Rankings

The 20 World’s Oldest Graduate Schools

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Updated: December 13, 2023, Reading time: 21 minutes

World's Oldest Graduate Schools - featured image

Throughout history, countless universities have stood the test of time, but not all have managed to adapt and endure. The oldest graduate schools and universities in existence today have demonstrated remarkable resilience.

They are renowned for their rich historical legacies and their ability to evolve with the times, remaining prominent players in the global academic landscape.

7 Reasons to Study in One of the World’s Oldest Universities

Enrolling in one of the oldest grad schools and universities in the world offers several advantages.

  1. Rich Historical Legacy. Studying at such a school allows you to be part of a tradition of academic excellence and innovation that dates as far as several centuries.
  2. Worldwide Recognition. Many of these institutions consistently rank among the top universities in various international rankings, and thus, a degree from one of these schools carries prestige and recognition.
  3. Global Competitiveness. Graduating from the oldest grad school or one of the oldest universities positions you favorably in the global job market, as employers often value the education and skills acquired at these institutions.
  4. Adaptation to Modern Context. With centuries-long history experiencing both successes and adversities, these universities combine a strong foundation in traditional education with cutting-edge teaching methods and research facilities.
  5. Cultural and Academic Experience. By studying in a historical institution, you have the chance to immerse yourself in a rich cultural environment while receiving a world-class education.
  6. Strong Research Opportunities. Many of these institutions have a strong focus on research, offering opportunities to engage in groundbreaking research projects and contribute to the advancement of knowledge.
  7. Resilience and Longevity. These institutions have demonstrated resilience by weathering various challenges and changes in education. This longevity is a testament to their enduring quality.

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20 Oldest Graduate Schools in the World

University of Bologna

Italy, 1088

The history of the University of Bologna traces back to the year 1088 when it spontaneously emerged as a result of an informal gathering of several students who set teaching objectives and ensured their proper execution. This informal set-up gradually evolved into a more structured institution through the years. In essence, the founding of the University differs from most universities, as it was not established by a sovereign or a formal association of teachers.

It was until the 12th century, though, that the institution was officially recognized as a university when Pope Honorius III issued the 1219 papal bull “Authentica habita,” which granted the University of Bologna a number of privileges and formal recognition as a “Studium Generale” or an institution of higher learning.

One of the many popular personalities from the University of Bologna is Giosuè Carducci, who is an Italian poet and Nobel laureate in literature. He taught Italian literature at the University in the 19th century and is celebrated for his patriotic poetry.

Today, the University has several departments, schools, and research centers or training facilities. It offers more than 250 degree programs, 48 Ph.D. programs, and 92 Professional Master’s programs.


University of Oxford

United Kingdom, 1096

While the founding date of the University of Oxford is unclear, it is still one of the oldest universities in the world because the earliest classes at Oxford date back to 1096 in some form or another. The institution flourished swiftly in 1167 when Henry II prohibited English students from enrolling at the University of Paris.

In 1201, the University was spearheaded by a “magister scholarum Oxonie,” who was later granted the title of Chancellor in 1214. By 1231, the Masters (respected scholars) were officially acknowledged as “universitas” or recognized organizations.

Emo of Friesland is the first student in Oxford from overseas. His arrival in 1190 marked the beginning of the University’s tradition of establishing international scholarly connections. Other notable personalities of Oxford include Geometry professor Edmond Halley, who predicted the reappearance of the comet that now carries his name, and John and Charles Wesley, whose prayer meetings established the groundwork for the Methodist Society.

Oxford, committed to global learning and intellectual discourse, has established major research capabilities in sciences, including medicine, since the 20th century. In fact, it was a key player in the COVID-19 response, focusing on vaccine development and treatments.


University of Cambridge

United Kingdom, 1209

The University of Cambridge was founded in 1209 by a group of scholars who fled from the hostile townspeople of Oxford following a dispute that arose after the execution of three scholars. By 1226, the scholars had grown in numbers to the point where they established an organization overseen by a Chancellor. They also organized regular courses of study, which their own members taught. 

Some notable people from Cambridge include:

Today, Cambridge University is a globally diverse institution with students hailing from over 130 countries. It fosters extensive research collaborations across the world and maintains partnerships in Asia, Africa, the Americas, and Europe.


University of Salamanca

Spain, 1218

The University of Salamanca in Spain was founded as a studium generale, the customary name for a medieval university, by King Alfonso IX of Leon in 1218. It is considered the oldest university in the Hispanic world, with its degrees receiving universal recognition in 1255 through a papal bull from Pope Alexander IV.

From this Spanish public research university, a notable figure is Juan de Galavís, who initially served as a theology professor before ascending to the positions of Archbishop of Santo Domingo and Archbishop of Bogotá. Another distinguished alumnus is Miguel de Cervantes, renowned as the greatest Spanish-language writer and celebrated for his masterpiece, “Don Quixote.”

Today, the University of Salamanca attracts students from Spain and around the globe. It currently offers 68 Degrees, 26 Double Degrees, 76 University Masters and 41 Doctorate Programs. It’s particularly popular among international students for its Spanish language courses.

Remarkably, it is one of only two Spanish-speaking universities worldwide with a Memorandum of Understanding with the United Nations for training language professionals for the organization.


University of Padua

Italy, 1222

The University of Padua was established in 1222 by a group of students and teachers who migrated from Bologna and formed a body of scholars with distinctive principles that emphasized freedom of thought in study and teaching, a legacy still encapsulated in the University’s motto.

Over the centuries, Padua University faced numerous challenging periods, including the rise of fascism and the implementation of racial laws in Italy. Despite the adversities, the University persevered, expanding its faculties and even confronting the challenges head-on.

In fact, it was awarded a gold medal for military valor, the only university to receive such an honor, in recognition of its courageous efforts to fight for Italy’s freedom during the German occupation.

As one of the world’s oldest graduate schools, Padua University was a cradle for groundbreaking ideas, with luminaries like Andrea Vesalio, Copernicus and Galileo making significant contributions to anatomy and astronomy. Other eminent figures include:


University of Naples Federico II

Italy, 1224

The University of Naples Federico II is considered one of the world’s oldest universities founded by a head of State, unlike many others, which were established by corporate initiatives. It was the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Sicily Frederick II’s project. He founded the University in June 1224 with the objective of challenging the dominance of northern Italian universities like Bologna and Padua, which were seen as too independent or influenced by the Pope.

The University’s unusual circumstances of creation made it challenging to attract students. One of the few students who came in these early years, though, was the influential philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas.

Throughout the decades, the University faced various adversities and had to shut down and re-established twice. Beginning in 1265, the University’s structure started to stabilize, and by the 19th century, its prestige increased.

These days, the University has four schools and 26 departments, with a dedicated academic staff of over 3,000 and an administrative team of approximately 4,500. Student enrollment remains at around 100,000.


University of Coimbra

Portugal, 1290

King Denis of Portugal created the University of Coimbra with the signing of a royal charter in 1290. Pope Nicholas IV recognized it in the same year. The institution was first established in Lisbon and was relocated several times until it remained in Coimbra in 1537.

This University isn’t just one of the world’s oldest grad schools but also the oldest one in Portugal. In fact, it had a significant impact on the advancement of higher education within Portuguese-speaking regions.

Notable personalities from the University of Coimbra throughout the centuries include:

Today, the University offers hundreds of degree programs, including 127 Masters, 12 Integrated Masters and 74 PhD programs. Its centuries of rich history have made it worthy to be deemed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2013. 


University of Valladolid

Spain, 1290s

The official website of the University of Valladolid suggests that the University was established in the last quarter of the 13th century. While there are various hypotheses and debates about its origins, it appears to have been a reality in the 1290s. The establishment of the university is associated with the relocation of the Estudio General de Palencia to Valladolid, a move that is believed to have occurred in this period.

Some of the noteworthy figures from the University of Valladolid are:

The University currently has four campuses with around 26,000 students enrolled in their programs, including Master’s and Ph.D. levels. It also hosts 180 recognized research groups and twelve university institutes, all of which attract a substantial number of international projects.


University of Perugia

Italy, 1308

The University of Perugia was founded in 1308 when Pope Clement V issued the papal bull “Super specula” that granted the University’s degree courses universal recognition and validity. Some years prior to that, the City of Perugia took steps to establish a university according to the City Statute of 1285. However, some scholars argue that the university was actually founded in 1276, as evidenced by historical records and the university’s banner.

Initially, the university’s degrees were only recognized within Perugia. Eventually, the city aimed for universal recognition by authorities like the Pope and the Emperor. In 1306, the Statute laid out regulations for the institution, and in 1308, Pope Clement V granted Perugia the Super specula, marking the highest level of recognition.

In 1355, Emperor Charles IV formally recognized the University with two diplomas: one granting the city the permanent right to have a University and another providing people from all regions free access to the Studium, exempt from reprisals, duties and taxes.

Today, the University remains one of the oldest graduate schools in the world in continuous operation.


Charles University

Czech Republic, 1348

Founded in 1348 under the rule of King Charles IV, Charles University was modeled after universities in Paris and Bologna. Initially, it had four faculties: theology, law, liberal arts and medicine.

During the Hussite reformist movement, the university underwent a transformation and was reduced to one faculty, the Faculty of Liberal Arts, becoming a prototype for later Reformation academies.

Under Emperor Rudolf II, Prague became a cultural hub that benefitted both the university and the court.

In the early 17th century, the Thirty Years’ War resulted in fundamental changes that made the institution a part of Charles-Ferdinand University. All four pre-Hussite faculties were restored, and the university became state-governed.

Reforms in the late 18th century further shaped the university. In 1882, it split into Czech and German universities, both achieving high academic standards.

Charles University has a rich history of renowned figures like physicist Albert Einstein and Czechoslovakia’s first president, Tomáš G. Masaryk.

Despite interruptions due to World War II and communist rule, the university has maintained its mission and now actively participates in international cooperation and academic endeavors.


University of Siena

Italy – 1240

The University of Siena was founded in 1240 and was originally called Studium Senese. It is one of Italy’s earliest publicly funded universities, as demonstrated by a decree issued by the city of Siena in December 1240. This decree imposed a tax on citizens who rented rooms to students, with the purpose of financially supporting the Studium’s teachers.

In 1252, Pope Innocent IV, in a demonstration of support of the Studium, granted tax exemption privileges to the faculty and students.

One of the most notable teachers in the University was Pietro Ispano, who became Pope John XXI in 1276. He taught in the School of Medicine and was an illustrious philosopher and Emperor Frederick II’s personal doctor.

The University currently offers Bachelor’s, Master’s and Integrated Master’s degree programs in various faculties, including Pharmacy, Economics, Law, Medicine, and Political Science.

The university campus is located within the city of Siena, which means that the lives of students at the academy are closely intertwined with the urban lifestyles of the local residents. As of 2022, the University’s student population is as many as a third of the city’s population.


University of Pisa

Italy – 1343

The University of Pisa was officially founded in 1343 when Pope Clement VI issued a papal bull that recognized the institution in Pisa as a “Studium Generale,” or an institute of higher education. At that time, the Studium offered lessons in Medicine, Civil Law, Theology and Canon Law.

There are academic claims, however, that the University’s origin goes back to the 11th century. The earliest record, though, was in 1338, when the Municipality paid the distinguished jurist Ranieri Arsendi and Civil Law lecturer Bartolo Da Sassoferrato to teach public lessons.

Some of the notable people from the University include:

Today, the University boasts 20 departments, 13 museums and 17 libraries. It offers a variety of programs at Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD levels, among others.


University of Pavia

Italy – 1361

The University of Pavia was officially declared as a Studium Generale by Emperor Charles IV in 1361. Foundations of the University’s existence, however, existed as early as the 9th century with the Frankish king of Italy, Lothar I (aka King Lotharius), recognizing the existence of a higher education institution in Pavia in 825 that was mainly dedicated to the study of law.

The University was renovated and expanded by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, the Duke of Milan, and became the only university in the Duchy of Milan until the 19th century.

Like most of the oldest universities, the University of Pavia faced dark periods, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. Fortunately, under the extensive reforms implemented by Maria Theresa and Joseph II of Habsburg in the late 1700s, the University experienced a renaissance. It continued to be the sole university in Lombardy until the 20th century.

Some noteworthy alumni include:

Today, the University has two campuses with 22 colleges and many other cultural and academic facilities. It offers a range of programs at the Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD levels.


Jagiellonian University

Poland, 1364

Jagiellonian University traces its history back to May 12, 1364, when the Polish King Casimir the Great established a higher education institution named  “Studium Generale” in Kraków, Poland, with faculties of law, liberal arts and medicine. This is the date that is currently commemorated as the University’s establishment. After the King’s death, however, the institution ceased to exist, followed by failed restoration attempts in the 1390s.

By 1400, King Vladislaus Jagiełło re-established the University, with Queen Jadwiga donating a massive part of her estate to the University through her last will.

Like any of the oldest grad schools in the world, the University has a history of ups and downs throughout the centuries. It has also undergone several name changes between the original Studium Generale to its current Jagiellonian University (Uniwersytet Jagielloński in Polish).

Some of the notable alums at the University are:

Today, the University still has one campus in Poland with thousands of students enrolled in undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral degree programs.


University of Vienna

Austria, 1365

On March 12, 1365, the Duke of Austria Rudolf IV established what is now known as the University of Vienna under the name “Alma Mater Rudolphina” and authorized it to grant doctorates in all “permitted” sciences, mirroring the model of the University of Paris.

Three months later, Pope Urban V confirmed the University’s foundation but withheld approval from a theological faculty, presumably due to pressure from Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, who wanted to prevent any rivalry with Charles University in Prague.

In 1384, Duke Albert III, the founder’s brother, expanded the University with the Faculty of Theology. He was able to obtain Pope Urban VI’s approval, leading to the institution receiving full university status. The Duke also granted the university the authority to establish its own governing regulations or statutes. It marked the start of the University’s autonomy in the next decades.

Today, the University is considered the oldest continually operating university in the German-speaking region. It takes pride in having a connection to 16 Nobel Prize laureates and has served as the academic home to numerous scholars of both historical and academic significance.


Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg

Germany, 1385

The Ruprecht Karl University of Heidelberg, also known as Heidelberg University, was founded by Elector Palatine Rupert I with approval from Pope Urban VI in October 1385. It was only a year later when instruction began with faculties for philosophy, theology and jurisprudence. Two years later, the faculty for medicine was established.

From 1556 to 1617, the University experienced its first Golden Age, being a landmark of European sciences and culture. Unfortunately, it faced wars and a series of closures and reopening from 1618 to the 1700s, resulting in its decline that extended until the late 1800s. 

In 1803, the University was reorganized as a state-financed academy under the State of Baden, marking the institution’s second Golden Age. However, it experienced both successes and declines in the centuries that followed until 2019, when it achieved success once again as a University of Excellence.

Some notable personalities in the University’s history include:


University of Turin

Italy – 1404

The University of Turin is a public research-intensive university that was founded in 1404 under a papal bull by Pope Benedict XIII. It owes its development to Prince Ludovico of Savoia-Acaja, whose vision was to create a university in a strategic location that bridges the Alps, Lombardy and Liguria.

The University’s early years were marred by disruptions due to regional epidemics and crises, as well as challenges in its relations with local administrative authorities. It was also relocated several times from the 1420s until it returned to Turin in 1436. At this time, the Government increased its influence over the University when Ludovico of Savoia introduced a revised curriculum.

Throughout the 19th century, the University experienced significant growth as one of Italy’s most esteemed institutions and a prominent hub for Italian Positivism. By the 20th century, it emerged as a focal point for Italian Anti-fascism.

Some of the notable figures from the University include Italian Republic Presidents Giuseppe Saragat and Luigi Einaudi.

The University today has 13 faculties, special units for specific fields, and decentralized faculties outside of Turin. It offers a variety of programs, including 5-year and 6-year postgraduate degrees.


University of Leipzig

Germany, 1409

The University of Leipzig was founded as part of the St. Thomas Monastery after obtaining university status from Pope Alexander V in his 1409 Bull of Acknowledgement. It was founded with the transfer of German-speaking faculty members and scholars from the University of Prague, which served as an inspiration for the founding of Leipzig University.

Leipzig University played a pioneering role in women’s access to higher education in Germany by permitting them to enroll as “guest students.” Notably, 1873 marked a historic milestone as Johanna von Evreinov became the first woman in Germany to earn a JD degree.

The university boasts a prestigious association with ten Nobel laureates, including Svante Pääbo, the most recent Nobel Prize for Medicine awardee in 2022. Other noteworthy alums include:

Today, the University stands as a symbol of academic excellence and historical significance in Leipzig, Germany. It currently has 14 faculties offering 152 degree programs, including Diploma, Bachelor and Master degrees.


University of St. Andrews

United Kingdom, 1410

The University of St. Andrews was established in May 1410 by a group of masters, mostly graduates of the University of Paris, to form a society of higher learning in St Andrews, Scotland. The founding was driven by the need of Scottish scholars to establish a center of learning with international recognition in the country. Prior to that time, Scottish students were forced to pursue their studies overseas, which later became challenging with the Wars of Scottish Independence with England.

In February 1411, the University obtained a charter of privilege and incorporation from Bishop Henry Wardlaw of St Andrews. By August 1413, the school received full university status from the Avignon Pope Benedict XIII by a series of papal bulls. In 1432, King James I of Scotland confirmed the University’s charter. Subsequent kings also provided support to the school.

Some of the great minds from the University include:

The University currently has various academic schools and departments organized into four faculties: Arts, Medicine, Divinity and Science. They offer a range of degrees, including Master’s and Bachelor’s levels.


University of Barcelona

Spain, 1450

In September 1450, the University of Barcelona was established in response to the city of Barcelona’s appeal to King Alfonso V the Magnanimous. The King issued a charter that set forth specific conditions for the establishment of the Estudi General of Barcelona. The foundation also obtained Pope Nicholas V’s papal bull in the same month.

The university, however, was not able to operate due to various adversities, including a lack of continuous funding and the Catalan Civil War. In 1488, Ferdinand the Catholic revitalized the project by issuing a charter that consolidated all Barcelona schools under the Estudi de Medicina.

Subsequently, the first municipal by-laws were passed in October 1508 that laid out the framework for the governance, academic and financial regulations for the newly formed institution.

One of the many notable figures from the University is Santiago Ramón y Cajal, a Nobel laureate in Physiology or Medicine.

Today, the University of Barcelona is structured with 16 faculties across six campuses and affiliated centers. It ranks as Spain’s second-largest university and excels in international rankings. The University aligns its doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s programs with the European Higher Education Area to meet societal needs.

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