘universitas’, which would afford them greater protection.
Despite Bologna’s alumni including three Popes, and the work of the celebrated author Umberto Eco at the university, Bologna has failed to stay on top of the modern world rankings as Oxford and Cambridge have, and it currently places at around 176 in the QS Rankings. It would appear that age is no guarantee of quality, and that it takes more than just a thousand years of teaching to produce a top university.
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