The list of the oldest universities in the world varies, depending on how one defines a university. If a university is considered to be a degree granting institution, all of the world's oldest are located in Europe, where the practice of granting certification was widespread by the 1100s. Many institutions of advanced learning in Asia and Africa are far older than European universities, however, and rightly belong on an "oldest" list when one thinks of them as universities.
Many ancient centers of learning no longer exist. The University of Nalanda, for example, which was a seat of Buddhist learning in India, was founded in the fifth century BCE, but closed in the 1100s. For the purpose of this list, only counting continuously operating institutions of learning are included, some of which offered degrees later than others. In all instances, the exact date of foundation is sometimes difficult to establish, since many universities organized themselves slowly.
By continent, the oldest universities are headed up by the University of Nanjing, in China, founded around 258 BCE. It was only formally termed a “university” in 1888, but it has offered education to Chinese without the issuance of formal degrees for centuries. Next, representing Africa, is the University of Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco, founded in 859, followed by the University of Bologna in Bologna, Italy, founded in 1088 by students who recruited instructors. In South America, the Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, was founded in 1536, and Harvard University, in North America, was founded in 1636. Australia followed in 1850 with the University of Sydney, and Antarctica does not host a university.
Some universities vie for spaces on the list of the oldest in the world. Due to changes in university names and charters, some schools have undergone a number of different incarnations which make them difficult to track. Harvard, for example, competes with several other universities and colleges in the United States for the honor of being called the “first” university.
If one looks for the oldest schools with the criterion that they also granted degrees throughout their history, the oldest universities in the world are all European, starting with the University of Bologna. The next four are the University of Paris (1150), the University of Oxford (c. 1167), the University of Modena (1175), and the University of Cambridge (1209). The practice of offering degrees in recognition for advanced study spread from Europe to other nations, and also cemented the connection between universities and degrees that persists to this day.