The First Colleges and Universities: A Brief History of Higher Education


Early Higher Education in the Middle East and Africa

Most of the oldest confirmed centers of higher education in the world today still exist in the Middle East and Northern Africa. According to the Guinness Book of World records, the oldest degree-granting university in the world is the Al-Karaouine mosque and university in Fes, Morocco (talk about some real history of higher education!). Established in 859 AD by Fatima al-Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant, the school was based in Islamic tradition, but also taught grammar, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. In the 1950s, the mosque school also added chemistry and physics to its areas of study.

history of higher education
Al-Karaouine mosque

Another ancient center of Islamic scholarship, Al-Azhar University, was founded by the Shi’ites around 970-972 AD. It is considered to be the second oldest university in the world. Like Al-Karaouine, the university is also a mosque school, and centers around Arabic and Sunni literature. In addition to religious teachings, it currently focuses on all areas of modern natural science. Next up is Baghdad’s Al-Nizamiyaa, just one in a series of highly-respected ancient universities established in 11th-century Iran.

History of Higher Education in Medieval Europe

Many of Europe’s first schools to offer higher education were formed during the Middle Ages. The University of Bologna (Italy) is thought to be the first higher-learning center actually known as a “university,” and also the first in the Western World. Its establishment has been estimated at around 1088. The first scholars practiced logic, rhetoric, and grammar, and sought to become well-versed in law. In later years, artisans of the day (including scholars of medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy) began frequenting the school after 1158, when it was legally declared a location for independent research.

Founded in 1170, the University of Paris more or less arose from the cathedral schools of Notre-Dame. Soon after, it developed into a center of orthodox Christian teachings. It boasted many famous professors and thinkers of the era, including Thomas Aquinas and Albertas Magnus. The study of theology was considered of utmost importance, as opposed to the inferior faculty of art – which happened to include grammar, astronomy, mathematics, geometry, music, culture, and philosophy.

Finally, the University of Oxford is considered to be the English-speaking world’s oldest university. While the actual date of its establishment is unclear, it is thought that teaching in some form has existed there since around 1096. What is certain, however, is that the school began developing at an accelerated rate in 1167, when Henry II banished English students from the University of Paris. Master scholars who headed the school were recognized as a “universitas” in 1231, and the school was already accepting international students at that time.

Higher Education in Colonial America

Old Lithograph of Harvard
Old Lithograph of Harvard

Naturally, the first secondary schools in the American colonies did not appear until several centuries after universities in Europe. And while many of these schools existed before the American Revolution, only nine higher-learning institutions had obtained official “college” status by that time. They included Yale (established 1701 in New Haven, CT) and the College of William and Mary (established 1697 in Williamsburg, VA.) However, Harvard holds the title as the oldest institution of higher education in the United States, its beginnings meager with only nine students and one master in 1636.

Author Byline: G. Nathalee Serrels Clark is a freelance writer and a graduate student in Psychology. She’s a history buff who loves visiting sites of historical significance, with a particular interest in collegiate history, as well a frequent contributor to college website She currently lives in Michigan with her husband and son.


For more on higher education, check out our article on how to use your higher education degree in history to find a career in history.