Who Invented University? (And When)

who invented the university

University is a very common word these days. High school students expect to attend universities and study for a bachelor’s degree, with some planning immediately going for a master’s or a Ph.D. degree. However, not many think about where the concept of university comes from. Specifically, who invented the university?

Modern universities may have been invented by Catholic monks in Bologna, Italy, in 1088 AD. However, there may be earlier examples of institutions of higher learning founded by people such as Fatima al-Fihri, or Plato. The inventor of the university may depend on your definition of the university itself.


In this article, we explore who invented the university and when was the first university invented. We also discuss the oldest university in the world, as well as in the US itself.

We also discuss how many universities there are in the world now. On top of that, we also explore the best universities and how universities and colleges differ.

What Do Universities Do?

A university focuses on providing higher education and conducting research to enhance human knowledge. Universities also award academic degrees in various disciplines. Universities also help develop a nation by offering criticism, guiding public policy, and enhancing the citizen’s skills.

A university is an educational institution. It focuses on higher learning, as well as research, to expand human knowledge of the world. A university also awards academic degrees in various academic disciplines.

The word university can be derived from the Latin word Universitas magistrorum et scholarium, meaning the “community of teachers and scholars.” A full university typically offers undergraduate (bachelor’s) and postgraduate programs (master’s and Ph.D.)

The roles and functions of universities have changed many times over their millennial existence. Still, generally, universities perform several major functions:

Repositories and Generators Of Knowledge: Universities tend to host a wide array of experts on many specific subject matters. These experts spend time depositing their knowledge in the university by either writing books or teaching their expertise to students.

These experts also spend time researching, meaning they are also actively generating knowledge in their field. As a result, universities become repositories and generators of human knowledge.

Equip Graduates For Employment: Certain skills may require detailed, specific training from subject matter experts for years before they can practice the skill. For example, think of medicine, law, engineering, or accounting. The training for these skills is often done in universities since the experts are here.

After going through the training and learning, graduates receive a scroll of recognition, which helps them to be able to be employed to practice what they learned in university.

Offer Criticism On Social And Economic Life: Universities host experts on subject matters. This means these experts may be able to provide constructive and positive criticism of the social and economic life of the university’s society.

This role may be performed in many ways, through public lectures, forums, publications, or consultation with governments. Universities are also known to have produced ideas that sparked and changed society, for example, movements for racial equality in some US universities in the 1960s.

Influence Civil Society And The State: University also plays a role in influencing civil society and the state. This is commonly done through publishing research results.

For example, when universities started releasing reports of the general thinning of the ozone in the 1970s, it sparked social movements to reduce Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) use. It resulted in the government banning the use of CFC in refrigerators and air conditioners.

Universities are also regularly consulted by the government during the research phase of any public policy implementation, which means universities may influence the actions and policies governments take.

Develop Communities and Nation: Universities also help to develop communities and nations. This may be achieved through developing knowledge and encouraging citizens to partake in research and critical thinking in fields of their interests.

Universities also equip citizens with highly valued skills to enable them to perform highly compensated work. This may help to improve a nation’s economy and the well-being of the society it serves.

Who Invented University?

The question of who invented university may have to go back to your own definition of the word university itself. This is because depending on how you define university, then the inventor of the university may be a different person.

If you see the concept of the university as a higher learning institution with its origin in medieval Europe, then the inventors of the university would be Catholic monks in the city of Bologna, Italy. These monks founded the university of Bologna in 1088, and the university is still operational today.

You may also regard the Catholic monks as inverters of university if you see university as a place that offers academic freedom. On top of that, you also see universities as a place that issues academic degrees in theological and non-theological studies.

Suppose you are open to the concept that universities may be institutions of higher learning that may have traditions outside of medieval Europe. In that case, you may be looking at Fatima al-Fihri as the inventor of the university.

Fatima al-Fihri, founded a mosque in medieval Morocco in 859 AD, during the Islamic Golden Age. The mosque eventually became the University of Al-Karaouine and is still operational as an institution of higher learning.

Suppose you are open to considering institutions of higher learning that are secular and earlier than Christianity. In that case, the inventor of the university may be a Greek philosopher by the name of Plato.

Plato founded the Platonic academy in 387 BC in Athens, Greece. One of the academy’s famous students is Aristotle, who studied there for twenty years. The academy’s students study mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, and politics.

What Is The Oldest University?

The oldest university in the world may point to either University of Bologna, Italy, or the University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco. The University of Bologna was founded later (1088 AD) compared to the University of Al-Karaouine (859 AD) but is the first to award degrees for theological and non-theological disciplines.

Your decision on where the oldest university is may also go back to what you see as important in a university.

Many people see universities as a place where academic freedom is allowed. Scholars may debate, think and explore all the topics they wish without being hamstrung by religious authorities or the government. Many also see universities as places where degrees are conferred to graduates.

Suppose this is how you see the university. In that case, the world’s oldest university is the University of Bologna, founded in 1088 AD by Catholic monks. The university is the first in the world to allow academic freedom. It confers academic degrees on theological and secular disciplines.

If you simply want to trace a university to its easiest existence, then the world’s first university would be the University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco. This university was founded as a mosque in 859 AD by Fatimah Al-Fihri, during the Islamic golden age.

The mosque eventually developed into a madrasa, where islamic theology is taught to students. From there, it eventually grew into a university. It is still operating today.

What Was The First University In the US?

Harvard University is the US’s first university, founded in 1636. Harvard is named after its first benefactor, the Puritan clergyman John Harvard. It is also one of the world’s most prestigious and highly rated institutions of higher learning, ranking consistently in the top three in world university rankings.

Harvard was founded with the support of the Massachusetts colonial legislature to first produce clergy persons to minister to Christian churches. Harvard was not founded with any Christian denomination, although it trained mostly Congregational clergy in its early years.

Harvard started to offer study in disciplines beyond theology in the 18th century and eventually became secularized. By the 19th century, it had become Boston’s most elite learning institution.

Today, Harvard comprises ten academic faculties, plus the Harvard Radcliffe Institute. These faculties and institutes are placed on three different campuses at Harvard Yard, Allston, and Longwood, all in the city of Boston.

Harvard’s endowment is currently at $53.2 billion, making it the wealthiest university in the world. Harvard also has the largest academic library system in the world, with the Harvard Library holding over 20.4 million items.

Harvard has produced many US presidents as well as heads of state around the world. Many of Harvard’s graduates also become Nobel laureates, Rhodes Scholars, Turing Award laureates, Academy awards, and Olympic medal winners.

Harvard’s students include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Barack Obama.

How Many Universities Are In The World Today?

Up to 28,000 universities worldwide offer multiple fields of study and degrees. Over 5,000 universities are in India, over 3,200 in the United States, followed by Indonesia with over 2,800 universities. Most of the world’s top 100 universities are in North America, Europe, and Asia.

There are over 28,000 universities worldwide, across all the countries in the world. Most of these universities offer studies in various disciplines and may confer degrees to their graduates.

Most modern universities follow a system similar to western universities, where a university is broken down into faculties, schools, and units. Most universities also offer study programs at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Graduates mostly receive degrees at the end of their studies, usually a diploma or a bachelor’s degree for undergraduate studies. There may be a postgraduate diploma, master’s degree, or Ph.D. degree for postgraduate studies.

India has the highest number of universities compared to other countries, with over 5,000. This is followed by the United States, with the most universities, hosting over 3,200. The third is, surprisingly, Indonesia, with over 2,800 universities.

However, when it comes to the quality and ranking of these universities, the United States has a lot more universities in the top 100 in the world compared to India and Indonesia.

Where Are The World’s Best Universities?

Most of the world’s top universities are in English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Some European countries also make the list, and Asian countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Of the 28,000 universities around the world, about 1,500 are ranked regularly by university ranking systems such as the Times Higher Education University Rankings (THE) or the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings.

Most of the universities that made it into the top 100 in the world are based in English-speaking countries such as Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. European countries, such as France, Germany, and Switzerland, also are in the top 100.

The list also features a strong number of Asian universities from countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Best five universities in the world: (As shown by the QS rankings)

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), United States
  2. University of Cambridge, United Kingdom
  3. Stanford University, United States
  4. Oxford University, United Kingdom
  5. Harvard University, United States

Times Higher Education University Rankings: Top Five Universities

  1. Oxford University, United Kingdom
  2. California Institute of Technology, United States
  3. Stanford University, United States
  4. Harvard University, United States
  5. University of Cambridge, United Kingdom

The rankings may be different as both rankings assign different weightage on different aspects. For example, the QS rankings allocate 5% of the international-local student ratio marks, while THE rankings allocate only 3%.

How Are Universities And Colleges Different?

Universities and colleges differ in the size of the student and teaching body and the programs offered. University tends to put more effort into research than college, which focuses more on teaching. Universities also tend to have a more international student body compared to colleges.

Undergraduate focusedProgramsUndergraduate and postgraduate
Diploma, bachelor’s degreeDegreeAll undergraduate and postgraduate degrees
TeachingFocusTeaching and researching
More localizedInternationalizationMore internationalized

Universities and colleges offer higher education across various field disciplines. However, they also differ in many other areas.

Programs Offered: Colleges tend to be more limited in their programs. The limitation may be in the fields of study and the degree conferred to students.

Colleges tend to focus on a smaller number of disciplines. For example, some colleges may focus on liberal arts, education, fine arts, and music. Some colleges may also focus on a technical discipline such as engineering or economics.

Colleges also tend to focus on undergraduate-level programs and usually confer a diploma or an undergraduate bachelor’s degree. Some do offer postgraduate programs, but this is not common.

Universities are usually much more open in programs. You may see a university offering multiple study programs across all sorts of disciplines. It is common to see universities offering postgraduate degrees, such as master’s degrees and PhDs.

Research vs. Teaching: Colleges tend to focus on teaching at the undergraduate level. Colleges also conduct research, although they generally do not do so. You may not see many postgraduate programs involving research in colleges.

Universities may focus more on research, with many universities starting to either gravitate towards teaching or research. As such, many universities are offering postgraduate programs involving research.

Size: Colleges tend to have a smaller student body. Attending college may be a more intimate, controlled experience suitable for younger students. Tutors and lecturers also may have time to pay attention to individual students.

Universities usually have a much larger student body, which means the competition, arrangement, and personalization is much lower than in colleges.

Internationalization: Colleges tend to be more localized, meaning the student and teaching body may be based on the country of the college. International students study in colleges but are less common than in universities.

Universities, however, may be a lot more international, with a student body coming from many countries worldwide. The tutors and professors may be from foreign countries as well.