Universities have become such a fundamental part of our civilization that we tend to forget that there was a time before they existed. The concept of a university as a center of higher learning was a European invention, roughly 1,000 years ago. Over the centuries, the original ideas that shaped these institutions have undergone significant evolution - and also revolutions.
Many ancient institutions are still in operation today, and are places where history meets modern research methods. And while tradition is not everything, they have managed to hold their ranks among the most prestigious and influential universities, and are extremely popular with international students. In this article, we take a look at the oldest universities in ten countries of Europe.
The oldest university in Europe - and also the oldest university in the world - is the University of Bologna in Italy. In fact, this is the institution for which the term “university” (“universitas” in Latin) was coined - the word did not exist before that. Originally founded to promote legal studies, it has long since branched out to other disciplines. Across the centuries, the University of Bologna’s illustrious alumni have included a number of popes, Copernicus, Dante, and even car maker Enzo Ferrari.
The University of Oxford is the oldest university in England, and thereby the United Kingdom. Its fierce rival, the University of Cambridge, was founded roughly 100 years later, when disputes with the townspeople forced a large number of Oxford scholars to leave, many of which settled in Cambridge and set up a new university. Both institutions are today considered among the very best universities in the world.
Scotland’s oldest university was founded between 1410 and 1413, half a century after the second Scottish War of Independence. Initially, the taught subjects revolved around theology and philosophy; today, the University of St Andrews offers degree programmes in a wide spectrum of academic disciplines.
There is some debate around the original founding date of the University of Paris, France, the famous “Sorbonne”. It originally emerged as a private corporation around 1150 and was later chartered as a university. The university no longer exists in its original form. Instead, following revolts in the late 1960s, the faculties were split up into thirteen successors.
Portugal’s oldest university was originally founded in Lisbon in 1290 and relocated a number of times before moving permanently to its current location. The University of Coimbra is the namesake for the “Coimbra Group”, an association of traditional research universities in Europe, many members of which are actually portrayed in this article.
The University of Vienna sets more than one record: Not only is it the oldest university in the German-speaking countries; with more than 90,000 students, it is also the largest by enrolment. And in most rankings, the University of Vienna usually scores best within Austria.
The oldest university in Germany is located in the small town of Heidelberg, between Frankfurt and Stuttgart. Its 30,000 students represent about a fifth of the town’s population. But its impact is not limited to the region; with its focus on cutting-edge research, Heidelberg University has spawned more than 30 Nobel prize laureates.
It took a few centuries before the mediterranean trendsetters had successfully exported the concept of universities as centers of higher learning to the far North. In the Nordics, Sweden was first by founding Uppsala University in 1477. Uppsala, a small city north of Stockholm, is usually considered the city that most embodies student life in Sweden.
Denmark was fast to follow suit and established the University of Copenhagen two years later. Notable alumni include philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and Niels Bohr, Nobel laureate in physics. The institution remains to be one of the most prestigious universities in Denmark, and is also the country’s largest.