Home » By Region » Global History » The Top 10 Oldest Universities in the World Still in Existence

The Top 10 Oldest Universities in the World Still in Existence

Image of one of the oldest universities in the world, Oxford, in the U.K.

The oldest universities in the world not only embody the evolution of academic exploration but also stand as proud testaments to human civilization’s enduring pursuit of knowledge.

The annals of academia are rife with these storied institutions that have shaped civilizations, nurtured world leaders, and sparked intellectual revolutions.

Among these, a select few can lay claim to an extraordinary lineage tracing back to the medieval period or even earlier.

In our quest for understanding, we’ve combed the pages of history to curate a list of the 10 oldest universities in the world that are still in operation today.


From the sun-drenched campuses of Morocco and Egypt to the hallowed halls of learning in Europe, these institutions blend ancient wisdom with modern scholarship in ways that continue to inspire and fascinate.

As you peruse this compilation, remember that each university holds a wealth of tales that could fill libraries, steeped in rich cultural heritage and boasting countless generations of scholars.

This is not merely a list; it’s a journey back in time, tracing the roots of academia and the evolution of learning itself.

List of 10 of the World’s Oldest Universities

Nestled in the ancient city of Fez, Morocco, is the first historic school on our list, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, which holds the distinguished honor of being the oldest existing, continually operating, and degree-awarding educational institution in the world.

Image of a mosque at one of the world's oldest universities, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, one of the oldest universities in the world.
Mosque at the University of Al Qarawiyyan

1. The University of Al-Qarawiyyin | Fes, Morocco (est. 859)

Established in 859 AD in the heart of Fez, Morocco, the University of Al-Qarawiyyin was the brainchild of Fatima Al-Fihri, a woman of Tunisian descent.

Fatima, who hailed from a wealthy merchant family, invested her inheritance into a mosque for her community that also served as a madrasa, a center for religious instruction.

The educational focus of Al-Qarawiyyin soon expanded, and it grew into one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the historic Muslim world.

Al-Qarawiyyin played a pivotal role in the intellectual and cultural life of the Muslim world throughout the Middle Ages.

It was a hub for scholars from all over the Islamic world, attracting eminent thinkers, jurists, and theologians.

Its library believed to be the oldest in the world, became a treasure trove of priceless documents, some of which date back to the 9th century.

Scholars at Al-Qarawiyyin made significant contributions to a wide array of fields, including theology, law, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and languages.

Despite various periods of political instability and change throughout Moroccan history, Al-Qarawiyyin remained an epicenter of learning.

In 1963, the university was integrated into the state education system of Morocco, and it expanded its curriculum to include a broader range of subjects, including natural sciences, economics, and languages.

In 2015, a significant restoration effort was undertaken to restore the historic library.

Today, as the world’s oldest continually operating university, Al-Qarawiyyin stands as a testament to the enduring power of education and the critical role of intellectual curiosity in human progress.

Image of the mosque at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt
Mosque at Al-Azhar University

2. Al-Azhar University | Cairo, Egypt (est. 970)

Al-Azhar University, located in Cairo, Egypt, is recognized as one of the oldest universities in the world.

Its inception dates back to the Fatimid Caliphate in 970 AD, originally established as a center of Islamic learning.

Named after Fatima Al-Zahraa, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, the university began as a mosque that rapidly evolved into a theological complex, providing education in Quranic studies and Islamic law.

In the initial centuries, Al-Azhar University served as a beacon of Islamic theology and jurisprudence, attracting students from various regions.

It played a key role in the dissemination of Sunni Islamic teachings during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods.

Despite its primary focus on religious studies, the curriculum expanded over time to include subjects like astronomy, mathematics, and medicine.

The university became a hub of intellectual discourse, fostering scholarship and debate among the scholars of the Islamic world.

The 20th century saw significant changes for Al-Azhar University.

In 1961, during the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the university underwent a major reform, expanding its curriculum to include secular subjects and enabling it to confer degrees in fields beyond theology.

Today, Al-Azhar University provides a wide spectrum of disciplines, including humanities, social sciences, medical studies, and engineering.

Despite these modern additions, the university continues to be an esteemed institution of Islamic learning, upholding its historic commitment to religious education while embracing the broader academic world.

Image of a building belonging to the University of Bologna in Italy, one ot the oldes universities in the world
Palazzo communale at the University of Bologna

3. University of Bologna | Bologna, Italy (est. 1088)

Founded in 1088, the University of Bologna holds the honor of being the oldest university in Europe and is commonly referred to as the progenitor of Western higher education.

Its establishment marked a significant shift from religious schools towards a new model of secular and self-governed education, setting the precedent for universities as we know them today.

In its early days, the University of Bologna was famous for its focus on liberal arts, medicine, law, and philosophy, attracting scholars from across Europe.

It was particularly renowned for its legal studies and played a crucial role in the evolution of Roman law into the “Ius Commune,” the root of civil law in many countries today.

The university adopted the phrase “Alma Mater Studiorum,” translating to the “nourishing mother of studies,” symbolizing its commitment to fostering knowledge.

Its democratic governance structure, in which the university was managed by a collective body of student guilds, became a model for many subsequent European universities.

Over the centuries, the University of Bologna has continued to be a hub of innovation and a beacon of intellectual exploration, making significant contributions to numerous fields and shaping generations of leaders and thinkers.

Image of an All-Souls College building at Oxford University

4. University of Oxford | Oxford, England (est. 1096)

The University of Oxford, established in the 12th century, is the oldest university in the English-speaking world and one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education globally.

Although the exact date of its foundation is unclear, teaching in some form at Oxford dates back to 1096.

The University took a major leap forward in its development when English students returned from the University of Paris, France, after a dispute between the townspeople and academics there in 1167. From this point, Oxford began to grow rapidly.

Throughout the medieval period, Oxford established itself as a leading center for learning, attracting scholars and thinkers from across the British Isles and Europe.

It was split into individual colleges, the first of which, University College, was founded in 1249, with Balliol and Merton following in the 1260s.

The tutorial system of education, which remains a distinctive feature of Oxford’s educational model today, evolved during this period.

During the Renaissance, Oxford became a hub of the humanist movement, and in the centuries that followed, it played a crucial role in seminal scientific and political debates.

Today, the University of Oxford stands as an internationally renowned center for teaching and research.

It is famous for its rigorous academic environment, notable alumni, including numerous heads of state, Nobel laureates, and esteemed intellectuals, and its beautiful architecture, earning it the moniker ‘the city of dreaming spires’.

Oxford continues to build on its historical legacy while pushing the boundaries of knowledge and innovation.

Image of an ornate building facade at the University of Salamanca

5. University of Salamanca | Salamanca, Spain (est. 1218)

The University of Salamanca, located in Spain, holds a rich historical legacy as it was established in the year 1218 by King Alfonso IX.

This makes it the oldest university in the Hispanic world and one of the oldest universities globally that is still in operation.

From the 13th to the 16th centuries, the university emerged as a significant learning center in Europe, hosting famous scholars such as Francisco de Vitoria and Luis de León.

In the year 1584, it reached its peak enrollment with nearly 7,000 students.

However, the university later faced a decline due to several reasons, including the destruction of university buildings during the French occupation.

The University of Salamanca is not just an educational institution but also the birthplace of the School of Salamanca.

This school consisted of a group of Spanish theologians and philosophers who were active during the late Scholastic period.

The school traces its origins back to the University of Salamanca, which gained recognition as a university in the 15th century [3].

The School of Salamanca produced notable figures such as Francisco de Vitoria, Domingo de Soto, Luis de Molina, and Francisco Suárez.

The Dominicans, who had established themselves in Salamanca since the 13th century, played a significant role in shaping the school’s intellectual discourse, with their newly built convent of San Esteban serving as the home to Vitoria and his school.

The influence of Aristotelian thought was strongly reflected in the philosophy and theology of the School of Salamanca, further expanding the horizons of theology and traditional philosophical topics.

Image of a courtyard at the University of Paris
Sorbonne Courtyard, Paris

6. University of Paris/La Sorbonne | Paris, France (est. 1150)

The University of Paris, also known as La Sorbonne, is a historic educational institution that first appeared in the second half of the 12th century.

This university served as a cornerstone of France’s academic and cultural heritage for centuries.

Notably, it was one of the earliest established universities in Europe, playing a crucial role in setting academic standards and traditions that have subsequently spread across the globe.

However, the University of Paris underwent a significant transformation during the French cultural revolution of 1968.

The university was divided into thirteen autonomous universities after a series of intense conflicts between students and authorities at the University of Paris at Nanterre.

These conflicts culminated in the historic University of Paris being shut down on May 2, 1968.

The students protested the closure, leading to a series of demonstrations that continued with near-revolutionary fervor until May 10, resulting in hundreds of arrests and injuries.

Image of a buidling at the University of Modena in Italy
On campus at the University of Modena

7. University of Modena | Modena, Italy (est. 1175)

The University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, situated in Emilia-Romagna, Italy, has a rich history dating back to 1175, just a few years after the establishment of the University of Bologna.

This makes it one of the oldest educational institutions in Italy, and, indeed, one of the most prestigious.

However, its journey has not been without hitches.

Following its establishment, the University experienced periods of decline, primarily due to changes in ruling dynasties and financial constraints.

The University was suspended for some time due to lack of funds, only to be reestablished in the 1680s.

The University has since grown and evolved significantly.

With a student population exceeding 20,000, it is divided into 14 departments that are split into five areas, namely technology, life, society, health, and science.

These departments are spread across two cities, with eight located in Modena and four in Reggio Emilia.

This structure allows for a broad range of academic activities and degree courses, all of which now operate on a semester system.

The University of Modena has seen a substantial growth in recent years.

New departments focusing on engineering, arts, and humanities have been added, further diversifying its academic offerings.

Notable alumni of this esteemed institution include scholar Ludovico Antonio Muratori, playwright Carlo Goldoni, and former Italian President Sandro Pertini.

Today, the University continues to uphold its reputation as a leading center of learning, producing graduates who contribute significantly to various sectors in Italy and beyond.

Image of King's College, Cambridge at dawn
Kings College Cambridge

8. University of Cambridge | Cambridge, England (est. 1209)

The University of Cambridge, located in the United Kingdom, was founded in 1209 by a group of scholars who left the University of Oxford following a dispute with the local townsfolk.

Recognized for its academic pedigree and historic architecture, the university quickly became a hub of learning and intellectual growth, its prestige growing steadily over the centuries.

With the establishment of the first college, Peterhouse, in 1284, it set the basis for the collegiate system that remains integral to the university’s structure today.

Over the centuries, the University of Cambridge has been at the forefront of many significant advancements in various academic fields.

The Cambridge Philosophical Society, founded in 1819, heralded a new era of scientific exploration and research.

It was here that Charles Darwin first presented his theory of natural selection.

The university also boasts 107 Nobel laureates, including Sir Isaac Newton, who made groundbreaking contributions to physics and mathematics.

Despite wartime interruptions and the societal shifts of the 20th century, Cambridge has continued to grow and adapt, maintaining its status as one of the world’s leading academic institutions.

Image of the medical school entrance at the University of Montpellier in France

9. University of Montpellier | Montpellier, France (est. 1220)

The University of Montpellier, located in the southern part of France, boasts a long and illustrious history.

It is one of the oldest universities in the world, with its origins tracing back to the 12th century.

The University of Montpellier was officially recognized by Pope Nicholas IV in a Papal Bull issued in 1289.

It quickly gained a reputation as a leading center for the study of medicine, attracting students from across Europe.

The university’s School of Medicine, in fact, is considered the oldest still in operation.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, the University of Montpellier experienced significant growth and development.

It became a hub of scientific discovery and intellectual discourse, with scholars such as François Rabelais and Nostradamus among its students.

However, the French Revolution brought about its closure in 1793, along with other universities in France, as they were seen as bastions of conservative thought.

In the 19th century, the University of Montpellier was re-established and began to diversify its academic offerings.

It has since grown into a comprehensive university, providing a wide range of programs in science, technology, medicine, humanities, and social sciences.

Today, the university is internationally recognized for its research and education in the fields of health and agro-environmental sciences.

It continues to uphold its rich tradition of excellence, contributing significantly to the intellectual and cultural life of France.

Image of a building on the campus of the University of Padua in Italy.
Image from the campus of the University of Padua

10. University of Padua | Padua, Italy (est. 1222)

Nestled in the picturesque city of Padua, Italy, the University of Padua stands as one of the oldest universities in the world, a beacon of knowledge and learning since its founding in 1222.

Its inception was fueled by a group of students and teachers seeking academic freedom, a quest that led them to break away from the University of Bologna.

This spirit of independence and pursuit of intellectual liberty has been a hallmark of the university since its earliest days.

The University of Padua quickly established itself as a center for academic excellence.

It became renowned for its rigorous study programs in law, theology, and medicine.

Perhaps most famously, it was where Galileo Galilei, the illustrious astronomer, physicist, and engineer, spent 18 years as a chair in mathematics, between 1592 and 1610, contributing significantly to the Renaissance’s scientific revolution.

Over the centuries, the University of Padua has been a pioneer in the academic world.

It was one of the first universities to establish a botanical garden (Orto botanico di Padova) in 1545, which remains one of the oldest academic gardens in the world.

Additionally, the university set a precedent in 1678 by awarding the first-ever woman Ph.D., Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, marking a significant milestone in educational history.

The university’s contributions to the medical field are particularly noteworthy.

Its anatomy theater, built in 1594, was where groundbreaking anatomical research and dissections were conducted, attracting scholars from across Europe.

This emphasis on empirical evidence and observation laid the groundwork for modern scientific methods.

Image of a door leading to a courtyard at University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco
Courtyard entrance at the University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco

Wrap-up: Oldest Universities in the World

As we wrap up our journey through the halls of history, exploring the ten oldest universities in the world, it’s clear that these institutions are not just ancient landmarks.

They are vibrant, living repositories of human knowledge, innovation, and culture.

From the University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, to the University of Padua in Italy, each holds a unique place in the annals of educational history.

They have all contributed significantly to various fields of study, shaping the minds that go on to shape our world.

The legacy of these oldest universities in the world extends beyond their impressive age and beautiful architecture.

They represent the enduring value of education, the evolution of academic thought, and the unbreakable link between the past and the present.

As we reflect on the remarkable contributions of Al-Azhar University, the University of Bologna, the University of Oxford, and others on this list, we’re reminded of the power of education to cross boundaries, connect generations, and foster progress.

These institutions stand as testaments to humanity’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding.

They remind us that education is a journey that never truly ends, one that is as ancient as it is timeless.

As we move forward, let’s carry the spirit of these oldest universities in the world with us, honoring their legacy by continuing to learn, grow, and innovate for the betterment of humanity.

Thanks for reading!

What are the oldest colleges and universities in the United States you say? Check out my article The 50 Oldest U.S. Colleges: Discovering America’s History Through Education!

Image of a lecture hall at Oxford University for a post covering the oldest universities in the world.
Inside a lecture hall at Oxford University

FAQs: Oldest Universities in the World

1. Can you list some of the oldest universities in the world that no longer exist?

Here are a few of the oldest universities from around the world that have, over time, ceased to exist:

Nalanda University – This was a renowned center of learning in Bihar, India, from the 5th century CE to 1197 CE.

It specialized in Buddhist studies but also taught subjects like fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, politics, and the art of war.

University of Constantinople – Founded in 425 in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) by Emperor Theodosius II, it was one of the earliest universities in the world.

It played a crucial role in preserving Greek and Roman scholarly works.

Taxila University – Located in present-day Pakistan, Taxila (also Takshashila) was an important Vedic/Hindu and Buddhist center of learning from the 6th century BCE to the 5th century CE.

It offered over 64 different fields of study, including medicine, mathematics, religion, and philosophy.

Platonic Academy – Founded by Plato in Athens around 387 BCE, this academy was the precursor to the modern university system.

It was not a university in the modern sense but a community of thinkers engaging in philosophical inquiry.

University of Sankore – As part of the University of Timbuktu, Mali, it was a significant educational institution in the 14th century.

It was known for its Islamic studies, mathematics, and astronomy.

While Timbuktu remains a symbol of African scholarship, the university’s formal structure has changed over time.

2. What subjects were typically taught when the oldest universities in the world were founded?

Ancient universities offered a diverse range of subjects, reflecting the knowledge and priorities of their times.

Here’s a look at some typical subjects taught:

Philosophy: Often the cornerstone of ancient education, philosophy covered logic, ethics, and metaphysics.

Theology: Many universities, especially in the Middle Ages, focused on religious studies, including the interpretation of sacred texts and religious law.

Law: This included both civil and canon law, teaching students about legal principles and systems.

Medicine: Early medical education covered theory and sometimes practical aspects of medicine, including herbalism and surgery.

Arts: The liberal arts were fundamental, encompassing grammar, rhetoric, and sometimes poetry and music.

Mathematics: This included arithmetic, geometry, and later, algebra and astronomy.

Natural Sciences: Though not as developed as today, subjects like botany, zoology, and physics were explored.

Astronomy: Ancient and medieval universities often taught astronomy, crucial for navigation, agriculture, and religious practices.

These subjects formed the basis of a curriculum designed to produce well-rounded individuals, capable of thinking critically and contributing to society in various ways.

3. 3. What is the oldest university in the United States?

The oldest university in the United States is Harvard University, which was established in 1636.

Situated in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard holds the distinction of being one of the most prestigious universities globally, and it is also one of the oldest universities in the world.

Named after its first benefactor, John Harvard, the university has a rich history of academic excellence and innovation that spans nearly four centuries.

While the oldest universities in the world, such as the University of Al-Qarawiyyin and the University of Bologna, were founded in the 9th and 11th centuries, respectively, Harvard stands as the pioneer of higher education in the New World.

Throughout its illustrious history, it has nurtured countless leaders in various fields and made significant contributions to human knowledge and society.

Despite being relatively younger compared to its ancient counterparts, Harvard’s impact and influence are undoubtedly profound.

References: Oldest Universities in the World

“Oldest Higher-Learning Institution, Oldest University.” Guinness World Records, www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/oldest-university.

T, Laura . “10 of the Oldest Universities in the World.” Top Universities, 21 June 2019, www.topuniversities.com/blog/10-oldest-universities-world.

“What Are the Oldest Universities in the World?” WorldAtlas, 25 Apr. 2017, www.worldatlas.com/articles/oldest-universities-still-in-operation.html. Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

“What Is the Oldest University in the World?” Research.com, 23 Oct. 2020, research.com/universities-colleges/oldest-university-in-the-world.