What are the 15 Oldest Colleges in the World?

by admin on May 25, 2011

The word university is derived from the Latin “universitas magistrorum et scholarium,” which translated into English means “community of teachers and scholars.” Now referred to as university for short, the origin of institutes of higher learning are as old as the language they are based on. Thought to be in some circles as a place where the privileged go to earn even more of an edge, the actual history of colleges is far more complex and diverse.

To see for yourself, check out the below list of the 15 oldest colleges in the world. Although history can be a difficult thing to nail down, we have listed the schools mostly by date of alleged foundation and have even included a few that have unfortunately ceased to exist.

  1. The Academy of Plato
    The world famous and often quoted philosopher of the Greek era needs no introduction. However, his academy, which can also be referred to as a university, was founded around 387 B.C. and is definitely worth mentioning. Plato himself was thought to have resided over the academy, which was devoted to research and instructions in philosophy. The academy stood until 529 A.D. when the Christian Emperor Justinian declared it a pagan establishment.
  2. Nanjing University
    Located in China, this university is thought to have been founded in 258 A.D. It has seen six dynasties and was formally classified as a university over 100 years ago. However, during its founding it was more of an informal school but still contains much of its history, and some of it still stands today. This site has more on schools in China.
  3. Nalanda University
    This university was founded in Northeastern India in 427 A.D. Close to Nepal, it survived until 1197 and the ruins still remain to this day. The college was devoted to Buddhist studies, but it also trained students in fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics, and the art of war. There are currently discussions as to whether or not to rebuild the university.
  4. Al Karaouine University
    This combination mosque and university dates all the way back to 859 A.D. To add to its diversity, it was founded by a wealthy Tunisian woman, Fatima Alfehri, who was the daughter of a rich merchant. Acknowledged by the Guinness Book of Records, various sultans have studied there and it remains an institute of Islamic higher learning.
  5. Al-Azhar University
    Located in Cairo, this university opened in the summer of 972 A.D. Since then it has become one of the most well-known mosques in the whole Muslim world and the oldest university ever for both religious and secular studies. It first originated as a mosque but soon grew to become and still is an institute of higher learning. The site is even open to visitors in certain areas and with certain dress codes.
  6. University of Bologna
    In the first of European entries, this university is located in Italy. Founded in 1088, masters of grammar, rhetoric, and logic devoted themselves to the law and formed the university. Seventy years later the university was declared a place where research could develop independently from any other power, a founding principle for the many universities of today.
  7. University of Oxford
    This is the oldest college in the English speaking world. Located in England, teaching began here in 1096. The student population predictably grew in 1167 after King Henry II banned students from studying at Paris-Sorbonne University, which was called the University of Paris. In 1214, the university had its first chancellor and almost 20 years later, Oxford was recognized officially as a university.
  8. University of Cambridge
    What do you do when the policies over at Oxford are too much for you? Scholars taking refuge used the opportunity to found the University of Cambridge in 1209. By 1226, the scholars were numerous enough to have an official organization, a chancellor, and even regular courses of study. There are now currently over 17,000 students studying everything from art to the physical sciences.
  9. University of Timbuktu
    With a founding date of sometime in the 12th century, this is the oldest college in Africa. The educational foundation states that the attendance even back in those days was 25,000 students in a city of 100,000. On graduation day, the students were given turbans, which symbolize divine light. It even offered four degree levels: primary, secondary, superior, and circle of knowledge.
  10. Paris-Sorbonne University
    Although the exact date is unknown, this French university is thought to have been founded sometime in the 13th century at around 1250. Still the biggest complex in the country, it is dedicated to literature, languages, civilizations, arts, humanities, and the social sciences. There are currently over 23,000 students studying under 1,300 teachers and research professors.
  11. University of Montpellier
    Another European university, it was officially founded in 1289. It was one of the chief centers for teaching the practice of medicine and marked the high point of the French city’s prominence. It is currently host to 26,000 students in seven departments: law, economics, business, pharmacy, odontology, sports, and of course, medicine.
  12. University of Coimbra
    The history of the University of Coimbra dates back to the century subsequent to the very foundation of the Portugal. It is thought that the university was established in the 13th century, in 1290. Just two years prior, a supplication was made to then Pope Nicholas IV and other leaders requesting the foundation of a general study. It remains home to various students in the humanities, law, medicine, science, and more.
  13. Charles University
    Named after Czech and Roman king Charles IV, he founded the university in Prague by a deed on April 7, 1348. It was the first university to the north of the Alps and to the east of Paris. It followed the example of the Bolognese and the Parisian universities and in a short time became internationally famous for four faculties: theology, arts, law, and medicine. Over 51,000 students are studying at CU (which is roughly a sixth of all students in the Czech Republic), in more than 300 accredited degree programs and 660 study disciplines.
  14. University of Santo Tomas
    This Philippine college was established through the initiative of Bishop Miguel de Benavides, the third Archbishop of Manila. On July 24, 1605, he bequeathed the starting funds and his personal library for the establishment of a seminary-college to prepare young men for the priesthood. Still in operation today, the school offers programs in ecclesiastical studies, medicine, civil law, and others. Although there are older universities, this one stands out for being one of the first seminary/universities.
  15. St. John’s College
    St. John’s College traces its origins to King William’s School, the then Maryland colony’s “free”school”, which was founded in 1696. The term free referred to the school’s purpose: to make students free through liberal education, an aim that still holds today. The school officially became St. John’s College in 1784 after numerous failed attempts to receive a charter.

Bonus: TakshaShila University – Also known as Taxila University, this institute of learning is said to have existed over 2,700 years ago, putting it hundreds of years before entry number one. According to Human Intelligence to solve Xtreme Problems, over 10,500 students from across the world came there for higher studies. It was located in what is currently now Pakistan.

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