Old universities have a certain charm to them, and it’s no secret that they have an undeniable prestige. Every year, ancient universities such as Oxford and Cambridge receive thousands of applications from students hoping to walk their historic halls. Lots of institutions claim a far-distant founding date, and many of the oldest universities are approaching 1000 years old. But which actually are the oldest universities in the world? In this article, we’ve compiled a list of the 15 oldest universities in continuous operation.

Be sure to also check out the 20 oldest universities in the UK while you’re scrubbing up on your uni history trivia!

1. University of Bologna, 1088 – Italy

Alma Mater Studiorum - Università di Bologna
Source: Alma Mater Studiorum – Università di Bologna Facebook

As the oldest university in the western world, the University of Bologna can claim an impressive list of notable alumni: among these is astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Today, it educates 96,984 students. 8,526 of these are international. The university’s facilities are also impressive, with 98 libraries and 15 museums dedicated to a variety of disciplines.

2. University of Oxford, 1096 – UK

Oxford universitiy - oldest universities in the world
Source: Canva

Founded just 30 years after the Battle of Hastings, the University of Oxford has long been considered one of the most prestigious universities in the English-speaking world. It has educated 30 British Prime Ministers, among them Tony Blair and David Cameron, and has also produced eminent writers, actors, Nobel prize winners, and much more.

3. University of Cambridge, 1209 – UK

University of Cambridge oldest universities in the world
Source: Wikimedia

Although more than 100 years younger than Oxford, Britain’s second-oldest university equals it in prestige. Like Oxford, it has a tutorial system designed to give students as much personalised teaching as possible. Its alumni rank among the most famous people in the western world, including scientists such as Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking.

4. University of Salamanca, 1218 – Spain

University of Salamanca, 1218 - Spain
Source: University of Salamanca

Founded by King Alfonso IX of Leon, Spain’s oldest university is currently educating over 26,000 students. It offers 82 courses, with most students enrolled in the branch of Social and Legal Sciences. The university is made up of 9 campuses, 6 of which are in Salamanca. It educated Gustavo Petro, Colombia’s first left-wing President.

5. University of Padua, 1222 – Italy

University of Padua, 1222 - Italy
Source: Didier Descouens, Wikimedia

The University of Padua, dating from 1222, has educated people who have gone on to change the world. Among these are Erasmus, Copernicus, and Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia – the first woman in the world to be awarded a university degree, in 1678. It also boasts the world’s oldest university-founded botanic garden, which is now a UNESCO heritage site. It has over 70,000 enrolled students, 10% of which are international.

6. University of Naples Frederico II, 1224 – Italy

University of Naples
Source: University of Naples Frederico II

Close behind the University of Padua is the University of Naples Frederico II, founded just 2 years later. It is one of the oldest universities in the world to be founded by a head of state, with the aim of reducing the influence of the northern Italian institutions. Although it shut down twice during periods of political instability, the university has now been going strong for over 800 years. Current student enrolment is at 100,000, making it one of the largest universities in Italy. The university educated Giorgio Napolitano, former President of Italy.

7. University of Siena, 1240 – Italy

University of Siena, 1240 - Italy
Source: University of Siena

Nearly one-third of Siena’s population attend this ancient university, which is best known for its programmes of law, medicine, and economics. The university is composed of 14 different departments, grouped into 4 areas ranging across the sciences and humanities. Like the University of Padua, it also has its own botanical garden. Notable alumni include the painter Pietro Rotari and the former mayor of Bologna Flavio Delbono.

8. University of Coimbra, 1290 – Portugal

University of Coimbra
Source: University of Coimbra

Only 100 years younger than the Portuguese nation, the University of Coimbra was founded when King Dinis signed the “Scientiae Thesaurus Mirabilis”. Indeed, it was Portugal’s only university until 1911.  It alternated between the cities of Lisbon and Coimbra until 1357, when it permanently settled in Coimbra. The university has 3 campuses and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2013. It offers several short courses in Portuguese, including a summer course that could be the perfect way to spend a holiday! Luís de Camões, considered the greatest Portuguese poet, studied here.

9. University of Valladolid, 1293 – Spain

University of Valladolid
Source: University of Valladolid

Although the origins of the University of Valladolid are still debated, most researchers now agree that it was created by the Castilian monarchs working with the Council of Valladolid. In the 16th century, it joined the Universities of Salamanca and Alcalá as one of biggest universities in Spain. Nowadays, over 30,000 students study over 80 degrees at the university’s 7 campuses. Its library collection of 970,000 books includes titles dating to the 10th century – a treasure trove for history students! The architect Juan de Herrera earned his degree here.

10. Sapienza University of Rome, 1303 – Italy

Sapienza University of Rome, 1303 - Italy
Source: Melirius, Wikimedia

With 122,000 students, Sapienza University is the largest university in Europe. Originally founded as a centre for religious studies, it was expanded in 1431 to include a broader range of disciplines. Now, it has 65 departments and conducts significant research in the departments of natural sciences and humanities. As well as this, it also offers 10 Masters programmes taught in English. It ranks 134th in the world and 1st in Italy, although its Classics and History programme ranks as 1st in the world. Important alumni include Maria Montessori, one of the world’s most influential female physicians, and Nobel Prize winner Enrico Fermi. A perhaps less publicised student is businessman Charles Ponzi, infamous for his fraudulent Ponzi scheme!

11. University of Perugia, 1308 – Italy

University of Perugia
Source: Wikipedia

Dating back to 1308, the University of Perugia’s official seal depicts Saint Herculan and a crowned griffin; together, they represent the ecclesiastical and civil powers that created the university. There is evidence of a school of arts on the site dating back to 1200, although subjects such as medicine and law were not taught until later. In 1911, it had just 350 students – now, it has over 26,000! Perugia educated Pope Urban VII, known for implementing the world’s first smoking ban in 1590. His papacy was also the shortest in history, lasting only 12 days.

12. University of Pisa, 1433 – Italy

University of Pisa oldest universities in the world
Source: University of Pisa Facebook

Although the University of Pisa was established in 1433, some claim its history dates back to the 11th century. It was one of the first European universities to receive the ‘Studium Generale’, a papal attestation recognising its legitimacy as an educational insitution. Galileo Galilei served as a professor of Mathematics from 1589, and the university later built an astronomy tower under the guidance of the Medicis. It has educated 3 Nobel Prize Winners and has earned a place as one of Italy’s most prestigious, as well as oldest, universities.

13. Charles University, 1348 – Czechia

Charles University, 1348 - Czechia
Source: VitVit, Wikimedia

Since its beginnings in 1348, Charles University has risen to international renown. Like many other ancient universities, it once taught only 4 subjects: liberal arts, theology, law, and medicine. Now, however, it offers 889 study programmes and educates over 50,000 students! Originally named Charles-Ferdinand University, it changed its name after Czech independence in 1918. Many influential people have studied here, among them Nikola Tesla, Franz Kafka, and Milan Kundera.

14. University of Pavia, 1361 – Italy

Pavia city
Source: University of Pavia

The University of Pavia has an impressive list of alumni: Christopher Columbus, Alessandro Volta, and Camillo Golgi, among others. It ranks as the best large public university in Italy, and its courses in Medicine and Surgery also rank as the best in the country. Its 37 libraries contain over 1 million books between them, while its 25 colleges are used by over 26,000 students.

15. Jagiellonian University, 1364 – Poland

Jagiellonian University, 1364 - Poland
Source: Zygmunt Put Zetpe0202, Wikicommons

The only Polish university to make the list, Jagiellonian University was founded by Casimir the Great and has always welcomed students from all over Europe and, now, the world. Among them was Stanisław Lem, a science fiction writer and essayist. It is currently one of Poland’s leading research institutions, having carried out groundbreaking work on cardiac surgery, neurology, and many other topics. Excitingly, an international research team including Jagiellonian scientists has recently discovered a new butterfly species in the Andes.

Although there are older institutes than the ones on this list – the most notable being Al-Azhar University in Cairo, founded in 970 – they did not all gain official university status until later. But these are the 15 oldest universities in the world still in continuous operation. Were there any that surprised you? If any of these universities caught your interest, it’s also worth taking a look at the best cities in Europe for studying abroad. For those of you studying History, any of these universities would be incredible for an exchange!

Last Updated on July 8, 2024