The 20 Oldest Universities in the World (with Pictures)

The 20 Oldest Universities in the World (with Pictures)

The University of Al-Karaouine is currently recognized as the oldest university in the world. It was founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri adjacent to a mosque. Some other old universities include the ones established in Bologna, Paris, Toulouse, Salamanca, and more. 

The history of the concept of education and schooling is fascinating. Psychology Today overviews how it all developed to where we are now. To briefly summarize, education began back when humans were hunter-gatherers. Children would educate themselves through play and exploration. 

As societies developed and people practiced farming, adults discovered that learning how to raise crops and animals was easier when they were children. Learning something at a young age was further confirmed when industries started to develop, and people needed to learn specific skills. 

Religion also played a significant role in the concept of education. It became clear that there needed to be a place to gather children to educate them, thus the birth of schools and universities.

Some schools survived wars and environmental disasters and are still operating today. Keep reading to find out the location of the oldest universities in the world.

1. University of Vienna, 1365

1. University of Vienna, 1365

One of the oldest universities in the German-speaking world, the University of Vienna, was founded by Duke Rudolf IV under the Holy Roman Empire in 1365. 

The University has withstood brutal attacks by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century and the Nazi occupation during the second world war. About 180 degree courses are offered in the University in as many as 15 faculties.  

Harvard University, 1636

2. Harvard University, 1636

In the heart of Massachusetts is Harvard, the oldest university in the US. Harvard began when Puritans migrating to the US needed a place to train clergy members for the commonwealth. 

The school was initially known as “New College” but changed its name when John Harvard left half of his money in the school’s library when he passed away. Today, the college is most known for being the best institution to receive a degree in either medicine, law, or business.

University of Florence, 1321

3. University of Florence, 1321

With deep connections to the Renaissance, the University of Florence is historic in more aspects than one. It was here that the great Leonardo Da Vinci carried out his studies in Human Anatomy. 

Dante Alighieri, the creator of Divine Comedy, was also an alumnus of this university. Located in the picturesque city of Florence, the University offers degree courses in 12 faculties. 

University of Perugia, 1308

4. University of Perugia, 1308

The father of accounting, Luca Pacioli, studied at the University of Perugia in Italy and numerous popes. Today, the school has about 28,000 students and a growing history!

Sapienza University of Rome, 1303

5. Sapienza University of Rome, 1303

Founded in 1303 by Pope Boniface VIII, Sapienza University of Rome has been the school of the top Nobel laureates. Pope Boniface VIII created the school so that he could keep an eye on theological teachings as other universities in that period started to branch off and rebel. 

Complutense University of Madrid, 1293

6. Complutense University of Madrid, 1293

As one of the most reputable universities in Spain, the Complutense University of Madrid has had its fair share of famous alumni. People who attended the university include Queen Sofia of Spain, Saint Tomas de Villanueva, Albert Einstein, and the founder of modern neuroscience, Santiago Ramón y Caja.

University of Coimbra, 1290

7. University of Coimbra, 1290

After the establishment of universities in Europe, Portugal created its own. Initially, the school was in Lisbon but eventually found its way to Coimbra. There are about 24,000 students, which is very welcoming to international students. 

University of Macerata, 1290

8. University of Macerata, 1290

If you want to study humanities and social sciences overseas, travel to Italy and the University of Macerata. It is a small school and has many classes available in English.

University of Valladolid, 1241

9. University of Valladolid, 1241

For education and beautiful architecture, visit the University of Valladolid in Spain. The university has seven campuses filled with 32,000 undergraduate students eager to learn!

University of Siena, 1240

10. University of Siena, 1240

Who doesn’t love a college town? At the University of Siena in Tuscany, the student body is around 20,000, making up almost half of the city. The university is most well-known for being an excellent choice for getting a law, medicine, and economics degree.

University of Toulouse, 1229

11. University of Toulouse, 1229

One of the oldest universities in Europe, the University of Toulouse was established in 1229 and is known for its rich heritage of art, history, and culture. The University was formed as a part of the Treaty of Paris and offered courses in Theology. 

The university was split into three universities by the French Government in 1969. Unfortunately, the University of Toulouse is not a single university today; instead, it is divided into various institutes offering various courses. 

University of Naples Federico II, 1224

12. University of Naples Federico II, 1224

When the University of Naples Federico II was founded, the university was not connected to the Roman Catholic Church. Today it is one of the oldest universities that is publicly funded.

University of Padua, 1222

13. University of Padua, 1222

Feeling restricted from other universities in the 1200s, teachers and students founded the University of Padua. The university was more open to intellectual freedom drawing the attention of those looking to go beyond the church’s teachings. Former alumni include astronomers Copernicus and Galileo. 

University of Cambridge, 1209

14. University of Cambridge, 1209

A university with a deep-rooted history, the University of Cambridge is one of the top universities in the world for scholarships. The school started when those attending the University of Oxford disputed with the townspeople. 

Cambridge has a long history of famous alumni but is more so known as the birthplace of the computer. Graduates Alan Turing, Charles Babbage, and Maurice Wilkes all received a degree from Cambridge.

University of Salamanca, 1164

15. University of Salamanca, 1164

The origins of the University of Salamanca are a bit hazy. Historians know that teaching began on campus around 1094 until the king recognized it in 1164. It’s said that the discussion of Christopher Columbus’s exploration west of Spain took place at the university. 

University of Paris, 1160

16. University of Paris, 1160

One of the most well-known universities in Europe, the University of Paris has been regarded as one of the best educational institutes since the middle ages. The university was initially associated with the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral school. 

Unfortunately, the University of Paris was split into 13 autonomous universities in 1970. The different groups of Universities are now referred to as the Sorbonne. 

University of Oxford, 1096

17. University of Oxford, 1096

The first university in the English-speaking world is England’s very own Oxford University. Strangely enough, the lessons were taught in Latin!

University of Bologna, 1088

18. University of Bologna, 1088

The Latin term “Universitas” was first used to describe students and teachers at the University of Bologna. Today the university is made up of eleven schools and over 86,500 students.

Al-Azhar University, 970

 19. Al-Azhar University, 970

Al-Azar University is one of the oldest Universities in Egypt. Also regarded as the most prestigious university of the Sunni sect of Islam, its primary mission is to spread the message of Islam and Islamic culture. 

The University has an awe-inspiring library considered second only to the Egyptian National Library and Archives. Although the education format in the beginning years of the university was primarily informal, it underwent modernization in the 1960s with courses in engineering and medicine.  

University of Al-Karaouine, 859

20. University of Al-Karaouine, 859

Guinness World Records and The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) name the University of Al-Karaouine the “oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world.” 

It was a woman who founded the university. Fatima al-Fihri was the daughter of a wealthy merchant who used her inheritance to build a mosque. After its completion, al-Fihri established a university as an extension of the mosque.

Education has come a long way since the founding of the first university. To graduate at the top of your class from any school, you’ll want to learn how to speed read. Speed reading is a skill beyond books and helps with memorization and productivity. Learn more about all of our online courses today!

Update: University of Timbuktu

Update: University of Timbuktu

 It is not a university in the modern sense.

Instead, it refers to three ancient learning centers in Timbuktu, a city in what is now Mali. These learning centers were the Mosques of Sankore, Djinguereber, and Sidi Yahya.

The Sankore Mosque and University are considered the oldest continuously operating institution of higher education and are believed to have been erected in the 1100s C.E. (Twelfth Century).

Students chose their instructors, and educational sessions took place in mosque courtyards and private residences. 

In addition to studying the Quran, which was a primary focus, other academic subjects were also taught, including medicine, anatomy, botany, evolution, physiology, zoology, astronomy, anthropology, cartography, geology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, philosophy, language/linguistics, geography, history, art and more.

Final thoughts

Surviving wars, natural disasters, and the test of time, some of the oldest Universities in the world are still going strong.

These universities are a beacon of hope, offering a glimpse of the glorious past while preparing our youth to march boldly into the future! 

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  • P

    The University of Montpellier was established in 1220, but I don’t see it on the list.

  • Adesuyi Ajayi

    Harvard does not belong to the list of the oldest 15 universities. The list excludes the University of Paris system which was established after the Univetsity of Bologna , before the English or Spanish universities.