A traveler in Europe will be delighted to find that the continent hosts some of the world’s oldest and most beautiful universities. Many of these ancient institutions are still in operation today and have fostered brilliant minds. The idea that the Earth isn’t the centre of the universe was proposed by a student who attended not just one, but two of these ancient institutions! A closer look at the locations of the Western world’s oldest universities shows that three countries have been at the heart of Europe’s long-standing and fascinating history of higher-education institutions, and here we present the 10 oldest universities in Europe ranked by official founding year.
Location: Macerata, Italy
About: The University of Macerata (UNIMC) is a state-supported university in a picturesque and peaceful Italian town located on a hill between the Potenza and Chienti rivers. International students may be concerned for a lack of Wi-fi in a city built sometime between the 10th and 11th centuries, but have no fear. You’ll be able to find a connection open 24/7 in all the university buildings peppered throughout Macerata, in other public buildings, and in the town centre free of charge.
UNIMC is organised into several faculties including: Cultural Heritage, Economics, Law, Literature and Philosophy, Media Studies, Education Sciences and Political Sciences. Though a majority of classes are in Italian, some faculties offer courses entirely in English. The university organises Summer and Winter school studies focusing on Italian language studies. The institution was initially established in 1290 as a public institution, most notably for the study of Law. Members of the College of Curial Doctors, known as St. Catherine, existed in Macerata and had members who were able to teach Law. The College enjoyed the privilege of granting doctoral degrees to anyone, including on poor students, without restrictions during its continuous operation.
Number of students: 11,213
Notable Alumni: Sergio Spinelli, Head of HR for Juventus Football Club SpA
Fun fact: Among its institutes is the widely popular Confucius Institute, established in 2011, where students can learn about Chinese culture and study Chinese as a second language. UNIMC plays an important role in maintaining a meeting space between Chinese and Italian cultures.
Location: Murcia, Spain
About: The University of Murcia is a public university in a Spanish city that gets 330 days of sunshine and five times of harvest in a single year. It is thus highly recommended to bring a bottle or two of sunscreen, and you’ll enjoy the many kinds of fresh produce such as cherries, almonds, oranges, and lemons grown in the region. The university has facilities and buildings spread over two main campuses: La Merced, situated in the town centre, and Espinardo, just 5km to the north of Murcia. A third campus for Medical and Health studies is being built 5km south of the city.
The first institution for higher learning in Murcia was founded as the Universitas Studiorum Murciana by Alfonso X of Castile, the King of the region during the middle of the 13th century. The University of Murcia as we know today was founded in 1915, but its seal carries the date of the 13th century founding. Among its current main objectives are the creation, development and research into science, technology and culture through study and research. The University of Murcia is the third oldest university in Spain.
Number of students: 31,500 (Undergraduates 30,000; Postgraduates 1,500)
Notable Alumni: Alejandro Casona, Spanish poet and playwright and a member of the Generation of ’27, an influential group of poets that tried to bridge the gap between Spanish popular culture and folklore, classical literary tradition and European avant-garde forms
Fun fact: The University offers an intensive 30 or 60-hour Spanish crash course for international students and a buddy programme that connects international and local students to encourage the learning experience. You’ll be able to practise using Spanish on campus, with your host, and with the many welcoming locals in Murcia!
Location: Valladolid, Spain
About: The University of Valladolid (Uva) is a public university in a region of Spain that became a powerhouse of industry in the 19th century. There’s an array of beautiful palaces and churches in Valladolid, which has endowed the city with majestic architecture and museums that showcase the centuries of sculpture and design appreciated today. Uva also plays an important role in promoting culture and the arts with multiple cultural associations for music and theatre. These include the Youth Orchestra of the University of Valladolid, the Choir of the University of Valladolid, and the theatre group founded under the Faculty of Medicine.
In 1241 the institution was founded as removal of studies at the University of Palencia by Alfonso VIII of Castile, the King of the region in the late 12th century. The university’s library collection is important; its ancient book collection has 45,000 titles including manuscripts and incunabulum, printed books dating before the year 1501. In the 21st century, UVa is responsible for teaching higher education in seven campuses distributed through four cities of Castile and Leon: Valladolid, Palencia, Soria and Segovia.
Number of students: 31,780
Motto: Sapientia Aedificavit Sibi Domvm (Latin); Knowledge built this house
Notable Alumni: Ektor Pan, Spanish singer, producer and lip sync artist who was a semifinalist in the Eurovision Song Contest entries in 2016 and 2017
Fun fact: The city has an intense cultural schedule because of its status as a university town. Valladolid hosts the Seminci, an international film festival most important in the specialty of independent film and auteur film, and the International Street Theatre and Arts Festival. In October you’ll be able to attend film screenings at venues throughout the city, a welcomed break from the textbooks.
Location: Siena, Italy
About: The University of Siena is a public, state-supported university whose student body makes up nearly half of the city population. Siena is known to have a young, dynamic feel and the university is best known for its Schools of Law, Medicine, and Economics and Management. The University is composed of 15 departments, grouped in four areas: Biomedical and Medical Sciences, Economics, Law, and Political Sciences, Experimental Sciences, and Literature, History, Philosophy and the Arts.
Originally called Studium Senese, the institution was founded in 1240. It offered classes in Latin, logic and law, and the natural sciences. The 19th century brought about further development with the university setting up new degrees and faculties. By the 20th century, the student population escalated from 400 to more than 20000 in the last few years. Students can truly immerse themselves in the local culture, since Siena isn't as toursit-like as other parts of Italy.
Number of students: 20,000
Notable Alumni: Antonio Tabucchi, novelist and short story writer who was awarded the Portuguese National Order of Knighthood by the President of Portugal for his work. The French government also awarded him Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his contribution to the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance.
Fun fact: Students will find themselves in the middle of what once was the San Niccolò Psychiatric Hospital, but they won’t be at the facility as patients – or will they? Since much of the University of Siena is located in renovated historical buildings, such as the departments of engineering, humanities and social sciences that use rooms in what was once the San Niccolò Psychiatric Hospital, students can experience the architecture and history of the city in a most special way.
Location: Toulouse, France
About: The University of Toulouse was one of the earliest universities to emerge in Europe. It’s located in the large, modern city of Toulouse known for its art, history, and culture, but the city feels like a village. Since the closing of the university in 1793 due to the French Revolution, the University of Toulouse no longer exists as a single institution. However, there have been several independent "successor" universities inheriting the name under the association of universities and higher education institutions called Université fédérale de Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées (UFTMP).
The institution was formed as part of the Treaty of Paris in 1229, teaching theology. Law and medicine were added later. The university was split in 1969 into three separate universities, and the present-day University of Toulouse was founded in 2007. It no longer represents a single university, but is institutions under UFTMP are associated with the University of Toulouse, such as the National Polytechnic Institute of Toulouse and Toulouse Business School.
Number of students: 10,674
Notable Alumni: Thomas Pesquet, European Space Agency astronaut and is the youngest member of the European Astronaut Corps, as well as the last of the ESA astronaut class of 2009 to arrive in space
Nobel laureates: Jean Tirole, awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2014 for his analysis of market power and regulation
Fun fact: Since Toulouse is best known for its food, international students are in for a treat when they study in the region. As home of classic French country dishes, students can indulge in cassoulet, a nourishing meat and bean stew, and confit de canard, duck that has been preserved and cooked in its own fat.
Location: Naples, Italy
About: The University of Naples Federico II is a state-supported, public, non-religious university in Naples, a city sitting on the Bay of Naples and by Mount Vesuvius, the still-active volcano responsible for Pompeii. The institution is organised today into 13 faculties under three semi-independent divisions: the Division of Science and Technology, the Division of Life Sciences and the Division of Social and Human Sciences. These are responsible for the research and teaching of 13 schools and 82 different departments.
In 1224, the head of state Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily, decided to create an educational institution that was not significantly influenced by the Pope. The institution was renamed Frederico II in 1987 in acknowledgement of its founder. It was created to facilitate the cultural development of promising young students and scholars, avoiding any unnecessary and expensive trips abroad, and has since been in stable operation in Naples.
Number of students: 78,324 (Undergraduates 44,700; Postgraduates 33,600)
Motto: Ad Scientiarum Haustum et Seminarium Doctrinarum (Latin); For the inculcation of the sciences and the dissemination of knowledge
Notable Alumni: 3 Italian presidents; Samantha Cristoforetti, the first Italian woman in space who is also known as the first person who brewed an espresso coffee in space
Fun fact: Pizza Margherita was named after Queen Margherita Teresa Giovanni visited Naples in 1889. You can see the colours of the Italian flag in the pizza: basil for green, cheese for white, tomato sauce for red. The world’s first pizzeria, called Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, opened its doors in Naples in 1830 – students can gladly enjoy a slice from the centuries-old establishment.
Location: Padua, Italy
About: The University of Padua is a public university in a city known for frescoes, beautiful arcaded streets, and stylish cafes that are frequented by students. The institute now plays a role in scholarly and scientific research both at the European and world level. It also manages nine museums, including a History of physics museum.
The institution was founded in 1222 as a school of law and medicine, and was one of the most prominent universities in early modern Europe. The first two subjects taught were law and theology, but the curriculum expanded rapidly and by 1399 had divided into two universities for civil and Canon law and for the teaching of astronomy, dialectic, philosophy, grammar, medicine, and rhetoric. The university became one of the universities of the Kingdom of Italy in 1873, and ever since has been one of the most prestigious in the country for its contributions to scientific and scholarly research.
Number of students: 59,317 (Undergraduates 38,495; Postgraduates 20,822)
Motto: Universa Universis Patavina Libertas (Latin); Liberty of Padua, universally and for all
Colours: Padua red
Notable Alumni: Nicolaus Copernicus, astronomer who placed the Sun at the centre of the Solar System
Fun fact: Since 1595, Padua's famous anatomical theatre drew artists and scientists studying the human body during public dissections. It is the oldest surviving permanent anatomical theatre in Europe and can be visited by the curious student and traveler by guided tours.
Location: Paris, France
About: The University of Paris was a university that was internationally highly reputed for its academic performance in the humanities ever since the Middle Ages – notably in theology and philosophy. It has been divided into 13 autonomous universities in 1970, all which further reorganised themselves into different groups of universities and institutions. There are, as such, different university groups in the Parisian referred to as Sorbonne.
The institution arose around 1150 as a corporation associated with the cathedral school of Notre Dame de Paris. It was closed during the French Revolution period and a new University of France replaced it with 4 independent faculties: the Faculty of Humanities (Faculté des Lettres), the Faculty of Law (later including Economics), the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Theology, which was closed in 1885.
Notable Alumni: 2 Popes; Voltaire, writer and philosopher known for his advocacy of freedom of religion, freedom of speech and separation of church and state; Honoré de Balzac, novelist and playwright regarded as one of the founders of realism in European literature
Nobel laureates: 49 Nobel laureates including Marie and Pierre Curie for their development of the theory of radioactivity, a term that Marie herself termed, techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and for the discovery of two elements, polonium and radium
Fun fact: Much of the Curie’s research was done in labs close to École normale supérieure (ENS) in the Latin Quarter of Paris; the curious student may find the opportunity to visit the historical location without fearing for exposure to radioactive elements.
Location: Salamanca, Spain
About: The University of Salamanca is a public university that is an important centre for the study of humanities. It is particularly well known for its language studies and courses in law and economics. Scientific research is carried out in the university and research centers associated with it: Cancer Research Centre, Institute of Neuroscience of Castile and Leon, and the Ultrashort Ultraintense Pulse Lasers Centre.
The institute began as a Cathedral School in 1130, though the university itself was founded in 1134 and granted its Royal charter of foundation by King Alfonso IX in 1218. A number of colleges were founded as charitable institutions to enable poor scholars to attend the University, but by the 18th century these had become closed corporations controlled by families of their founders. The colleges were then destroyed by Napoleon's troops or turned into faculty buildings still in use today.
Number of students: 28,000 (Undergraduates 25,760; Postgraduates 2,240)
Motto: Omnium scientiarum princeps Salmantica docet (Latin); The principles of all sciences are taught in Salamanca
Notable Alumni: Aristides Royo, the President of Panama
Fun fact: The town has its own local astronaut – the 16th century cathedral façade features an engraved cosmonaut among gargoyle friends. No one knows where the astronaut came from, though it’s rumoured to be mischievous work by the stonemasons who left their mark during recent renovations.
Location: Bologna, Italy
About: The University of Bologna (UNIBO) is a public university and is the oldest university in continuous operation in the Western world. It is made up of 11 schools and was the first place of study to use the term universitas for the corporations of students and masters, which came to define the institution, located in Bologna.
The origins of the university can be traced to societies of foreign students called "nations," who hired scholars from the city to teach them. They formed larger association that became a universitas. UNIBO is historically notable for its teaching of canon and civil law, and was central in the development of medieval Roman law. Until modern times, the only degree granted at the university was the doctorate, but Bachelors and Masters degrees are now offered in any of the 11 schools that make up the university.
Number of students: 82,363 (Undergraduates 52,787; Postgraduates 29,576)
Motto: Petrus ubique pater legum Bononia mater (Latin); St. Peter is everywhere the father of the law, Bologna is its mother
Notable Alumni: Enzo Ferrari, found of the Scuderia Ferrari
Fun fact: Students abide by two superstitions that would result in failure to graduate: climbing to the top of the Torre Degli Asinelli, which is one of the two landmark towers of the region, and walking across the middle of the Piazza Maggiore.