10 Oldest Universities in the World

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People have always sought out higher education. After all, knowledge is power. Thinking of old colleges probably brings American institutions such as Harvard and Yale to mind, which have been around since the 1600s. Surprisingly, they don’t even make the top 50 on the list of oldest universities. Some colleges have been in operation for 1,000 years! Here are the 10 oldest universities in the world.

University of Valladolid – Established in 1241

View at the University building in the streets of Valladolid
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The University of Valladolid is located in northwest Spain and first opened its doors in 1241. It was a major center of learning throughout the Middle Ages — teaching liberal arts and theology. Students went to the college to prepare for major posts in the Spanish Empire. Today it’s a well-rounded institution with courses in science, law, arts, medicine, economics, engineering, education, and business administration.

University of Siena – Established in 1240

Building of the University of Siena complex with bright flowers and greenery, Italy
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Beating the University of Valladolid by one year, the University of Siena was established in 1240 to become the ninth-oldest university in the world. The University of Siena is located in central Italy in a small town of the same name. The town is so small, or the college is so big, that a large majority of the town’s entire population is made up of students.

University of Naples Federico II – Established in 1224

Yellow building with manicured landscape at historic University of Naples, Italy
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The University of Naples was founded by the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, Frederick II in 1224. Frederick II decided that he wanted to establish a center of learning that wasn’t influenced by the Pope. It wasn’t until 750 years later in 1987, that the college decided to add “Federico II” to acknowledge its founder. Today, the college has 13 schools and 82 departments. Several CEOs, astronauts, and even Italian presidents are alumni of this prestigious institution.

University of Padua – Established in 1222

Astronomical observatory of the University of Padua with lake and vine covered bricks
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The University of Padua is another Italian college that was founded in 1222 as a law school. It was started by scholars and students looking for more academic freedom than was allowed at other universities in the area. The school today is massive with over 60,000 students and 20,000 professors roaming the medieval buildings.

University of Salamanca – Established in 1218

Inner cloister of University of Salamanca grounds in Castilla-Leon, Spain
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The University of Salamanca is the oldest university in Spain. It was officially founded in 1218 by King Alfonso IX. It had tremendous influence throughout the Middle Ages and hit its peak in 1584. From that point on, enrollment slowly declined. In the early 1800s, many of the buildings were destroyed by the French and by 1875, only 391 students attended classes each year. The university still exists today with courses in law, science, philosophy, medicine, and pharmaceuticals.

University of Cambridge – Established in 1209

King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge showing historic architecture
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The University of Cambridge was established in 1209 by scholars fleeing the hostilities of Oxford. They needed somewhere a little calmer to practice their studies. The college wasn’t a significant center of learning for the first few centuries of its existence. During the Renaissance, Cambridge led the charge in England. Since then, it has become a very prestigious college and has produced many influential scholars, scientists, and researchers in several fields including Ernest Rutherford, John Maynard Keynes, and Charles Darwin.

University of Paris – Established in 1170

Historic architecture at the University of Paris under scattered clouds
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The University of Paris has a tumultuous history, much like the city itself. It was established around 1170 as a school of theology backed by the Pope. The college was closed in 1793 after the French Revolution shook the city, but was reopened in 1806 by Napoleon Bonaparte himself. There have been several closures and re-establishments in the university’s long history. Today, it exists as 13 separate universities with possible plans to merge several of the schools back together.

University of Oxford – Established in 1096

University of Oxford from above
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The University of Oxford is the oldest English-speaking university in the world. No one is quite sure of the exact date that it was founded, but it’s believed to have started sometime around 1096. The college has remained one of the most prestigious centers of learning for over 900 years. Many influential people have graduated from Oxford including 30 international leaders, 28 British prime ministers, 55 Nobel Prize winners, and 120 Olympic medal winners. Some of the most famous alumni include Stephen Hawking, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, Dr. Seuss, Richard Dawkins, Bill Clinton, T.S. Eliot, and C.S. Lewis.

University of Bologna – Established in 1088

Historic location of University of Bologna architecture in Bologna, Italy
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With almost 1,000 years of history, the University of Bologna is the oldest university in the western world. The university is located in northern Italy in the city of Bologna. In 1088, it was founded by students who were eager to learn about canon and civil law. The studies eventually expanded beyond just law and the University of Bologna became an important center for scientific and mathematical research during the Renaissance period. Galileo Galilei and Nicolaus Copernicus both attended the University of Bologna.

University of Al-Karaouine – Established in 859

Iconic green roof of the University of Al-Karaouine in Fes, Morocco
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The University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco is considered the oldest continuously operating university in the world. It was established in 859 C.E. as a mosque and center of learning for Islamic studies. The mosque is still the largest in Africa with enough seating for 22,000 people. For most of its history, the university was only for learning Islamic studies, but in the mid-2oth century, it was expanded to include sciences and foreign languages.

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