Top 10 Oldest Universities in the World: Ancient Colleges

Unfortunately, the U.S. will never boast a medieval university, as this country’s origins, established in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, were formed when the oldest university in the world already was about nine centuries old. If you’re interested, we do have a list of the oldest universities in the U.S., by accreditation year.

The following list of ten oldest universities in the world shows, through their brief histories, a trend: The university as an autonomous self-governing institution first was developed as religious institutions (madrasahs) that originated in the medieval Islamic world. But, Europe did not fall far behind these Islamic developments, as Italy founded its first university approximately two centuries after the first university developed in Morocco. The last university on this list, the University of Padua in Italy, was founded in 1222 — 270 years before Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue in 1492.

This list is compiled of extant universities, although a few of them closed for brief periods from the effects of war or local disputes. On the whole, the European universities on this list have expanded their campuses and enjoy high rankings in the world today. The list below is compiled in order of the university’s founding.

  1. University of Al-Karaouine: Located in Fes, Morocco, this university originally was a mosque founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri, a woman. It developed into one of the leading universities for natural sciences. It wasn’t until 1957 that the university added mathematics, physics, chemistry and foreign languages. This university is considered the oldest continuously-operating degree-granting university in the world by the Guiness Book of World Records.
  2. Al-Azhar University: This university, located in Egypt, is the world’s second oldest surviving degree-granting institute. Founded in 970-972, this university serves as a center for Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning. Al-Azhar university concentrates upon a religious syllabus, which pays special attention to the Quranic sciences and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad on the one hand, while also teaching all modern fields of science.
  3. Nizamiyya: This series of universities was established by Khwaja Nizam al-Mulk in the eleventh century in what is now present-day Iran. The most celebrated of all the Nizamiyya schools is Al-Nizamiyya of Baghdad, established in 1065 in Dhu’l Qa’da and that remains operational in Isfahan. But, this was just one of many Nizamiyyah schools — others were located in Nishapur, Amul, Mosul, Herat, Damascus, and Basra. The Nizamiyya schools served as a model for future universities in the region, and al-Mulk often is seen as responsible for a new era of brilliance which caused his schools to eclipse all other contemporary learning institutions.
  4. University of Bologna: This university was the first higher-learning institute established in the Western world in 1088. The term, “university,” was coined at its creation. Located in Bologna, Italy, this university led the Western world in educational innovations until the period between the two World Wars. At that time, leaders called upon the university to forge relationships with institutions in more advanced countries to modernize and re-invigorate its educational philosophies. This university met the call and, today, is considered a leader in the European university system.
  5. University of Paris: This university’s exact founding is unclear; however, teaching from this university existed since 1096. The university was reorganized as 13 autonomous universities in 1970. Often referred to as the Sorbonne after the College de Sorbonne (founded about 1257), this institute grew up in the latter part of the twelfth century around Notre Dame Cathedral as a corporation centered on the fields of arts, medicine, law and theology. In 1968 the cultural revolution commonly known as “the French May” resulted in the closing of the university for only the third time in history. The first occasion was in 1229, and the second was due to the invasion by the German army of 1940.
  6. University of Oxford: Like the University of Paris, the exact date of this university’s founding is unclear. The formal founding date, however, is 1096 — although teaching from the Oxford location is considerably older than this date. This institute developed rapidly from 1167, when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. The school has temporarily closed twice, once in 1209 for the town execution of two scholars and in 1355 for the St. Scholastica riot. Currently, this oldest English-speaking university contains 38 colleges, each with its own internal structure and activities.
  7. University of Montpelier: Located in Montpelier, France, this university also is considerably older than its founding date of 1150. A papal bull issued by Pope Nicholas IV in 1289 combined all long-existing schools into one main university. This university was suppressed during the 1793 French Revolution, but the faculties of science and letters were re-established in 1810, law in 1880. This university, in the spirit of modernism, was “re-founded” in 1969. The modern focus is on science and technology.
  8. University of Cambridge: Known as the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world, this university was formed by scholars who left the University of Oxford over a dispute in 1209. The two schools have, therefore, a long history of rivalry between them. Currently, Cambridge is ranked as one of the world’s top five universities and is a premier leading university in Europe. As of 2009, the alumni from this university account for eighty-five Nobel Laureates. Cambridge now consists of 31 colleges comprised of over 150 departments, faculties, schools and other institutions.
  9. University of Salamanca: Located in Salamanca, Spain, this school was established in 1218 and obtained the title of “university” by Alexander IV’s papal bull in 1225. The school originally was established by Leonese King Alfonso IX to allow the Leonese people to study at home rather than leave to study in Castile. Its historical high note was when Columbus consulted this institute’s scholars in seeking a western route to the Indies. Today, Salamanca remains the university of choice for Spanish students who want to focus on humanities and language studies.
  10. University of Padua: This is the second oldest university in Italy, falling behind the University of Bologna. This university was founded in 1222 when a group of students and professors left the University of Bologna in search for more academic freedom. Its primary claim to fame is its anatomical theater, established in 1595, which drew artists and scientists studying the human body during public dissections. The gardens and museums were begun in 1545, and remain as a testament to the focuses on botany and history. As of 2003, this university had approximately 65,000 students.