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The oldest universities in the world

oldest universities in the world
The University of Bologna is the oldest running university in the world. Source: Milenko Radović/University of Bologna Facebook

Higher education dates back over a thousand years. The first universities were established in the Middle East and North Africa — regions which were once referred to as the “cradle of higher education”. The Ancient Library of Alexandria was integral to this as well, attracting scholars from far and wide to peruse its impressive collection. 

In the West, the oldest universities in the world evolved from medieval schools. These were initially set up to educate clerks and monks beyond the level afforded by the cathedral and monastic schools. 

Today, many of these same universities are still standing, though perhaps not as well-recognised. Most higher education lists out there rank universities according to status — how well they perform academically, the quality of their research output, and their reputation overseas. Few consider the oldest universities in the world. 

Here, centuries of tradition form the backbone of education, complete with weathered structures and looming buildings to get lost in. Students have the privilege of exploring old passageways, learn the history of the classrooms they’ve inhabited, and immersing themselves in the wonder of such ancient institutions. It’s certainly a haven for avid history buffs. 

We take a look at the oldest universities in the world that are still standing today: 

5 oldest universities in the world

The University of Al Quaraouiyine, Morocco 

The world’s first university, The University of Al Qarawiynn, was founded in 895 CE by a woman named Fatima al-Fihri. She used her inheritance to form a large mosque with an associated school, becoming a leading spiritual and educational centre in the Muslim world. It was the world’s first centre to award degrees according to different levels of study. Subjects included Islamic studies, mathematics, grammar and medicine. 

The university was officially incorporated into Morocco’s modern state university system in 1963 and is now known as The University of Al Quaraouiyine. Students can pursue degrees in Islamic, religious and legal sciences. Classical Arabic grammar and linguistics, as well as law, are additionally integrated into the curriculum. It hosts around 8,000 to 9,000 students

The University of Bologna, Italy

The University of Bologna is the oldest Western institution in the world. It began as an esteemed school of civil law in the late 11th century. This stemmed from a strong interest in the city’s political affairs, a result of conflicts between the Papacy and the Empire. Numerous students travelled to Bologna for this purpose, and to accommodate, the University of Bologna was born. 

The university has been operating since 1088, making it the oldest university in the world. It largely specialised in doctorate studies, but now offers a wide array of programmes across all levels. In 2021, over 90,291 students were enrolled at the University of Bologna. 7,062 of these were international students. 

The University of Oxford, UK 

Mention the University of Oxford, and students from far and wide would recognise its name. As one of the most reputable universities in the world, Oxford regularly makes the news for its groundbreaking research, excellence in academia and Nobel-winning alumni and faculty. Its reputation has ensured it is featured in many films across Hollywood and beyond, educating characters known for their intelligence and wit. 

Oxford is also one of the oldest universities in the world, having been established sometime between 1096 to 1167. The city itself is filled with historical gems. For example, The Eagle and Child was a pub just a stone’s throw away from the university which served as a meeting ground for authors CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and other famous writers. 

The University of Salamanca, Spain

Established in 1134 and given the Royal Charter in 1218, the University of Salamanca is known as Spain’s oldest institution. Its long history has seen many significant students and events. In fact, it was the university where Christopher Columbus made a case to gain royal support for his expedition to the Indies in the late 15th century. 

Today, the University of Salamanca invites around 27,500 students to its halls. It is also ranked at #172 in Europe, #13 in Spain, and #1 in Salamanca. The institution is particularly known for its programmes in archaeology. 

The University of Paris, France

Looking for an ancient university in the heart of the city of love? The University of Paris is the right fit for you. The institution dates back between 1160 and 1250 and is known as one of the first established universities in Europe. However, it cannot claim the title of one of the longest-running universities in the region, as it was suspended between 1792 and 1896 after the French Revolution. 

Today’s University of Paris is divided into 13 autonomous institutions scattered around the city. These include Sorbonne University and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, both of which regularly attract both local and international students from far and wide.