Updated on June 26, 2023
The team behind Erudera, the world’s first education search engine backed by Artificial Intelligence and the largest university database, has created a map with the oldest universities that are still operating today for each world country, the first map of this kind in the world.
- The four oldest universities in the world are located in four African countries - Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt & Mali
- World’s second oldest university was established by a woman
- The majority of the oldest universities in every country were established by people in power, like Popes, Kings, Queens, Emperors, Sultans, Princesses, Dukes, etc.
- Very few women have succeeded in establishing the first university in a country, some of which are Fatima al-Fihri, Queen Elizabeth I, & Queen Christina of Sweden
- Nauru is the world country that had its first university established most recently
- The ten last countries that had their first university established most recently have a population of less than one million, except for South Sudan
Different from what many would have expected, for the oldest university in the world to be located somewhere in the territories of ancient Greece or Europe, it turns out, the oldest university in the world that still operates today is located in North Africa.
The oldest university in the world in continuous operation is the Ez-Zitouna University located in Tunisia, established in 737 AD first as a Madrasa then as a university. Despite the religion's dominance, in Madrasas students could learn about science, philosophy, mathematics, art, and many other subjects.
The top four world countries with the oldest universities in the world are located in the continent of Africa, with Morocco listed the second, Egypt the third, and Mali the fourth.
Moreover, the Al Quaraouiyine University in Morocco, established in 859, was founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, who is believed to have used the money inherited from her father to build the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, which subsequently developed a teaching institution and later became the University of al-Qarawiyyin.
The fourth oldest university in the world is the Sankore Mosque and University, which is located in Mali and was founded in 989 by Mansa Musa, who is often described as the wealthiest individual in all human history.
While some countries had their first university established as early as by the second half of the first millennium AD, and which continue to operate, some world countries have established their first university ever, only in the recent years.
The Nauru Campus of the University of the South Pacific, founded in 2018, makes the tiny Micronesian island of Nauru the world country that had its first university established most recently.
The island nation of Sao Tome and Principe had its first university established in 2014, in the same year with the French Guiana, and just one year before the Solomon Islands and Western Sahara saw their first universities being founded in 2013.
- Mali’s first university – the fourth oldest university in the world - was founded by Mansa Musa, the wealthiest individual in all human history
- The fifth country in Africa to have its first university founded is South Africa in 1829
- Among the top 100 countries that had their universities established first, only ten are African
- 43 out of 54 African countries had their first university established after 1950
Commenting on the first university ever founded in the world, Gent Ukehajdaraj from Erudera, who led this research, points out that the value of the Ez-Zitouna University is even bigger than one may think, given the many wars the country has gone through.
“The Ez-Zitouna University has survived the Mahdia campaign, the Eighth Crusade, the Conquest of Tunis, as well as the Morean War, in addition to the Tunisian Civil war and more than ten other wars that took place in the Tunisian territory from the 18th century and on,” Ukëhajdaraj asserts.
He also highlights the fact that in spite of Africa being a pioneer in the establishment of first world universities, the majority of African countries fell behind in this regard, with 43 out of the 54 African countries becoming with a university only in the second half of the 20th century and later.
At the same time, the map created by Erudera shows that some countries as Western Sahara, Angola, South Sudan, Djibouti, Comoros, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and the Gambia are listed among the 20 last world countries that had the first university established in their territory.
The dates of the establishment of these universities range from 1999 in the Gambia to Western Sahara in 2013.
- 28 out of 50 countries that had their universities established first are European
- 14 countries in Europe had their first university established before 1500
- Italy’s University of Bologna is the first university in the western world
- The last first universities established in Europe are in Luxembourg and the three European microstates Andorra, Monaco, & San Marino
European countries may not occupy the three first places in the list of the oldest university in every country, however, they are mostly placed at the top of the list, leaving other currently highly developed countries like Canada, the US, and Australia quite behind.
The oldest university in Europe still operating today is the University of Bologna in Italy, founded in 1088.
Bologna is followed by the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, founded in 1096, the Spain’s University of Salamanca founded in 1134 by King Alfonso IX of Leon, and then the University of Montpellier in France, the foundations of which were laid in 1220 by Pope Nicholas IV.
One of the top five most famous countries in the world for international students, Germany, is only listed as the 15th country in the world that became with a university after in 1386 Rupert I Elector Palatine established the Heidelberg University.
“What’s interesting about the very first universities established in Europe is that almost all of them were founded by Popes and monarchs,” Ukëhajdaraj says.
As per the last countries in Europe to have their first university established, Luxembourg tops the list in this regard, as the University of Luxembourg was founded in 2003. and,
Previously the University of Andorra, in Andorra, was established in 1988, followed by the University of Monaco established in 1986 in the city-state of Monaco.
- Asia’s very first university that still exists to this day is the University of Economic Sciences in Iran, 9th in the world
- The second Asian university is the Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea (1398), and the third is Istanbul University in Turkey (1453)
- Japan’s Keio University was established only in 1858, while China’s Peking University was founded a few years later, in 1898
- The last Asian country to have its first university established is Laos
The oldest university established in Asia, which still exists to this day, is the University of Economic Sciences in Iran, founded in 1315, now part of the Kharazmi University.
Sungkyunkwan University in South Korea, established in 1398 by the Joseon dynasty, is the second oldest university in Asia, followed by the University of Santo Tomas in the Philippines, founded in 1611 by Miguel de Benavides, Archbishop of Manila.
Next on the list is Istanbul University in Turkey, founded in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II, who is known as Mehmed the Conqueror for conquering Constantinople at the age of 21.
“There was no university in Constantinople until the Ottoman army conquered the imperial capital. The university was established in the same year of its invasion in 1453,” Ukëhajdaraj points out while commenting on the first universities established in Asia.
Next on the list for Asia is the Presidency University in Kolkata, in the world’s most invaded country – India. The university was founded in 1817 by Ram Mohan Roy, Radhakanta Deb, David Hare, Rasamay Dutt, Sir Edward East, 1st Baronet, and Rani Rashmoni. The latter is a woman, one among very few women university founders on this list.
Whereas the last Asian country to have its first university established is Laos, where the foundations of the National University of Laos were laid in 1996. Prior to that, the Sultan Qaboos University had been established in Oman in 1986, the first university of the oldest independent state in the Arab world.
- In North America, the first universities were founded only in the 16th century
- The very first two universities in the continent were founded by Pope Paul III
- Mexico had its first university established about two and a half centuries before Canada
- The US saw the foundations of its very first university laid as late as in 1636
The very first universities to ever establish in North America are the St. Thomas Aquinas University in Dominica and the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, both of which were founded by Pope Paul III.
Next comes the National Autonomous University of Mexico, founded in 1551 by the King of Spain, Carlos I. The first university in the United States is Harvard University, established in 1636 by John Harvard.
“Just as in other parts of the world, the first universities in North America were founded by monarchs and people of religion. Even the University of Harvard was founded by an English clergyman,” Ukëhajdaraj likes to point out.
The University of King’s College in Canada was established over a century and a half later than Harvard, in 1789, by King George II of Great Britain.
The most recent North American country to have its own university established is Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, which inaugurated the All Saints University College of Medicine in 2011. Prior to that, in 1998, the International University of Health Sciences in Saint Kitts and Nevis.
- The National University of San Marcos in Peru is South America’s first university, founded in 1551
- The University of Chile is the first South American university to be established by a person that was neither a man of religion or a monarch
In 1551, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V established the National University of San Marcos in Peru, the first university of the country, and at the same time the first in South America.
About 30 years later, in 1580, the Dominican order established the Saint Thomas University in Colombia. In Argentina, in the meantime, the first university was founded in 1613 by Colegio Máximo, and today the same is known as the National University of Cordoba.
The last country in this part of the world to establish its own university is French Guiana, in 2004. Prior to that, the University of Aruba was established in 1988.
- The first universities established in Oceania are the ones in Australia and New Zealand
- Nauru is the last country in Oceania and the world to have its first university established
In Oceania, the University of Sydney in Australia and the University of Otago in New Zealand top the list of the countries in this part of the world that had their universities established before the others, in 1850 and 1869 respectively.
All other universities in Oceania were founded from 1963 - when the College of Micronesia was established - and on. The Nauru Campus of the University of the South Pacific, founded in 2018, makes Nauru the world country with the most recently established university in the world.
Our main aim with this research was to gather information on the oldest universities for each country that is still operating today and to create a map with each university's foundation year for quick reference.
We manually researched and verified the oldest universities for 197 countries individually. We selected the oldest university for each country if its geographical location was within the territory of the country as of 2021. We collected the data using multiple sources, but mostly based on Erudera's list of universities, which is the largest university database as of right now, and we verified the data by consulting official university websites, education departments, and ministries, as well as other expert sources for countries that we did not have accurate data.
The data was then used to create this map displaying all the world's countries along with the oldest universities for each individual country.
Erudera is the world's first education search platform backed by AI
Erudera’s mission is to completely change the way students research their university and study program options using technology, make it easier for them to make decisions based on data and detailed information, and to help more students make their dream of studying abroad a reality.
Using Erudera students will be able to find their ideal university and study program recommended to them based on their personality, academic achievements, career prospects, and personal preferences, so they can do better research, compare available options, and come to a better decision on their own.