Higher education as we know it today dates back to Medieval Europe, when the first universities were established. Today, the oldest existing degree-granting institutions are mostly located in France, Britain, Spain and, especially, Italy, where papal decrees spread centers of knowledge that heralded the 400-year Italian Renaissance starting in the 1300s.
The oldest university in the United States is Harvard University, which was founded in 1636. It is among the hardest colleges to get into.
That isn’t to say there weren’t earlier centers of learning elsewhere. The ancient Buddhist monastery of Nalanda in northeastern India, for example, passed on knowledge as far back as 500 A.D., until invaders ransacked it in the 13th century. The Madrasa Al Nizamiyya in Khargird, Iran, was founded in the 11th century as one of the first Islamic centers of knowledge. In fact, because of early Islam’s emphasis on teaching certain secular subjects like mathematics and geometry, the two oldest existing universities are Islamic schools in Morocco and Egypt.
Universities in the New World didn’t start to emerge until the 17th century, so none makes the list of the world’s oldest universities that still exist today, which we used as finalists to pick the oldest. The oldest university in Asia that still churns out graduates today is the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, founded in 1611 by a Catholic bishop.
24/7 Tempo reviewed profiles of academic institutions of higher learning and cross-referenced founding-date and enrollment number claims with university websites. In some cases, we also cross-referenced information with higher-education oriented websites, mainly Times Higher Education and U.S. News and World Report. The total student enrollment figures often are estimates provided by the universities’ “About Us” pages. In others, they are from the higher-education-oriented websites. Figures that are not estimates come from the latest available academic school year posted on the universities’ websites.
The University of Al-Karaouine was founded in 859. Its main campus is located in Fez, Morocco. Total student enrollment is estimated to be 8,000.
The University of Al-Karaouine is “the oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world,” according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The university was founded by a woman 227 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. The university taught some natural sciences as part of its religiously centered curriculum and expanded its non-religious curriculum in the middle of the 20th century. Students must have memorized the entire Quran before attending the university.
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