A university is an institution of higher (or tertiary) education and research, which awards academic degrees in various academic disciplines. Universities typically provide undergraduate education and postgraduate education. The term was coined by the Italian University of Bologna, which, with a traditional founding date of 1088, is considered to be the first university.
The origin of many medieval universities can be traced back to the Christian cathedral schools or monastic schools, which appeared as early as the 6th century and were run for hundreds of years as such before their formal establishment as universities in the high medieval period. Inclusion in this list is determined by the date at which the educational institute met the traditional definition of a university although it may have existed as a different kind of institute before that time.
This definition limits the term “university” to institutions with distinctive structural and legal features that developed in Europe, and which make the university form different from other institutions of higher learning in the pre-modern world. For the list below, the university must still be in operation, with institutional continuity retained throughout its history, and so some early universities, are excluded.
Other institutions of higher learning, such as those of ancient Greece, ancient Persia, ancient Rome, Byzantium, ancient China, ancient India and the Islamic world, are not included in this list owing to their cultural, historical, structural and juristic dissimilarities from the medieval European university from which the modern university evolved.
Here are the top 20 oldest existing universities in continuous operation in the world.
- 1. University of Bologna
- 2. University of Oxford
- 3. University of Salamanca
- 4. University of Cambridge
- 5. University of Padua
- 6. University of Naples Federico II
- 7. University of Siena
- 8. University of Coimbra
- 9. University of Macerata
- 10. University of Valladolid
- 11. Complutense University of Madrid
- 12. Sapienza University of Rome
- 13. University of Perugia
- 14. University of Florence
- 15. University of Pisa
- 16. Charles University
- 17. University of Pavia
- 18. Jagiellonian University
- 19. University of Vienna
- 20. University of Heidelberg
1. University of Bologna
Year established: 1088
The University of Bologna is a research university in Bologna, Italy. Founded in 1088 by an organised guild of students (hence studiorum), it is the oldest university in the world, as well as one of the leading academic institutions in Italy and Europe. It is one of the most prestigious Italian universities, commonly ranking in the first places of national rankings.
2. University of Oxford
Oxford, United Kingdom
Year established: 1096
The University of Oxford is a collegiate research university in Oxford, England. There is evidence of teaching as early as 1096, making it the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second-oldest university in continuous operation. It grew rapidly from 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. The history and influence of the University of Oxford has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
3. University of Salamanca
Year established: 1134
The University of Salamanca is a Spanish higher education institution, located in the city of Salamanca, west of Madrid, in the autonomous community of Castile and León. It was founded in 1134 and given the Royal charter of foundation by King Alfonso IX in 1218. It is the world’s third oldest university still in operation and the oldest university in the Hispanic world.
4. University of Cambridge
Cambridge, United Kingdom
Year established: 1209
The University of Cambridge (legally The Chancellor, Masters, and Scholars of the University of Cambridge) is a collegiate public research university in Cambridge, United Kingdom. Founded in 1209 and granted a royal charter by King Henry III in 1231, Cambridge is the second-oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s fourth-oldest surviving university. The university grew out of an association of scholars who left the University of Oxford after a dispute with the townspeople. The academic standards, history, influence and wealth of the University of Cambridge has made it one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
5. University of Padua
Year established: 1222
The University of Padua is an Italian university located in the city of Padua, Veneto, Italy. The University of Padua was founded in 1222 as a school of law. Padua is the second-oldest university in Italy and the world’s fifth-oldest surviving university. It’s often ranked the best university among Italian institutions of higher education.
6. University of Naples Federico II
Year established: 1224
The University of Naples Federico II is a university in Naples, Italy. Founded in 1224, it is the oldest public non-sectarian university in the world, and is now organized into 26 departments. It was Europe’s first university dedicated to training secular administrative staff, and one of the oldest academic institutions in continuous operation. Federico II is the third University in Italy by number of students enrolled, but despite its huge size it is still one of the best universities in Italy, being particularly notable for research.
7. University of Siena
Year established: 1240
The University of Siena in Siena, Tuscany is one of the oldest and first publicly funded universities in Italy. Originally called Studium Senese, the institution was founded in 1240. Today, the University of Siena is best known for its Schools of Law, Medicine, and Economics and Management.
8. University of Coimbra
Year established: 1290
The University of Coimbra is a Portuguese public university in Coimbra, Portugal. Established in 1290 in Lisbon, it went through a number of relocations until it was moved permanently to its current city in 1537, being one of the oldest universities in continuous operation in the world, the oldest university of Portugal, and one of the country’s largest museums of higher education and research institutions.
The university is organized into eight different faculties according to a wide range of fields, granting academic bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in nearly all major fields of knowledge, such as arts, engineering, humanities, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, medicine, sports and technologies.
9. University of Macerata
Year established: 1290
The University of Macerata is a university located in Macerata, Italy. It was founded in 1290 and is one of the oldest in Italy. The various Departments and Offices of the University are in the old centre within its medieval walls. The University of Macerata has seven Faculties to choose from: Cultural Heritage (in the nearby town of Fermo), Economics, Law, Literature and Philosophy, Media Studies, Education Sciences and Political Sciences. Some offer courses entirely in English.
10. University of Valladolid
Year established: 1293
The University of Valladolid is a public university in the city of Valladolid, province of Valladolid, in the autonomous region of Castile and Leon, Spain. Established in the 13th century, it is one of the oldest universities in the world. It was founded in 1241 as removal of studies at the University of Palencia. It is responsible for teaching higher education in seven campuses distributed through four cities of Castile and Leon: Valladolid, Palencia, Soria and Segovia.
11. Complutense University of Madrid
Year established: 1293
The Complutense University of Madrid is a public research university located in Madrid, and one of the oldest universities in the world. The university is the 3rd largest non-distance European university by enrollment, and consistently ranking as one of the top universities in Spain. The university is widely regarded as the most prestigious academic institution in Spain.
It is located on a sprawling campus that occupies the entirety of the Ciudad Universitaria district of Madrid. In the year 1785, the University of Madrid became one of the first universities in the world to grant a Doctorate degree to a female student. By Royal Decree of 1857, the University of Madrid was the only institution in Spain authorized to grant doctorates throughout the Spanish Empire.
12. Sapienza University of Rome
Year established: 1303
The Sapienza University of Rome, also called simply Sapienza or the University of Rome, is a collegiate research university that is located in Rome, Italy. Formally known as Università degli Studi di Roma “La Sapienza”, it is one of the largest European universities by enrollments and one of the oldest in history, founded in 1303. The University is one of the most prestigious Italian universities and in the world, commonly ranking first in national rankings and in Southern Europe.
13. University of Perugia
Year established: 1308
University of Perugia is a public-owned university based in Perugia, Italy. It was founded in 1308, as attested by the Bull issued by Pope Clement V certifying the birth of the Studium Generale. The official seal of the university portraits Saint Herculan, one of the saint patrons, and the rampant crowned griffin, which is the city symbol.
They represent the ecclesiastical and civil powers, respectively, which gave rise to the university in the Middle Ages. With its 16 faculties and a vast selection of first and second level and single cycle degree programs, the University of Perugia offers its main courses in Perugia and Terni, and specialized programs throughout the Umbria region in the cities of Assisi, Foligno, and Narni.
14. University of Florence
Year established: 1321
The University of Florence is an Italian public research university located in Florence, Italy. The 12 schools of the university are: Agriculture; Architecture; Arts; Economics; Education; Engineering; Law; Mathematics, Physics and Natural Sciences; Medicine and Surgery; Pharmacology; Political Science; and Psychology. The first university in Florence was the Studium Generale, which was established by the Florentine Republic in 1321.
The Studium was recognized by Pope Clement VI in 1349, and authorized to grant regular degrees. The modern university dates from 1859, when a group of disparate higher-studies institutions grouped together in the Istituto di Studi Pratici e di Perfezionamento, which a year later was recognized as a full-fledged university by the government of newly unified Italy.
15. University of Pisa
Year established: 1343
The University of Pisa is an Italian public research university located in Pisa, Italy. It was founded in 1343 by an edict of Pope Clement VI. It is the 19th oldest extant university in the world and the 10th oldest in Italy. The university is ranked within the top 10 nationally and the top 400 in the world.
It houses the Orto botanico di Pisa, Europe’s oldest academic botanical garden, which was founded in 1544. The University of Pisa is part of the Pisa University System, which includes the Scuola Normale Superiore and the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies. It’s the only university in Italy which has become a member of the Universities Research Association.
16. Charles University
Prague, Czech Republic
Year established: 1348
Charles University, known also as Charles University in Prague or historically as the University of Prague, is the oldest and largest university in the Czech Republic. Founded in 1348, it was the first university in Central Europe. It is one of the oldest universities in Europe in continuous operation. Today, the university consists of 17 faculties located in Prague, Hradec Králové and Pilsen.
Its academic publishing house is Karolinum Press. The university also operates several museums and two botanical gardens. Its seal shows its protector Emperor Charles IV, with his coats of arms as King of the Romans and King of Bohemia, kneeling in front of Saint Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia.
17. University of Pavia
Year established: 1361
The University of Pavia is a university located in Pavia, Lombardy, Italy. There was evidence of teaching as early as 1361, making it one of the oldest universities in the world. It was the sole university in Milan and the greater Lombardy region until the end of the 19th century. Currently, it has 18 departments and 9 faculties. It doesn’t have a main campus, its buildings and facilities are scattered around the city, earning the city of Pavia its title “a city campus”.
The university offers more than 80 undergraduate programs, over than 40 master programs and about 20 doctoral programs, including 8 English programs. The university operates multiple cultural and scientific museums, including the University History Museum, a botanical garden, research centers, university libraries and a university press.
18. Jagiellonian University
Year established: 1364
The Jagiellonian University, also known as the University of Kraków, is a research university in Kraków, Poland. Founded in 1364 by Casimir III the Great, the Jagiellonian University is the oldest university in Poland, the second oldest university in Central Europe, and one of the oldest surviving universities in the world. The campus of the Jagiellonian University is centrally located within the city of Kraków.
The university consists of fifteen faculties, including the humanities, law, the natural and social sciences, and medicine. The university offers over 80 disciplines. The university library is one of Poland’s largest, and houses several medieval manuscripts, including Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus. Due to its history, the Jagiellonian University is traditionally considered Poland’s most reputable institution of higher learning, this standing equally being reflected in international rankings.
19. University of Vienna
Year established: 1365
The University of Vienna is a public university located in Vienna, Austria. It was founded by Duke Rudolph IV in 1365 and is the oldest university in the German-speaking world. With its long and rich history, the University of Vienna has developed into one of the largest universities in Europe, and also one of the most renowned, especially in the Humanities. It has been the academic home to many scholars of historical as well as of academic importance.
20. University of Heidelberg
Year established: 1386
Heidelberg University, officially the Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg, is a public research university in Heidelberg, Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Founded in 1386 on instruction of Pope Urban VI, Heidelberg is Germany’s oldest university and one of the world’s oldest surviving universities. It was the third university established in the Holy Roman Empire.
The university consists of twelve faculties and offers degree programmes at undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral levels in some 100 disciplines. Heidelberg comprises three major campuses: the humanities, the natural sciences and medicine, and the social sciences. Modern scientific psychiatry, psychopharmacology, psychiatric genetics, environmental physics, and modern sociology were introduced as scientific disciplines by Heidelberg faculty.