While the modern-day experience of university may owe more to John Belushi than Pope John XI, it’s worth remembering that many of the global institutions in which we study have been around for a while. In fact, as the numerous schools on this list demonstrate, some have been around for a very long time.
If you’ve ever wondered where the foundations of modern academia were laid, then read on: these are the 20 oldest universities in the world.
20. University of Vienna
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Year established: 1365
Location: Vienna, Austria
Founded by Duke Rudolf IV of Austria (under the papal jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Empire), the University of Vienna can lay claim to being the oldest – and the most resilient – university in the German-speaking world. Since its inception, it has endured through the Protestant Reformation, the Ottoman sieges of the 16th Century and Nazi annexation. It currently offers over 180 degrees in a wide variety of subjects, split across 15 faculties and 4 centres.
19. Jagiellonian University
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Year established: 1364
Location: Krakow, Poland
Poland’s oldest educational institution, Jagiellonian University, was founded by Casimir III the Great in order to establish an educated class within the Kingdom of Poland. It has been in operation ever since, save between 1939 and 1945 where the University was closed by Nazi occupiers and its entire staff deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Nicolaus Copernicus, the legendary Renaissance mathematician/astronomer, is among its alumni.
18. University of Pavia
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Year established: 1361
Location: Pavia, Italy
The first of many modern-day Italian institutions on this list, the University of Pavia originally served as the educational centre of medieval northern Italy and has remained thus ever since. Despite several enforced closures during this period, its modern incarnation continues to thrive, with over 20,000 students currently enrolled.
17. Charles University
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Year established: 1348
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Created within the Kingdom of Bohemia under the direction of Pope Clement VI, Charles University is regularly recognised as one of the most renowned academic institutions in the world. Like Jagiellonian University, it suffered greatly under both Nazi occupation and Soviet oppression. The student demonstrations that took place there in 1989 were key in instigating the Velvet Revolution of 1989, however, in which the Communist ruling party were overthrown.
16. University of Pisa
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Year established: 1343
Location: Pisa, Italy
Although better known for a bell tower that happens to feature a peculiar engineering quirk, the city of Pisa is also home to one of the world’s oldest universities. It has graduated five Popes, two Italian presidents and three Nobel Laureates, and it is one of the finest – and most important – academic institutions in modern Italy.
15. University of Florence
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Year established: 1321
Location: Florence, Italy
Originally the region’s Studium Generale (as implemented by the Florentine Republic), the University’s location in such a culturally important city is highlighted by its various connections to the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci carried out anatomy studies on the campus, while Dante Alighieri, creator of the Divine Comedy, is among its alumni.
14. University of Perugia
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Year established: 1308
Location: Perugia, Italy
One of the first free public universities to be created within the Italian city-states, the University of Perugia maintains a strong background in the arts, medicine and law. Meanwhile, anyone who has ever trained to become an accountant will be familiar with Luca Pacioli, the father of the modern accounting system and one of Perugia’s most famous alumni.
13. Sapienza University of Rome
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Year established: 1303
Location: Rome, Italy
Often referred to simply as ‘La Sapienza’, the University of Rome (as it is also known) is one of the largest universities in Europe, with over 110,000 enrolled students. Originally noted for the splendour and grandeur of its campus (which was subsequently destroyed during the Sack of Rome in 1527), the modern-day university has graduated several influential figures, including the filmmakers Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci.
12. Complutense University of Madrid
Year established: 1293
Location: Madrid, Spain
Widely regarded as the most prestigious educational institution in Spain, the Complutense University of Madrid was established by royal decree of King Sancho IV of Castile, one of the most powerful rulers of medieval Europe. Numerous Nobel Prize recipients and international politicians have studied there, while the school also maintains strong links and connections with industry.
10. University of Macerata (tie)
Year established: 1290
Location: Macerata, Italy
Located within the picturesque medieval walls of the town’s historic centre, the University of Macerata is a small institution near the Adriatic coast that specialises primarily in the humanities and social sciences. Some courses are offered in English, too, making it a unique and charming option for those who wish to study abroad.
10. University of Coimbra (tie)
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Year established: 1290
Location: Coimbra, Portugal
Originally established in Lisbon, the University of Coimbra has undergone several relocations, settling in Coimbra in 1537 and remaining there ever since. It is a leading European research university, with its rich histories, traditions and buildings earning it a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2013. Many famous Portuguese (and Brazilian) public figures have also studied there.
9. University of Valladolid
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Year established: 1241
Location: Valladolid, Spain
Another famous Castilian institution, the University of Valladolid is noted for the grand Gothic and baroque architecture of its buildings, as well as its strong cultural associations within local music and theatre. Its library system is also of great importance, with nearly a million documents in its possession (many of which are deemed culturally and historically significant).
8. University of Siena
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Year established: 1240 (The University itself claims to have been founded in 1240, although some historians dispute this, dating the proclamation of the Studium to 1246 or even 1357.)
Location: Siena, Italy
With its student body accounting for nearly half of the town’s overall population, Siena has a strong tradition of being an academic centre. Although several medieval popes studied there, the modern university is now best known for its programmes in law, medicine and economics.
7. University of Naples Federico II (1224)
Year established: 1224
Location: Naples, Italy
Created by its namesake, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, in an attempt to develop an elite class of lawyers and bureaucrats to draft and uphold laws, the University of Naples has since evolved into one of the largest and most powerful universities in modern Italy. It also boasts a bona fide saint among its alumni, with Thomas Aquinas among its first intake of students.
6. University of Padua
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Year established: 1222 (This is the oldest surviving mention of the University; many historians, however, believe that the University is probably older.)
Location: Padua, Italy
Founded by a large group of professors and students from the nearby University of Bologna, the University of Padua graduated some of the most influential figures in medieval Europe, particularly within the sciences and the arts. Today, it remains an influential and prestigious place of study, offering courses across 30+ departments.
5. University of Cambridge
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Year established: ca 1209
Location: Cambridge, United Kingdom
Like Padua, the University of Cambridge was founded by scholars from one of its rival universities (in this case, Oxford); it has since evolved into one of the greatest and most famous educational institutions in the world. Aside from its countless contributions to science, art and politics (its alumni list reads like a who’s who of world history), it also inspired the settlement of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Cambridge alumnus John Harvard established his namesake (and the oldest college in the US) in 1636.
4. University of Paris
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Year established: ca 1150 (Following national education reforms in 1970, the University was divided into 13 autonomous universities, denoted as University of Paris I through to XIII – several of these are expected to merge in 2019. These 13 universities are still considered inheritors of the original, however, and are, therefore, deemed eligible for this list.)
Location: Paris, France
Highly influential as a structural model for many of the other universities on this list (and notable for its humanities programmes), the University of Paris has an overall history as tumultuous as France itself. It was closed in 1793 following the French Revolution, before being reopened in 1806 by Napoleon Bonaparte. Many famous French figures have studied there, such as Voltaire, Honoré Balzac, Jean-Paul Sartre and Marie Curie.
3. University of Salamanca
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Year established: 1134
Location: Salamanca, Spain
Founded by Alfonso IX in the medieval Kingdom of Leon, the University of Salamanca is the oldest university in the Hispanic world. It played a key part in the discovery (and subsequent colonisation) of the New World, with Christopher Columbus consulting geographers at the University. Despite many of the school’s colleges being destroyed by Napoleon Bonaparte in the 18th Century, it remains one of the top-ranked teaching and research universities in Spain today.
2. University of Oxford
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Year established: ca 1096
Location: Oxford, United Kingdom
The oldest university in the English-speaking world, Oxford is regularly recognised as one of the premier academic institutions on the planet. It has made hugely significant contributions to human advancement throughout its history and continues to be a leader today. Interestingly, the University has only ever closed twice, including in 1209 where the execution of two scholars led to an exodus of students and teachers (leading to the aforementioned creation of the University of Cambridge). During the English Civil War, it remained open as a Royalist stronghold.
1. University of Bologna (1088)
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Year established: 1088
Location: Bologna, Italy
Although some historians claim that it did not evolve into a university-standard organisation until the 1150s, it is generally accepted that the University of Bologna is the oldest in the world. It gained a fine reputation for law in the medieval period, and although it has slipped slightly in importance, it is still regularly ranked as one of the top 200 schools on the planet. During the Renaissance, many famous names studied there, including Petrarch, Albrecht Dürer and Erasmus.
Even though there were many famous places of learning in the ancient world (particularly within Greece, China and the Islamic world), many of the institutions on this list act as a bridge between that period and the modern higher education system that we know now (particularly in Italy, Spain, England and Central Europe).
More importantly, though, they are responsible for some of the greatest human discoveries in existence and, therefore, have had an incalculable effect on the world as we know it today. Hopefully, it inspires you to pursue your own path at university, and who knows? Maybe you could one day create some history of your own!
What are your thoughts on the list? Let us know in the comments section below!
These are the oldest universities that are still in operation today; some may have closed temporarily due to external factors, such as war, but have always existed in their founding guise. The institutions on this list are also subject to the modern definition of what constitutes a university. Therefore, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco (which is referred to as the oldest university in the world by both UNESCO and the Guinness Book of World Records) is omitted as many scholars argue that, in its original format, the school was actually a madrasa and did not meet the criteria of a university until its restructuring in 1963.
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