Centers of higher education have been around for hundreds of years, and even millennia in some cases, but not all withstand the test of time. Over the centuries, many of the world’s oldest universities have disbanded, split into autonomous colleges or become modernized beyond all recognition.
The ancient institutions that have stuck around are significant not only for their historic legacies, but also for proving their ability to adapt to modern contexts and remain relevant in a globalized world in spite of intense competition. Many of the oldest universities in the world are also among the most prestigious and popular, offering a rich mixture of historic heritage and contemporary outlook.
Here we cover some of the oldest universities in the world, all of which feature in one of the QS rankings. Most are located in Europe, due to the particularly impressive number of longstanding and still-operating universities in this region, but there’s also an African representative to consider.
**Note – this is not intended to be a list of the 10 oldest universities in order of establishment; instead it highlights 10 of the oldest universities which also have a high international ranking.**
1.University of Bologna
Established in: 1088
The ‘Nourishing Mother of the Studies’ according to its Latin motto, the University of Bologna was founded in 1088 and, having never been out of operation, holds the title of the oldest university in the world. Until relatively modern times, the university only taught doctorate studies, but today it has a diverse range of programs at all levels.
Located in Bologna, Italy, it has an enrollment of around 85,500 students, of which 30,000 are postgraduates. Famous alumni include three popes, numerous businessmen and several Italian politicians. The University of Bologna is ranked joint 177th in the QS World University Rankings® 2020.
2. University of Oxford
Location: United Kingdom
Established in: 1096-1167
With an alumni list that includes 27 UK Prime Ministers, 20 Archbishops of Canterbury, 12 saints, 27 Nobel laureates, 50 Nobel Prize winners and one Sir Stephen Hawking, the University of Oxford is as respected as it is old.
While the university’s exact foundation date remains a little vague, evidence of teaching dates as far back as 1096, and some claim it was established even earlier.
Currently fourth in the world rankings, the University of Oxford is truly one of the highest-ranked and oldest universities in the world, catering to a student community of nearly 24,000 and operating the largest university press in the world.
3.University of Salamanca
Established in: 1134
The University of Salamanca was founded in 1134 and given the Royal Charter in 1218, making it Spain’s oldest institution, after the now defunct University of Palencia.
Located to the west of Madrid, it was the institution where Christopher Columbus made a case to obtain royal support for his Indies expedition in the late 15th century.
The University of Salamanca is ranked in the 601-650 range* of the QS World University Rankings 2020 and caters to over 30,000 students across nine campuses.
4.University of Paris
Established in: 1160-1250
Established between 1160 and 1250 in the French capital, the University of Paris, often known as ‘la Sorbonne’, is known to have been one of the first established universities in Europe, although it was suspended from operating between 1793 and 1896, following the French Revolution.
Today, the University of Paris is scattered throughout the city, having been divided into 13 autonomous institutions in 1970, all of which maintain the high reputation of the original university. Of these 13, the highest-ranked are Sorbonne University (a new merger of Paris-Sorbonne University and Pierre and Marie Curie University, ranked 77th in the world) and Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne (joint 305th).
5.University of Cambridge
Established in: 1209
Established in 1209 by a group of scholars leaving the University of Oxford due to political conflicts, the University of Cambridge is now ranked seventh in the world.
Sharing many common traditions, Oxford and Cambridge maintain a healthy sense of rivalry, which comes to a head in the famous annual Boat Race event. Cambridge has around 19,147 students, of which 4,450 come from outside the EU.