Oxford and Cambridge are universities with a long history; but just how old might surprise you! Here is a list of the ten oldest still-operating universities in the world. You might have seen elsewhere that the oldest university in the world is actually Al Quaraouyine University in Fes, Morocco, established way back in 859. This is true in the sense that it’s an educational institution, and today Al Quaraouyine is a Moroccan state university. But as an Islamic madrasa, or religious school, for almost the entirety of its existence, it’s always been quite different from the secular European model of a university, which was born in Bologna and has since spread throughout the world. For this reason, we start this list with the Italian university.
1. University of Bologna, 1088
The first university in the world, the University of Bologna evolved from a series of mutual aid societies (known as “nations”) for foreign students, which formed to protect them from xenophobic city laws. These unpopular laws imposed collective punishment on foreigners for the misdeeds of their countrymen. After some time, these “nations” decided to form a larger association, known as a universitas, which was able to bargain collectively with the city authorities.
The university’s main focus early on was to teach classical Roman law, and it played a central role in the development of Medieval Roman law, the basis of civil law systems which exist throughout much of the world. Notable alumni of the university include Copernicus, Erasmus and, much more recently, Italian motorsport legend Enzo Ferrari.
2. University of Oxford, 1096
The oldest university in the English-speaking world and home to the world’s oldest university museum and largest university press, the University of Oxford is widely considered to be one of the best in the world. Existing since at least 1096, it grew rapidly in the 12th century after king Henry II banned English students from studying at the now defunct University of Paris. Long considered, along with Cambridge, as the most prestigious university in the United Kingdom, Oxford’s alumni include 27 British Prime Ministers.
3. University of Salamanca, 1134
The oldest university in Spain, the University of Salamanca was originally founded in the Kingdom of Leon from a cathedral school, and was officially granted the title of university in 1255 by Pope Alexander IV.
The university hosted Christopher Columbus before his historic voyage to the Americas in 1492, as he tried to convince a council of geographers about the validity of his plan to reach Asia by sailing west. It was widely accepted that the Earth was a globe, but many scholars argued that Asia was much further away than Columbus thought – they were right.
4. University of Cambridge, 1209
Founded by scholars fleeing Oxford after a dispute with the townspeople, the University of Cambridge has much in common with its older sibling, including its collegiate system, high standing and architectural wealth. Cambridge has the largest endowment of any university outside of the United States, and is a major centre for research and development in the UK.
5. University of Padua, 1222
Italy’s second oldest university, it was formed by breakaway students and scholars from Bologna, in much the same way that scholars from Oxford founded a new university in Cambridge. The university has taught medicine since its foundation, and from the late 16th century, it became famous for its anatomical theatre, where the human body was studied during public dissections, causing many other European cities to follow suit.
6. University of Naples Federico II, 1224
This university is notable as being the oldest university in the world to be founded as a public institution, having never had any ties to the church, at a time when most universities evolved from theological schools. Founded by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, his goal was to train skilled bureaucrats for the administration of the Kingdom of Sicily, his political powerbase. Perhaps its most famous alumnus was Saint Thomas Aquinas, a hugely influential theologian in the Catholic Church.
7. University of Siena, 1240
Located in the Tuscan city of Siena, today the university’s 20,000 students make up almost half of the population of the city. This, combined with the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the medieval centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, every year, makes for a thoroughly cosmopolitan atmosphere for such a small city.
8. University of Valladolid, 1241
Briefly the capital of Castile, and its successor state, Spain, Valladolid is home to a university that today has seven campuses in four regional cities. Like many European universities, it offers a number of courses in English, and is linked to the Spanish capital Madrid by high-speed train.
9. University of Coimbra, 1290
Portugal’s oldest university, the University of Coimbra was actually founded in Lisbon, and was relocated between the Portuguese capital and Coimbra several times before being permanently established in its current city in 1537, during the height of Portugal’s power as a global empire. The university campus was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013 in recognition of its outstanding architecture.
10. Complutense University of Madrid, 1293
The name derives from the city of Alcalá de Henares, known as Complutum in Latin, the original home of the university. One of Spain’s largest and most prestigious universities, its alumni in recent times include Nobel Prize winners, Heads of State, and several top-level European politicians and bureaucrats. It was one of the first universities in the world to grant a Doctorate to a female student, in 1785.
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