What Are the 15 Oldest Universities in the World?

27 Jul, 2023 | Blog Articles, Get the Edge

There are around 25,000 universities in the world, providing an incredible range of higher education opportunities, but how long have universities actually been around? Today, we’re exploring the roots of academia so we can understand the enduring legacy of the world’s oldest institutions. 

Here are the 15 oldest universities in the world!

1. University of Al Quaraouiyine

The oldest university in the world is the University of Al Quaraouiyine, in Fez, Morocco. It was originally founded as a mosque in 859, before developing into one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the Islamic Golden Age. 

In 1963, it officially became a part of Morocco’s modern state university system, and is now widely known for being the oldest continuously operating university in the world. 

The university has contributed significantly to global Islamic education, and has played a massive role in shaping intellectual and cultural traditions. The classes taught there concentrate heavily on the Islamic religious and legal sciences, with a particular focus on Classical Arabic grammar and linguistics and Maliki law. 

The mosque building itself features elements from various periods of Moroccan history, becoming an important architectural landmark.

2. University of Bologna

The second oldest university in the world is the University of Bologna, founded in 1088 in Bologna, Italy. As the oldest university in Europe, and the first ever degree-awarding institution in higher education, it has played a very influential role in the development of the modern legal and scientific systems. 

Some notable alumni include Nicolaus Copernicus (formulator of the heliocentric model), Pope Alexander VI, the poet Francesco Petrarca (also known as Petrarch), and Thomas Becket (former royal chancellor and archbishop of Canterbury). 

3. University of Oxford

The University of Oxford is the third oldest university in the world, established in the twelfth century in Oxford, England. With an esteemed legacy, it’s now a renowned global centre of learning. 

As a collegiate university, its main functions are divided between 44 colleges where students live and work. The oldest colleges – University College, Merton College and Balliol College – were all founded between 1249 and 1264. 

However, the newest college, Reuben College, was only founded in 2019, demonstrating how the university has continued to grow and thrive over the centuries.

The university has contributed significantly to many fields, and has produced illustrious alumni, from Oscar Wilde and Sir Walter Raleigh, to Dame Josephine Barnes (the first female President of the British Medical Association), 30 UK prime ministers and even Hugh Grant!

Please note: The Oxford Scholastica Academy is separate from the University of Oxford, and it’s important to understand that we have no formal connection with the University.

The University of Oxford is one of the oldest universities in the world.

4. University of Salamanca

The fourth oldest university in the world is the University of Salamanca, which was founded in 1134 in Salamanca, Spain. It has a distinct reputation as the oldest university in the Hispanic world, and played a pivotal role in the spread of knowledge during the Renaissance. 

As well as remaining one of the top universities in Europe today, it’s renowned for its architectural marvels like its ornate plateresque façade. 

It’s also well-known for being the alma mater of famous poet and astronomer, Fray Luis de León, who began studying Canon Law in 1541 at just 14 years old. There are many tributes to the poet astronomer across campus, including a large statue and a preserved classroom where he taught in the 1570s.

5. University of Paris

The University of Paris is the fifth oldest university in the world, founded around 1150 in France’s capital. The university is renowned for being a medieval powerhouse of learning, and maintains its status as a symbol of intellectual pursuit. 

In the Middle Ages it was a trailblazer in theology and philosophy studies. It also introduced a few educational structures that have spread across the world and remain traditions today, such as doctoral degrees!

In addition, the university has produced three Popes, eleven French presidents, and almost 50 heads of government.

6. University of Cambridge

The second oldest university in the UK is the University of Cambridge. The university was established in the 13th century in Cambridge, England. Over the centuries, it has had a friendly rivalry with Oxford University, and since 1829 the universities have taken part in an annual competitive boat race.

Cambridge University has also made significant contributions to many fields – for example, Francis Crick completed his PhD at the university before being awarded a Nobel Prize after discovering the structure of DNA. 

Like the University of Oxford, Cambridge University also has a collegiate system, and is divided into 31 colleges. It remains a source of renowned research and a contributor to scientific advancements, literature and the arts.

Cambridge University, one of the oldest universities in the world.

7. Al-Azhar University

Al-Azhar University is one of the oldest Islamic universities in the world, although it didn’t achieve university status until 1961. It was originally founded in 970 CE in Cairo, Egypt, and since then has had a great influence on religious and intellectual traditions. 

Before 1961, Al-Azhar was classified as a madrasa – a centre of higher learning. After being predominantly referred to as a religious university,  secular courses such as Business, Economics, Engineering and Medicine were introduced for the first time when Al-Azhar achieved university status in 1961.

8. University of Padua

The University of Padua was founded in 1222 in Padua, Italy, and maintains a reputation as a leading centre for medical education after its prominent role in advancing scientific knowledge in the Renaissance period. 

The university is highly prestigious and has many partnerships with other institutions around the world to facilitate student exchange programmes. 

Originally founded when a large group of students left the University of Bologna to pursue academic liberty for all – a phrase that remains their motto today – the university remains committed to innovation and interdisciplinary research.

9. University of Montpellier

The University of Montpellier was founded in 1289 in Montpellier, France, and is especially notable for its contributions to the field of medical education. Its faculty of Medicine is the world’s oldest medical school still in operation. 

The school was famous for its arguments about the Black Death in the 14th century, which centred around Galen’s theories of miasma, and the disease’s entrance into the body through the pores. 

Montpellier remains a reputable centre for scientific enquiry and research.

10. University of Naples Federico II

One of the oldest public universities in the world is the University of Naples Federico II. The university was established in 1224 and has made large contributions to various disciplines, including philosophy, law and natural sciences.

It’s most famous for being the oldest secular and state-funded university in the world. 

It’s also particularly notable for its contributions to research, hosting the very first Apple IOS Developer Academy in 2016.

11. University of Siena

The University of Siena is also one of the world’s oldest public universities. It was founded in 1240, and its students now form almost a third of Siena’s total population. 

The university first began to attract large numbers of students in 1321, after many students from the University of Bologna left in protest. 

The university has made significant contributions to Italian academia and is now a site of many architectural wonders. Its Palazzo San Galgano – the school of Humanities and Philosophy first constructed in the 13th century – remains preserved at the heart of the university.

12. University of Coimbra

The University of Coimbra is the oldest university in Portugal. Although it was first founded in Lisbon in 1290, it was relocated multiple times, eventually moving permanently to Coimbra in 1537. It’s now a prominent European research university with a large number of international students.

The university is currently an important hub for scientific and technological research. One of Portugal’s most powerful supercomputers belongs to the University of Coimbra, originally built in the mid-2000s using 528 processors. 

The university is also renowned for its cultural contributions and architectural heritage, being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013.

13. University of Naples L’Orientale

The University of Naples L’Orientale holds the unique position as the oldest university in Europe that specialises in non-European languages and cultures. First established in 1732 in Naples, Italy, it has a distinguished legacy as a university with an expertise in languages, cultures and civilisations of Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The university is comprised of three departments. These departments are “Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean”, “Humanities and Social Sciences” and “Literary, Linguistic and Comparative Studies”.

14. University of Macerata

The University of Macerata was founded in 1290, and is especially committed to the humanities, social sciences and legal studies. The campus is historically significant because of its location within medieval stone walls on top of a hill in the North-Eastern Italian countryside. 

The University is divided into seven faculties: Cultural Heritage (in the nearby town of Fermo), Economics, Law, Literature and Philosophy, Media Studies, Education Sciences, and Political Sciences. Some of the courses are entirely in English, making the university more accessible to some international students.

15. University of Valladolid

The University of Valladolid is one of Spain’s oldest universities. It was established in 1241 and is particularly renowned for its contributions to law, philosophy and theology. It’s a public university reaching across four cities: Valladolid, Palencia, Soria and Segovia. 

The university supports many cultural programmes, and is home to notable associations of music and theatre, such as a youth symphonic orchestra, a “UniversiJazz” Festival and a theatre group that was founded in 1984.

Universities are hubs of culture, history and academic innovation. More information can be found online about each of these universities, so delve deeper into the histories of these prestigious institutions to get inspired!

jessica

By Jessica Mason

Jessica is currently studying a BA in English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford, and has a particular interest in Early Modern theatre. She enjoys writing articles and has lots of experience in student journalism.

Looking to boost your university applications?

Recommended articles

The Ultimate Guide To UCAS And Personal Statements

The Ultimate Guide To UCAS And Personal Statements

What does UCAS stand for? UCAS stands for Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. It is the centralised online service in the UK that everyone has to use in order to apply to any undergraduate University course in the UK. How many courses can you apply to on...

read more
How to Take Notes in Law School

How to Take Notes in Law School

When studying any subject, you’ll inevitably have to spend a lot of your time taking notes. Law students in particular spend a massive amount of time taking notes because there’s so much to learn and there are so many different sources to learn it from. This is also a...

read more
A Brief History of Business and Business Theory

A Brief History of Business and Business Theory

Business has been a key part of social, political and economic life for centuries.  From early trade systems to contemporary e-commerce websites, business evolution remains closely linked to broader historical shifts. As the world has transformed to accommodate...

read more