What Is the Oldest University in the World?

By: Sascha Bos  | 
The Radcliffe Camera ("camera" meaning room in Latin) is situated in Oxford, England. The building serves as a reading room for the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford. joe daniel price / Getty Images

In the United States, there's Harvard University. In the U.K., there's Oxford University. Each is the oldest in its respective country, though neither has been around quite as long as the oldest university in the world.

Read on to learn more about the record-holding university and other ancient institutions.


Guinness Weighs In

Not everyone agrees on what qualifies as the world's oldest university. Guinness World Records, however, has bestowed the title of "oldest higher-learning institution" to the University of al-Qarawiyyin.

"The oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world is the University of Karueein, founded in 859 A.D. in Fez, Morocco," according to Guinness. "The University of Bologna, Italy, was founded in 1088 and is the oldest one in Europe."


6 of the Oldest Universities in the World

Aside from the University of al-Qarawiyyin, here are six prestigious universities that are also among the oldest.


6. University of Salamanca

King Alfonso IX founded the University of Salamanca in 1218. The school — Spain's oldest institution — was the first to offer international students language classes.

In 1254, the same year that King Alfonso X issued a royal charter to grant "the University twelve chairs of learning," Pope Alexander IV gave the school a General School status. The university town of Salamanca is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.


5. University of Cambridge

Unlike the U.K.'s debate over the third oldest university, it is easier to pinpoint their second oldest higher education institution: the University of Cambridge.

Originally established in 1209, it has famous alumni, such as Lord Byron, who entered in 1805. Bishop of Ely set up the school's first college in 1284. The school welcomes both local and international students, with the latter group making up 40 percent of the student body.


4. University of Oxford

The University of Oxford says that with its founding in 1096, it is the "oldest university in the English-speaking world" and that for nine centuries, it has offered continuous education. The school began to admit women "as full members" of the school in 1920.


3. University of Bologna

Started before the French Revolution and the end of the Middle Ages, the University of Bologna is the "oldest University in the Western world." The university, founded in 1088, began as the "outcome of the spontaneous and informal initiative of a few students," according to the university itself.


2. Hunan University

This China-based university started at Yuelu Academy in 976 C.E. It received university status in 1937 and follows the motto “seeking truth from facts, and daring to be pioneers.”


1. Al-Azhar University

This Cairo university is the "world's largest Islamic scholarly religious institution and the second university established in the world," according to the educational institution.