Many of the world’s most famous higher education institutes have been around for centuries. They laid the foundation for academic learning as we know it today and have welcomed everyone from Nobel laureates, monarchs and popes to influential scientists, poets and sportspeople. With the help of Top Universities and Guinness World Records, here’s our list of the eight oldest universities in the world.
University of Padua, Italy
The prestigious University of Padua started life in 1222, when it specialized in law and theology. Many of the first students and professors had moved from the University of Bologna in the hope of finding academic freedom. Today it is also known for astronomy, medicine and philosophy. Visitors flock to the college for its 11 museums and the delightful Botanical Garden of Padova.
University of Cambridge, England
England is home to two of the world’s finest universities and the University of Cambridge is the country’s second-oldest (1209). Featuring Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, novelist Amy Levy and British monarchs, the alumni list is a who’s who of influential figures. The setting on the River Cam and stunning architecture make the colleges as popular with visitors as they are with students. Cambridge also has a healthy rivalry with the University of Oxford, celebrated annually at The Boat Race.
University of Paris, France
The University of Paris received its charter from King Philip II in 1200. Honoré Balzac, Marie Curie and Voltaire studied here, as have 50 winners of Nobel prizes and 11 national presidents. The university disbanded during the French Revolution and was reopened by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1806. It closed again between 1968 and 1970 following student revolts. Nowadays it is a collection of 13 institutions, namely Sorbonne University and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.
University of Salamanca, Spain
Spain’s longest-running university dates back to 1134, although it wasn’t until 1218 that it received its charter from King Alfonso. The University of Salamanca holds an important place in worldwide culture. It was here that Christopher Columbus met with geographers to discuss his voyages to the New World. The Anaya Palace and Patio de Escuelas are architectural highlights of the historic campus.
University of Oxford, England
Few universities in the world have the mystical charm of the University of Oxford, an ensemble of beautiful buildings set in the heart of the City of Dreaming Spires. It was established in 1096 and gained popularity and prestige from 1167, when Henry II prohibited students from traveling to Paris to study. Today it is made up of 38 colleges. Home to accessible college buildings, museums and historic pubs, it’s as much a tourist attraction as an educational center.
University of Bologna, Italy
Europe’s oldest university is the University of Bologna. Students created the university for students in 1088 and it earned a reputation for its teaching of law during the medieval era. English scholar Thomas Becket, Renaissance poet Petrarch, Erasmus of Rotterdam and Dante Alighieri once studied here. Much of the university campus lies within Bologna’s Centro Storico historic quarter.
Al-Azhar University, Egypt
Cairo’s Al-Azhar University started life as a madrasa (college for Islamic teaching) around A.D. 970. The Shīʿite Fāṭimid built the college around a namesake mosque and operated an informal educational system. After Saladin overthrow the Fāṭimid Dynasty in the 1200s, the school became a center of Sunni scholarship. It eventually received university status in the 1960s. Revered Islamic ideologist Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī was a student in the 1800s.
University of al-Qarawiyyin, Morocco
When Fatima al-Fahri spent her inheritance on a mosque and madrasa in Fez in 859, she’d have been unaware that it’d still be flourishing over 1,100 years later. Arriving in Morocco as a Tunisian immigrant, al-Fahri dreamed of giving back to the community that opened its arms to her family. Studies at the University of al-Qarawiyyin originally focused on the Qu’ran and religions education. Today students from all over Morocco plus the Islamic regions of West Africa and Muslim areas of Central Asia aspire to enroll here.