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Degree ceremony at the University of Oxford. The Pro-Vice-Chancellor in MA gown and hood, Proctor in official dress and new Doctors of Philosophy in scarlet full dress. Behind them, a bedel, a Doctor and Bachelors of Arts and Medicine graduate.

A university is an institution of higher education and research, which grants academic degrees in a variety of subjects. A university is a corporation that provides both undergraduate education and postgraduate education. The word university is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, roughly meaning "community of teachers and scholars."


Representation of a university class in the 1350s


The original Latin word "universitas" was used at the time of emergence of urban town life and medieval guilds, to describe specialized "associations of students and teachers with collective legal rights usually guaranteed by charters issued by princes, prelates, or the towns in which they were located." The original Latin word referred to degree-granting institutions of learning in Western Europe, where this form of legal organization was prevalent, and from where the institution spread around the world. For non-related educational institutions of antiquity which did not stand in the tradition of the university and to which the term is only loosely and retrospectively applied, see ancient centers of higher learning.

Academic freedom

An important idea in the definition of a university is the notion of academic freedom. The first documentary evidence of this comes early in the life of the first university. University of Bologna adopted an academic charter, the Constitutio Habita, in 1158 or 1155, which guaranteed the right of a traveling scholar to unhindered passage in the interests of education. Today this is claimed as the origin of "academic freedom". This is now widely recognised internationally, when on 18 September 1988 430 University Rectors signed the Magna Charta Universitatum, marking the 900th anniversary of Bologna's foundation. The number of Universities signing the Magna Charta Universitatum continues to grow, drawing from all parts of the world.

Medieval universities

Area above the Old University of Bologna buildings,founded 1088

Prior to their formal establishment, many medieval universities were run for hundreds of years as Christian cathedral schools or monastic schools (Scholae monasticae), in which monks and nuns taught classes; evidence of these immediate forerunners of the later university at many places dates back to the 6th century AD. The University of Salerno followed by the University of Constantinople (founded by Theodosius II in 425 with 31 chairs), Preslav Literary School and Ohrid Literary School in the Bulgarian Empire, established in the 9th century, were the first institutions of higher education in Medieval Europe, thereby forming part of the pre-history of university education.

The first universities with formally established guilds in Europe were the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), the University of Oxford (1167), the University of Palencia (1208), the University of Cambridge (1209), the University of Salamanca (1218), the University of Montpellier (1220), the University of Padua (1222), the University of Naples Federico II (1224), the University of Toulouse (1229).

The University of Bologna began as a law school teaching the ius gentium or Roman law of peoples which was in demand across Europe for those defending the right of incipient nations against empire and church. Bologna’s special claim to Alma Mater Studiorum is based on its autonomy, its awarding of degrees, and other structural arrangements, making it the oldest continuously operating institution independent of kings, emperors or any kind of direct religious authority.

The conventional date of 1088, or 1087 according to some, records when a certain Irnerius commences teaching Emperor Justinian’s 6th century codification of Roman law, the Corpus Iuris Civilis, recently discovered at Pisa. Lay students arrived in the city from many lands entering into a contract to gain this knowledge, organising themselves into ‘Learning Nations’ of Hungarians, Greeks, North Africans, Arabs, Franks, Germans, Iberians etc. The students “had all the power … and dominated the masters”.

In Europe, young men proceeded to university when they had completed their study of the trivium–the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic or logic–and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. (See Degrees of the University of Oxford for the history of how the trivium and quadrivium developed in relation to degrees, especially in anglophone universities).

Although the university is widely regarded as "the European institution par excellence" in terms of its origins and characteristics, some scholars have argued that early medieval universities were influenced by the religious Madrasah schools in Al-Andalus, the Emirate of Sicily, and the Middle East (during the Crusades). Other scholars oppose this view and argue that there is no actual evidence of the transmission of Arab scholarly methods discernible in medieval universities.

Early University Education

The most famous classical educational centers of learning in Africa were at three universities – Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the collective scholarly academy in Timbuktuand the oldest Qarawiyin university in Morocco in Fez. Al-Azhar University and the Qarawiyin mosque and University were older than Sankore Madrasah in Timbuktu (which was long been considered the oldest university), but were also older than any Western university in existence. Beginning in the 12th century, Timbuktu was becoming one of the great centers of learning in North Africa and the Islamic world. Scholars and students traveled from as far away as Cairo, Baghdad, and elsewhere in Persia to study from the noted manuscripts found in Timbuktu. The University of Timbuktu in Mali was organized around three great Masajids or Mosques. Around the 12th century, the University of Timbuktu had an attendance of 25, 000 students in a city which had a population of 100, 000 people. The students came from all corners of the African continent in search of excellence in knowledge and trade. A Tamashek proverb reads "Riverboats come from the South, Salt camels come from the North, Wisdom & Knowledge reside in Timbuktu".

Modern universities

The tower of the University of Coimbra, the oldest Portuguese university

The end of the medieval period marked the beginning of the transformation of universities that would eventually result in the modern research university. Many external influences, such as eras of humanism, Enlightenment, Reformation and Revolution, shaped research universities during their development.

By the 18th century, universities published their own research journals and by the 19th century, the German and the French university models had arisen. The German, or Humboldtian model, was conceived by Wilhelm von Humboldt and based on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s liberal ideas pertaining to the importance of freedom, seminars, and laboratories in universities. The French university model involved strict discipline and control over every aspect of the university.

Until the 19th century, religion played a significant role in university curriculum; however, the role of religion in research universities decreased in the 19th century, and by the end of the 19th century, the German university model had spread around the world. Universities concentrated on science in the 19th and 20th centuries and became increasingly accessible to the masses. In Britain the move from industrial revolution to modernity saw the arrival of new civic universities with an emphasis on science and engineering, a movement initiated in 1960 by Sir Keith Murray (chairman of the University Grants Committee) and Sir Samuel Curran, with the formation of the University of Strathclyde. The British also established universities worldwide, and higher education became available to the masses not only in Europe. In a general sense, the basic structure and aims of universities have remained constant over the years.

In 1963, the Robbins Report on universities in the United Kingdom concluded that such institutions should have four main "objectives essential to any properly balanced system: instruction in skills; the promotion of the general powers of the mind so as to produce not mere specialists but rather cultivated men and women; to maintain research in balance with teaching, since teaching should not be separated from the advancement of learning and the search for truth; and to transmit a common culture and common standards of citizenship."

National universities

A national university is generally a university created or run by a national state but at the same time represent a state autonomic institutions which functions as a completely independent body inside of the same state. Some national universities are closely associated with national cultural or political aspirations, for instance the National University of Ireland in the early days of Irish independence collected a large amount of information on the Irish language and Irish culture. In revolutions in Argentina were the result of the university revolution of 1918 and its posteriors reforms by incorporating values that sought for a more equal and laic higher education system.


The University of Sydney is Australia's oldest university.

Although each institution is organized differently, nearly all universities have a board of trustees; a president, chancellor, or rector; at least one vice president, vice-chancellor, or vice-rector; and deans of various divisions. Universities are generally divided into a number of academic departments, schools or faculties. Public university systems are ruled over by government-run higher education boards. They review financial requests and budget proposals and then allocate funds for each university in the system. They also approve new programs of instruction and cancel or make changes in existing programs. In addition, they plan for the further coordinated growth and development of the various institutions of higher education in the state or country. However, many public universities in the world have a considerable degree of financial, research and pedagogical autonomy. Private universities are privately funded and generally have a broader independence from state policies.

Despite the variable policies, or cultural and economic standards available in different geographical locations create a tremendous disparity between universities around the world and even inside a country, the universities are usually among the foremost research and advanced training providers in every society. Most universities not only offer courses in subjects ranging from the natural sciences, engineering, architecture or medicine, to sports sciences, social sciences, law or humanities, they also offer many amenities to their student population including a variety of places to eat, banks, bookshops, print shops, job centers, and bars. In addition, universities have a range of facilities like libraries, sports centers, students' unions, computer labs, and research laboratories. In a number of countries, major classic universities usually have their own botanical gardens, astronomical observatories, business incubators and university hospitals.

Universities around the world

Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, US

The funding and organization of universities varies widely between different countries around the world. In some countries universities are predominantly funded by the state, while in others funding may come from donors or from fees which students attending the university must pay. In some countries the vast majority of students attend university in their local town, while in other countries universities attract students from all over the world, and may provide university accommodation for their students.


Georgia Institute of Technology ( a.k.a. Georgia Tech) in Atlanta, GA.

The definition of a university varies widely even within some countries. For example, there is no nationally standardized definition of the term in the United States although the term has traditionally been used to designate research institutions and was once reserved for research doctorate-granting institutions. Some states, such as Massachusetts, will only grant a school "university status" if it grants at least two doctoral degrees. In the United Kingdom, an institution can only use the term if it has been granted by the Privy Council, under the terms of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992. In India, a new tag deemed universities was created a few years ago, by the cabinet minister Arjun Singh during his tenure as the Minister for Human Resource Development. Through this provision many universities sprung up in India, which are commercial in nature and have been established just to exploit the demand of higher education

Colloquial usage

Colloquially, the term university may be used to describe a phase in one's life: "When I was at university..." (in the United States and Ireland, college is used instead: "When I was in college..."; see the college article for further discussion). In Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the German-speaking countries university is often contracted to uni. In New Zealand and in South Africa it is sometimes called "varsity" (although this has become uncommon in New Zealand in recent years), which was also common usage in the UK in the 19th century.


Many students look to get 'student grants' to cover the cost of university. The cost may rise for students, as a result of decreased funding given to universities.

Religious and political control of universities

In some countries, in some political systems, universities are controlled by political or religious authorities who forbid certain fields of study or impose certain other fields. Sometimes national or racial limitations exist in the students that can be admitted, the faculty and staff that can be employed, and the research that can be conducted.

Nazi universities

Books from university libraries, written by anti-Nazi or Jewish authors, were burned in squares (like, for example, in Berlin) in 1933, and the curricula were subsequently modified. Jewish professors and students were expelled according to the racial policy of Nazi Germany (see also the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service). Martin Heidegger became the rector of the University of Freiburg, where he delivered a number of Nazi speeches. On August 21, 1933, Heidegger established the Führer-principle at the university; later he was appointed Führer of Freiburg University. The University of Poznań was closed by the Nazi Occupation in 1939. A German university existed there from 1941-1944. The University of Strasbourg was transferred to Clermont-Ferrand and Reichsuniversität Straßburg existed 1941–1944.

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