Top 10 oldest universities in the world

Last Updated on October 13, 2021 by iSchoolConnect

The concept of higher education has been around for way longer than we can imagine. There are universities in the world that have been functioning for over a 1000 years! Keep reading to know more about the top 10 oldest universities in the world.

Evidence of formal higher education dates back only to the 12th century. However, most of the oldest universities in the world are believed to have been established well before that. These ancient institutions have stood the test of time and have managed to stay relevant even today!

To keep up with the modern world, some of these universities have now split into autonomous colleges and revamped their curriculums entirely. Studying at these institutions will not only give you chance at quality education, but also the chance to experience history up close.

Most of the oldest universities in the world are located in Europe, particularly Italy and also France, UK, and Spain. Listed below are the 10 of the oldest universities in the world, with details about what they offer to you today…

#10 University of Al-Qarawiyyin

The University of al-Qarawiyyin is the oldest continually operating educational institution in the world according to the Guinness World Records. Established by Fatima al-Fihiri in 859, the institution was initially founded as a community mosque. It became a part of the modern state university system of Morocco in the year 1963.

The subjects of focus at the university are Islamic religious and legal sciences with an emphasis on classical Arabic grammar/linguistics and Maliki law. The university offers both bachelor’s as well as high school diploma programs to over 8,120 students.

  • Number of students – 8,120 
  • Acceptance rate – 34% 

Notable alumni of the university include Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, and Pope Sylvester II.

#9 Al-Azhar University

Al-Azhar University was established in the year 970 in Cairo, Egypt. It is Egypt’s oldest institution, and it attained its university status in 1961.

Al-Azhar university
The Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo, Egypt

The primary aim of the university was to be a center for Islamic learning where students could learn Islamic law, grammar, logic, and rhetoric. However, after the 1960 reforms, the faculties of medicine and engineering also came into being.

  • Number of students – Approximately 2 million 
  • Acceptance rate – 76% 

Notable alumni of the university include Kuwaiti poet, Ahmad Meshari Al-Adwani, Saad Zaghul, who was the leader of the 1919 revolution in Egypt, and Muhammad Ma Jian who translated the Qur’an in Chinese.

#8 University of Bologna

The University of Bologna is the oldest university in continuous operation in the Western world. The university was the result of large associations of foreign students and scholars from the city called ‘universitas.’ It was founded in 1078 and consists of 11 institutions.

The University of Bologna is historically famous for its education on canon and civil law and also played an important role in the development of medieval Roman law. Until recently, the only degree offered at the university was a doctorate but now there are programs for all levels.

  • Number of students – 82,363
  • Acceptance rate – 55-60% 

Notable alumni of the university include famous fashion designer, Giorgio Armani, screenwriter Michelangelo Antonioni, and opera director, Liliana Cavani. 

#7 University of Oxford

Known as one of the most famous and prestigious universities in the world, the University of Oxford is also one of the oldest universities in the world. Although the exact date of its foundation is unknown, there is evidence of teaching at the university as early as 1096.

University of Oxford
The University of Oxford, Oxford, England

This private institution has about 44 colleges and halls as well as an extensive library system, offering quality education across various disciplines.

  • Number of students – 23,195
  • Acceptance rate – 17.5% 

The university alumni consist of 27 British prime ministers, 30 international leaders, and 29 Nobel laureates. To name a few – Albert Einstein, Adam Smith, Erwin Schroedinger, Stephen Hawking, Margaret Thatcher, J.R.R. Tolkien, Bill Clinton, Oscar Wilde, Hugh Grant, and Malala Yousafzai.

#6 University of Salamanca

The University of Salamanca began as a Cathedral School in the year 1130. In 1218, it went on to gain a Royal Charter of Foundation by King Alfonso.

Also known as the ‘Oxford of Spain,’ this public university is an important center for studies in humanities. The University of Salamanca is well-known for its courses in law, economics, and language studies.

  • Number of students – 28,000
  • Acceptance rate – 64% 

Consequently, it also has a number of scientific research centers. Like the Institute of Neuroscience of Castile and Leon, the Cancer Research Centre, and the Ultrashort Ultraintense Pulse Lasers Centre. 

#5 University of Paris

The University of Paris is one of the oldest universities in Europe and was established sometime between 1160-1250. In 1970, the University of Paris broke up into 13 autonomous institutions, of which Sorbonne University and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne are among the most recognized.

University of Paris - oldest universities in the world
University of Paris, Paris, France

Often known as ‘la Sorbonne,’ this university has a reputation for studies in humanities particularly theology and philosophy.

  • Number of students – 64,100
  • Acceptance rate – 65% 

Notable alumni of the university include writer and philosopher Voltaire, and 49 Nobel laureates including Marie and Pierre Curie!

#4 University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge was established in 1209 by a group of Oxford students. It is a public research university and still holds its place among the best institutions in the world. The first college at Cambridge is called Peterhouse which was established by the Bishop of Ely. Since then the university has grown to have 31 colleges with over 100 academic departments organized into 6 schools.

The university is home to the world’s oldest publishing house and also has the world’s second-largest university press. It also operates multiple cultural and scientific museums and has over 100 libraries!

  • Number of students – 20,000
  • Acceptance rate – 21% 

Notable alumni of the university include Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, David Attenborough, and 116 Nobel laureates.

#3 University of Padua, Italy

The University of Padua was established in the year 1222 and is one of the most prominent universities in the history of Europe.

University of Padua, Padua, Italy

The university began with studies in law and theology and the curriculum grew to include education in civil, canon, astronomy, agriculture, law, engineering, medicine, politics, etc. It has 32 departments organized into 8 schools all of which play an important role in scholarly and scientific research.

  • Number of students – 60,000
  • Acceptance rate – 66%

Notable alumni of the university include the famous astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

#2 University of Naples Federico II, Italy

The University of Naples Federico II was established in 1224 by Federick II – the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and the King of Sicily. His aim was to create an institution that was free from the influence of the Pope.

Today, the university has 13 schools with 82 departments that offer courses in science and humanities.

  • Number of students – 78,000
  • Acceptance rate – 66%

Notable alumni of the university include three former Italian presidents, theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Fabrizio Freda.

#1 University of Siena

The University of Siena is located in the little town of Siena in the Tuscany region. Established in 1240, it continues to dominate the city by making up almost half of the total population.

University of Siena, Tuscany, Italy

This institution was also established as a way to provide education that was independent of the influence of the Pope. Now, the city of Siena itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that holds a prominent place in medieval culture and history.

  • Number of students – 20,000
  • Acceptance rate – 81%

These universities are a clear indication of how much we humans value knowledge. While some of the oldest universities started as religious schools, there were others that started free from any religious or aristocratic influence. But there is one thing all these institutions have in common – they evolved and adapted to changing times.

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