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What are the Oldest Universities in the World?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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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.

Practical Adult Insights is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon996533 — On Sep 10, 2016

The oldest university is definitely nslanda. It was built during the time of hautama buddha. That is 6th century bc. Like its taxila branch it was destroyed by Muslim invaders who murdered the monks and burned it down. Taxila is now in hands of Muslim invaders who occupy Pakistan which they stole from Hindu and Buddhist Indians. Taxila is occupied territory like Pakistan and Bangladesh.

By anon995407 — On Apr 26, 2016

@anon14032 / Karin: Cracow is the second oldest university in Central Europe (with Prague being the oldest). Europe's oldest universities are clearly located in Italy (except Oxford and Paris).

As a result, Prague and Cracow are therefore older than for instance all German universities. As well they are older than most universities north of the Alps including those in Western Europe, except - as mentioned - Oxford and Paris.

However, Europe's oldest universities - up to 300 older - are the aforementioned Italian and Spanish one's plus Oxford and Paris.

The important limitation that Prague and Cracow are the oldest universities in Central Europe is always mentioned when I hear or read about them. Therefore, I think you just overheard 'Central' when the tour guide was speaking.

By anon980854 — On Dec 07, 2014

Al-Azhar University is definitely the oldest still functioning University in the world, but Nalanda is not running any longer and if I'm not mistaken, it never handed out degrees. There are a lot of ancient schools but al-Azhar is the only one still functioning and growing.

By anon344580 — On Aug 10, 2013

Nalanda was world's first proper university, i.e., it had dormitories for students and teachers. It is also one of the most famous universities. In its heyday, it accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers in the fifth century AD to 1197 AD. I have been there!

By anon322026 — On Feb 25, 2013

The earliest teaching institutions in India are called Ashrams, with one Acharya who used to be knowledgeable in almost all subjects and and many Punditas having mastery in one or more subjects.

These Ashrams were Indian treasures, cultivators, and developer of knowledge which even the most modern universities are unable to do.

According to Rigveda, presently 2013 AD, is

1 927 949 113 Shrishtyabda, i.e., the advent of the first living being on the Earth.

As regards the oldest university of the world, we remember "Nalanda Vishwavidyalaya" or University of India, which was destroyed by Muslim invaders. After a gap of about 800 years, Nalanda University is being revived as an international university.

Takshila University and VikramShila University of India were also destroyed by Islamic invaders in India. I won't call them educated in any university or civilized at all, who knowingly destroyed universities here and there.

By anon212953 — On Sep 09, 2011

timbuktu in mali of the afro islamic civilization was one of the earliest modern universities in the world - and in cordoba, spain where muslims ruled for some 800 centuries. christendom and westerndom was at its darkest at the time. why don't educational books give this prominence?

Al Azhar was also a muslim university. muslims were pioneers in science, algebra, astronomy, architecture and medicine. scholars from spain came to timbuktu. if readers are curious as to what made a barbaric nation rise to such prominence they should read the only universal religion, islam.

By pbb1001 — On Jul 17, 2011

As early as 2300 bce, the "Nanjing Higher School" was known to exist, teaching mathematics, astronomy, and accountancy. I visited Nanjing Normal University a few weeks ago, and the students there say three current universities in the area all claim descent from the Nanjing Higher School: Nanjing U, Nanjing Normal, and another one, I believe called Northeastern.

By anon173385 — On May 07, 2011

The University of Santo Tomas, Philippines just celebrated its 400 years of existence last April 2011. UST was founded in April 28, 1611.

By anon169387 — On Apr 21, 2011

As far as my research goes the oldest seat of learning, whether you call it a university or give any other name, is the Nalanda University, India.

By anon157885 — On Mar 04, 2011

If you will all pardon the pun, this is an academic argument - there is no way to compare a 'university' in the ancient Indian sub-continent with one medieval Europe with one in the pre-Spanish South and Central America.

I have studied at Glasgow University [1400s], Stanford University [1800s], Caledonian University [2000s], but the common factor is me - universities are the product of what they produce - students who become educated graduates.

By anon141917 — On Jan 11, 2011

What about Plato's Academy founded about 387 BC in Athens (the School of Athens), or Arisotle's Lyceum? You missed the greatest civilization of all time.

By anon134565 — On Dec 15, 2010

The University of Al-Karaouine or Al-Qarawiyyin is a university located in Fes, Morocco which was founded in 859[1] The madrasa has been (and still is) one of the leading spiritual and educational centers of the Muslim world.

The Al Karaouine madrasa played a leading role in the cultural and academic relations between the Islamic world and Europe in the middle ages. The cartographer Mohammed al-Idrisi (d. 1166), whose maps aided European exploration in the Renaissance is said to have lived in Fes for some time, suggesting that he may have worked or studied at Al Karaouine. The madrasa has produced numerous scholars who have strongly influenced the intellectual and academic history of the Muslim and Jewish worlds. Among these are Ibn Rushayd al-Sabti (d. 1321), Mohammed Ibn al-Hajj al-Abdari al-Fasi (d. 1336), Abu Imran al-Fasi (d. 1015), a leading theorist of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, Leo Africanus, a renowned traveler and writer, and Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon.

The Al Karaouine institution is considered by the Guinness book the oldest continuously operating academic degree-granting university in the world

By anon121958 — On Oct 26, 2010

It's somewhat disappointing that you mention Australia (19th century), and forget that in the 16th century there were already six universities in South America.

By anon121039 — On Oct 22, 2010

The oldest university in the world is Nalanda, India. Date: 427 to 1197 CE. Nalanda was sacked by Turkish Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khalji in 1193.

By anon107052 — On Aug 28, 2010

The oldest university in the world is theNalanda uni in India, then the Al Ahzar in Egypt. Lets face it most Europeans were living in mud huts and were uncivilised when Indians were civilized with power and knowledge. The western education system is very narrow and does not produce wholesome thinking.

By anon104180 — On Aug 15, 2010

Nalanda is truly the oldest university in the world.

By anon99774 — On Jul 27, 2010

It is the university of Timbuktu in Africa.

By anon96229 — On Jul 14, 2010

phil, I wonder what oxford were teaching at the time? Any scholastic work to prove your claim from that that era?

To call other centres of learning not worthy of the name 'university' is showing ignorance.

Al- farabi the muslim philosopher and polymath wrote his four famous works (870AD-950AD): #The virtuous city.

#Epistle on the intellect. #The book of letters. #The book of enumeration of sciences and #The great book of music.

On alchemy he wrote "The necessity of the Art of the Elixir."

He was based in baghdad at the time of the Abbasid Caliphate but also travelled to Damascus and Cairo for teaching and learning. The mosque not only was it a place of worship but also a center of education. Learning was not only found in the mosque but also in private institutions that had endowments from rulers and wealthy individuals.

Al-Farabi influenced Averroes[1126-1198] another muslim polymath.

P.S. You can't run an empire for hundreds of years without knowledge. Peace!

By anon82146 — On May 04, 2010

i think the university of the Andes should get some credit.

By anon77191 — On Apr 13, 2010

there are various "university". there are Islam university (madrasah), the western university (originally based on Christianity), Buddhist university, etc. A more holistic list should be made.

By anon75859 — On Apr 08, 2010

the oldest and the greatest university ever existed in the universe is Nalanda University, India.This university was at its height when most of the world people lived just to eat and survive. Nalanda had its branches at Takshila and Ujjain, both on the Indian land.

By anon75796 — On Apr 07, 2010

The oldest known (as expected) is Nalanda, India.

This was summarily destroyed by arab/islamic invaders after absorbing all knowledge most important of which was the Indian numeral system (including decimals, fractions and zero).

By anon68125 — On Mar 01, 2010

The arabic candidates are the winners on this. They were the ones transmitting the knowledge from romans and greeks during Middle Ages and were the ones structuring knowledge in subjects. The oldest university will be in the ancient arab kingdoms.

The narrow view of defining university as a western invention is wrong as the oldest universities in europe were copies of the teaching institutions in the arab world. Besides, a mosque in the old sense was rather equivalent to a monastery (the surviving focal point of knowledge in medieval times), but much less prone to religious dogma than the christian counterpart.

By anon62559 — On Jan 27, 2010

Dominican Republic isn't in South America, any 5th grader should know that!

By anon59392 — On Jan 08, 2010

You had also forgotten to mention Coimbra (the University in Portugal) which was established in 1290, and the Charles University in Prague (Czech Republic) which was established in 1348.

By SultaNRuleR — On Dec 08, 2009

The world's oldest university is in Morroco, built the year 659 A.D by a woman named Fatima. It's in a city of Fez, and the name of university is Al Qarrawiyin University.

By anon47127 — On Oct 01, 2009

University of Santo Tomas in Espana, Manila and University of San Carlos in Cebu belongs to the world's oldest universities. Both from the Philippines.

By anon43087 — On Aug 25, 2009

there is not any university of iran.

iranians had oldest university and scientist.

By anon31655 — On May 09, 2009

The University of Santo Tomas was founded in 1611 and the University of San Carlos in 1595 in the Philippines.

By anon25236 — On Jan 26, 2009

Lol what about Gundishapur university of iran its also belong to 5th century bc! don't you want to people know iran had the first university in the world?!

By anon18145 — On Sep 16, 2008

Dear Phil, As someone who has also studied at Oxford and Cambridge as well as Princeton and Al-Azhar I must correct your rather arrogant western-minded viewpoint which quite frankly is rather tiresome. Al-Azhar was a university associated with a mosque and degrees WERE conferred as titles of teaching.

However, the latter debates are irrelevant as Taxila University in the North-West Frontier Province was discovered by Alexander the Great's army to be an established seat of learning in multiple subjects and the confirmation of acquired knowledge was documented. This was circa 367 BC. Beat that!

By anon15070 — On Jun 30, 2008

The University Of Pecs in Hungary has been there since 1367.

By anon14032 — On Jun 09, 2008

I was recently in Krakow and they claimed that they had the second oldest University in Europe after Prague. Perhaps someone should put them right or do they use a different criteria? --Karin

By phil007 — On Apr 16, 2008

No one would question that there are some very ancient seats of learning in the world, but many 'Universities' claims to being founded before the 1100's are simply false. The University of Bologna for example, 'The university of Bologna received a charter from Frederick I Barbarossa in 1158, but in the 19th century, a committee of historians led by Giosuè Carducci traced the birth of the University back to 1088, making it arguably the longest-lived university in the West'. A contrived date to make it the oldest University and people fall for it even now. It is also said that Paris is older than Oxford because King Henry banned students from studying there and they came back to Oxford. That fact doesn't make Paris the older University. Also a University must offer more than just one or two subjects, have an organized structure where the staff admit the students, not students seeking out teachers, and also must offer academic degrees and higher degrees. A mosque is not and never will be a University by any stretch of the imagination in the same way that a church isn't a University.

Oxford was the first University to fulfill these criteria, and even if a date as late as 1167 is accepted, this still puts it ahead of other ancient European Universities. Having worked at Oxford and now at Cambridge and having spent a lot of time looking into the matter I think this is the case.

By myname — On Apr 11, 2008

Nalanda is truly the oldest university in the world. From a little investigation i have personally made, Nalanda was built over 500 years before the Al-Azhar University was built.

By anon3616 — On Sep 08, 2007

you forgot to mention Al-Azhar University. It was built in 970 AD and the school of theology was established in 988 AD.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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