A university is an institution of higher education and research, which grants academic degrees in a variety of subjects. A university 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." [1]


See also: List of oldest universities in continuous operation

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."[2]

There were many notable institutions of learning throughout history. Although the original Latin word referred to places of learning in Europe, where this form of legal organization was prevalent, it is sometimes extended to other educational institutions of antiquity, including China, India and Persia:

  • Taehak was founded in 372 and Gukhak was established in 682.

Islamic universitiesEdit

See also: Ijazah and Bimaristan

Assuming the definition of a university to mean an institution of higher education and research which issues academic degrees at all levels (bachelor, master and doctorate), like in the modern sense of the word, the medieval Madrasahs, or more specifically the Jami'ah, founded in the 9th century, would be the first examples of such an institution.[6][7][8] The University of Al Karaouine in Fez, Morocco is thus recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest degree-granting university in the world with its founding in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri.[9]

Al-Azhar University, founded in Cairo, Egypt in 975, was a Jami'ah university which offered a variety of post-graduate degrees (Ijazah),[7] and had individual faculties[10] for a theological seminary, Islamic law and jurisprudence, Arabic grammar, Islamic astronomy, early Islamic philosophy, and logic in Islamic philosophy.[7]

While the madrasah college could also issue degrees at all levels, the Jami`ah (such as Al Karaouine and Al-Azhar University) differed in the sense that it was a larger institution that was more universal in terms of its complete source of studies, had individual faculties for different subjects, and could house a number of mosques, madrasahs and other institutions within it.[7] Such an institution has thus been described as an "Islamic university".[11] Also in the 9th century, Bimaristan medical schools were founded in the medieval Islamic world, where medical degrees and diplomas were issued to students of Islamic medicine who were qualified to be a practicing Doctor of Medicine.[7][12] Abd-el-latif delivered lectures on Islamic medicine at Al-Azhar, while Maimonides delivered lectures on medicine and astronomy there during the time of Saladin.[13]

Another early jami'ah was the Al-Nizamiyya of Baghdad (founded 1091), which has been called the "largest university of the Medieval world".[14] Mustansiriya University, established by the Abbasid caliph al-Mustansir in 1233, in addition to teaching the religious subjects, offered courses dealing with philosophy, mathematics and the natural sciences.

The postgraduate doctorate in law was only obtained after "an oral examination to determine the originality of the candidate's theses", and to test the student's "ability to defend them against all objections, in disputations set up for the purpose."[15]

Influence on European universitiesEdit

See also: Islamic contributions to Medieval Europe

The origins of the medieval doctorate ("licentia docendi") dates back to the ijāzah al-tadrīs wa al-iftā' ("license to teach and issue legal opinions") in the medieval Islamic legal education system.[6] In an earlier 1970 investigation into the differences between the Christian university and the Islamic madrasah, Makdisi was of the opinion that the Christian doctorate of the medieval university was the one element in the university that was the most different from the Islamic ijazah certification.[16] Makdisi revised his views significantly and pointed out that the ijazat attadris was, in fact, the origin of the European doctorate, and that it had a significant influence upon the magisterium of the Christian Church.[17] According to the 1989 paper, the ijazat was equivalent to the Doctor of Laws qualification and was developed during the 9th century after the formation of the Madh'hab legal schools. To obtain a doctorate, a student "had to study in a guild school of law, usually four years for the basic undergraduate course" and at least ten years for a post-graduate course. The "doctorate was obtained after an oral examination to determine the originality of the candidate's theses," and to test the student's "ability to defend them against all objections, in disputations set up for the purpose" which were scholarly exercises practiced throughout the student's "career as a graduate student of law." After students completed their post-graduate education, they were awarded doctorates giving them the status of faqih (meaning "master of law"), mufti (meaning "professor of legal opinions") and mudarris (meaning "teacher"), which were later translated into Latin as magister, professor and doctor respectively.[6]

Along with the degree and doctorate, Makdisi and Hugh Goddard have also highlighted other terms and concepts now used in modern universities which were of Islamic origin, including "the fact that we still talk of professors holding the 'Chair' of their subject" being based on the "traditional Islamic pattern of teaching where the professor sits on a chair and the students sit around him", the term 'academic circles' being derived from the way in which Islamic students "sat in a circle around their professor", and terms such as "having 'fellows', 'reading' a subject, and obtaining 'degrees', can all be traced back" to the Islamic concepts of Ashab ("companions, as of the prophet Muhammad"), Qara'a ("reading aloud the Qur'an") and Ijazah ("licence to teach") respectively. Makdisi listed eighteen such parallels in terminology which can be traced back to their roots in Islamic education. Some of the practices now common to modern universities which Makdisi and Goddard trace back to an Islamic root include "practices such as delivering inaugural lectures, wearing academic robes, obtaining doctorates by defending a thesis, and even the idea of academic freedom are also modelled on Islamic custom."[18] The Islamic scholarly system of fatwa and ijma, meaning opinion and consensus respectively, formed the basis of the "scholarly system the West has practised in university scholarship from the Middle Ages down to the present day."[19] According to Makdisi and Goddard, "the idea of academic freedom" in universities was also "modelled on Islamic custom" as practised in the medieval Madrasah system from the 9th century. Islamic influence was "certainly discernible in the foundation of the first deliberately-planned university" in Europe, the University of Naples Federico II founded by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor in 1224.[18]

Medieval European universitiesEdit

File:University of Salamanca.jpg

One of medieval Europe's first universities was the University of Salerno. It began as a monastery in the 9th century, and then during Arabic-Latin translation movement, beginning in the 11th century, it evolved into the Schola Medica Salernitana, modelled after the Islamic medical schools, before evolving into the University of Salerno.

The first degree-granting university in Europe was the University of Bologna (1088). The other early Medieval European universities were the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), the University of Oxford (1167), 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), and the University of Toulouse (1229).[20][21] Historians such as George Makdisi,[6] John Makdisi[22] and Hugh Goddard[23] have pointed out that these medieval universities were heavily influenced in many ways by the medieval Madrasah institutions, in Islamic Spain and the Emirate of Sicily, as well as the Middle East during the Crusades.

Many of the medieval universities in Western Europe were developed under the aegis of the Roman Catholic Church, usually as cathedral schools or by papal bull as Studia Generali (NB: The development of cathedral schools into Universities actually appears to be quite rare, with the University of Paris being an exception - see Leff, Paris and Oxford Universities), later they were also founded by Kings (Charles University in Prague, Jagiellonian University in Krakow) or municipal administrations (University of Cologne, University of Erfurt). In the early medieval period, most new universities were founded from pre-existing schools, usually when these schools were deemed to have become primarily sites of higher education. Many historians state that universities and cathedral schools were a continuation of the interest in learning promoted by monasteries.

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).

Modern universitiesEdit

File:Coimbra University Tower 2.jpg

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, and the discovery of the New World in 1492 added human rights and international law to the university curriculumTemplate:Dubious.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] The French university model involved strict discipline and control over every aspect of the university.

Universities concentrated on science in the 19th and 20th centuries, and they started to become accessible to the masses after 1914. 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. 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.[citation needed]

Colloquial usageEdit

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 the Republic of Ireland, college is used instead: "when I was in college..."). See the college article for further discussion. In Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the German speaking countries "university" is often contracted to "uni". In New Zealand and in South Africa it is sometimes called "varsity", which was also common usage in the UK in the 19th century.



In his study of the American university since World War II, The Knowledge Factory, Stanley Aronowitz argues that the American university has been besieged by growing unemployment issues, the pressures of big business on the land grant university, as well as the political passivity and ivory tower naivety of American academics.[citation needed]

In a somewhat more theoretical vein, the late Bill Readings contends in his 1995 study The University in Ruins that the university around the world has been hopelessly commodified by globalization and the bureaucratic non-value of "excellence." His view is that the university will continue to linger on as an increasingly consumerist, ruined institution until or unless society is able to conceive of advanced education in transnational ways that can move beyond both the national subject and the corporate enterprise.[citation needed]

Moreover, the social sciences, while studied by approximately 30% of the population, were previously pursued by only 3% or less. This means the bulk of arts and humanities degrees do not necessarily lead to improved access to employment opportunities. David Graeber in his 2004 study Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology claimed that the university functions as a hierarchical disciplining device that places graduates in state and corporate bureaucracies.[24]

Richard Vedder, an Ohio University professor and member of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, has been a vocal critic of how institutions of higher education, including the universities, are financed. In his 2004 book, "Going Broke by Degree," Vedder says that tuition increases have rapidly outpaced inflation; that productivity in higher education has fallen or remained stagnant; and that third-party tuition payments from government or private sources have insulated students from bearing the full cost of their education, allowing costs to rise more rapidly.[25]

Under pressureEdit

In some countries, in some political systems, universities are controlled by political and/or religious authorities, who forbid certain fields and/or impose certain other fields. Sometimes national or racial limitations exist - for students, staff, research.

Nazi universitiesEdit

Books from university libraries, written by anti-Nazi or Jewish authors, were burned in places (e.g., 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 Freiburg University, 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. University of Poznań was closed by the Nazi Occupation in 1939. 1941–1944 a German university worked there. University of Strasbourg was transferred to Clermont-Ferrand and Reichsuniversität Straßburg existed 1941–1944 [1].

Nazi universities ended in 1945.

Soviet universitiesEdit

File:Moskau Uni.jpg

Soviet type universities existed in the Soviet Union and in other countries of the Eastern Bloc. Medical, technical, economical, technological and arts faculties were frequently separated from universities (compare the List of institutions of higher learning in Russia). Soviet ideology was taught divided into three disciplines: Scientific Communism, Marxism-Leninism and Communist Political Economy, and was introduced as part of many courses, eg. teaching Karl Marx' or Vladimir Lenin's views on energy or history. Sciences were generally tolerated, but the humanities curbed. In 1922, the Bolshevik government expelled some 160 prominent intellectuals on the Philosophers' ship, later some professors and students were killed or worked in Gulag camps. Communist economy was preferred, liberal ideas criticized or ignored. Genetics was degradated to Lysenkoism from the middle of the 1930s to the middle of the 1960s. Communist parties controlled or influenced universities. The leading university was the Moscow State University. After Joseph Stalin's death, universities in some Communist countries obtained more freedom. The Patrice Lumumba Peoples' Friendship University provided higher education as well as a training ground for young communists from developing countries.


  1. Google eBook of Encyclopedia Britannica
  2. Marcia L. Colish, Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition, 400-1400, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Pr., 1997), p. 267.
  3. Professor Jerome Bump, The Origin of Universities, University of Texas at Austin
  4. Robert Browning: "Universities, Byzantine", in: Dictionary of the Middle Ages, Vol. 12, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1989, pp. 300–302 (300):
    Universities, Byzantine. The medieval Greek world knew no autonomous and continuing institutions of higher education comparable to the universities of the later Middle Ages in Western Europe.
  5. Marina Loukaki: "Université. Domaine byzantin", in: Dictionnaire encyclopédique du Moyen Âge, Vol. 2, Éditions du Cerf, Paris, 1997, ISBN 2-204-05866-1, p. 1553:
    Le nom "université" désigne au Moyen Âge occidental une organisation corporative des élèves et des maîtres, avec ses fonctions et privilèges, qui cultive un ensemble d'études supérieures. L'existence d'une telle institution est fort contestée pour Byzance. Seule l'école de Constantinople sous Théodose Il peut être prise pour une institution universitaire. Par la loi de 425, l'empereur a établi l'"université de Constantinople", avec 31 professeurs rémunérés par l'État qui jouissaient du monopole des cours publics.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Makdisi, George (April-June 1989), "Scholasticism and Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West", Journal of the American Oriental Society 109 (2): 175–182 [175–77], doi:10.2307/604423 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Alatas, Syed Farid (2006), "From Jami`ah to University: Multiculturalism and Christian–Muslim Dialogue", Current Sociology 54 (1): 112–32, doi:10.1177/0011392106058837 
  8. Edmund Burke (June 2009), "Islam at the Center: Technological Complexes and the Roots of Modernity", Journal of World History (University of Hawaii Press) 20 (2): 165-186 [180-3], doi:10.1353/jwh.0.0045 
  9. The Guinness Book Of Records, 1998, p. 242, ISBN 0-5535-7895-2
  10. Goddard, Hugh (2000), A History of Christian-Muslim Relations, Edinburgh University Press, p. 99, ISBN 074861009X 
  11. Edmund Burke (June 2009), "Islam at the Center: Technological Complexes and the Roots of Modernity", Journal of World History (University of Hawaii Press) 20 (2): 165–186 [180-3], doi:10.1353/jwh.0.0045 
  12. John Bagot Glubb:
    By Mamun's time medical schools were extremely active in Baghdad. The first free public hospital was opened in Baghdad during the Caliphate of Haroon-ar-Rashid. As the system developed, physicians and surgeons were appointed who gave lectures to medical students and issued diplomas to those who were considered qualified to practice. The first hospital in Egypt was opened in 872 AD and thereafter public hospitals sprang up all over the empire from Spain and the Maghrib to Persia.
    (cf. Quotations on Islamic Civilization)
  13. Necipogulu, Gulru (1996), Muqarnas, Volume 13, Brill Publishers, p. 56, ISBN 9004106332 
  14. A European Civil Project of a Documentation Center on Islam
  15. Makdisi, George (April-June 1989), "Scholasticism and Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West", Journal of the American Oriental Society 109 (2): 175–182 [176], doi:10.2307/604423 
  16. George Makdisi: "Madrasa and University in the Middle Ages", Studia Islamica, No. 32 (1970), pp. 255–264 (260): "Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the two systems is embodied in their systems of certification; namely, in medieval Europe, the licentia docendi, or license to teach; in medieval Islam, the ijaza, or authorization. In Europe, the license to teach was a license to teach a certain field of knowledge. It was conferred by the licensed masters acting as a corporation, with the consent of a Church authority, in Paris, by the Chancellor of the Cathedral Chapter... Certification in the Muslim East remained a personal matter between the master and the student. The master conferred it on an individual for a particular work, or works. Qualification, in the strict sense of the word, was supposed to be a criterion, but it was at the full discretion of the master, since, if he chose, he could give an ijaza to children hardly able to read, or even to unborn children. This was surely an abuse of the system...but no official system was involved. The ijaza was a personal matter, the sole prerogative of the person bestowing it; no one could force him to give one."
  17. Makdisi, George (April–June 1989), "Scholasticism and Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West", Journal of the American Oriental Society 109 (2): 175–182 [175–77], doi:10.2307/604423, "I hope to show how the Islamic doctorate had its influence on Western scholarship, as well as on the Christian religion, creating there a problem still with us today. [...] As you know, the term doctorate comes from the Latin docere, meaning to teach; and the term for this academic degree in medieval Latin was licentia docendi, "the license to teach." This term is the word for word translation of the original Arabic term, ijazat attadris. In the classical period of Islam's system of education, these two words were only part of the term; the full term included wa I-ifttd, meaning, in addition to the license to teach, a "license to issue legal opinions." [...] The doctorate came into existence after the ninth century Inquisition in Islam. It had not existed before, in Islam or anywhere else. [...] But the influence of the Islamic doctorate extended well beyond the scholarly culture of the university system. Through that very system it modified the millennial magisterium of the Christian Church. [...] Just as Greek non-theistic thought was an intrusive element in Islam, the individualistic Islamic doctorate, originally created to provide machinery for the Traditionalist determination of Islamic orthodoxy, proved to be an intrusive element in hierarchical Christianity. In classical Islam the doctorate consisted of two main constituent elements: (I) competence, i.e., knowledge and skill as a scholar of the law; and (2) authority, i.e., the exclusive and autonomous right, the jurisdictional authority, to issue opinions having the value of orthodoxy, an authority known in the Christian Church as the magisterium. [...] For both systems of education, in classical Islam and the Christian West, the doctorate was the end-product of the school exercise, with this difference, however, that whereas in the Western system the doctorate at first merely meant competence, in Islam it meant also the jurisdictional magisterium." 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Goddard, Hugh (2000), A History of Christian-Muslim Relations, Edinburgh University Press, p. 100, ISBN 074861009X, OCLC 237514956 
  19. Makdisi, George (April-June 1989), "Scholasticism and Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West", Journal of the American Oriental Society 109 (2): 175–182 [175–77], doi:10.2307/604423 
  21. Medieval Universities And the Origin of the College
  22. Makdisi, John A. (June 1999), "The Islamic Origins of the Common Law", North Carolina Law Review 77 (5): 1635-1739 
  23. Goddard, Hugh (2000), A History of Christian-Muslim Relations, Edinburgh University Press, p. 99, ISBN 074861009X 
  24. full PDF version of "Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology"
  25. Vedder, Richard (July 2004). "Going Broke by Degree: Why College Costs Too Much". American Enterprise Institute.,filter.all/book_detail2.asp. 


  • Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory. Boston: Beacon, 2000. ISBN 0807031224
  • Clyde W. Barrow, Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate Liberalism and the Reconstruction of American Higher Education, 1894–1928, University of Wisconsin Press 1990 ISBN 0-299-12400-2
  • Sigmund Diamond, Compromised Campus: The Collaboration of Universities with the Intelligence Community, 1945–1955, Oxford University Press 1992 ISBN 0-195-05382-6
  • Olaf Pedersen, The First Universities : Studium Generale and the Origins of University Education in Europe, Cambridge University Press, 1998 ISBN 0-521-59431-6
  • Bill Readings, The University in Ruins. Harvard University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-674-92953-5.
  • Thomas F. Richards, The Cold War Within American Higher Education: Rutgers University As a Case Study,Pentland Press 1998 ISBN 1-571-97108-4
  • Walter Ruegg (ed), A History of the University in Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (3 vols) ISBN 0-521-36107-9 (vol 3 reviewed by Laurence Brockliss in the Times Literary Supplement, no 5332, 10 June 2005, pages 3–4)

See alsoEdit

Related termsEdit

academia - academic rank - academy - admission - alumnus - aula - polytechnic - Brain farm - Bologna process - business schools - Grandes écoles - campus - college - college and university rankings - dean - degree - diploma - discipline - dissertation - faculty - fraternities and sororities - graduate student - graduation - Ivory Tower - lecturer - medieval university - medieval university (Asia) - mega university - perpetual student - professor - provost - rector - research - scholar - senioritis - student - tenure - Town and Gown - tuition - undergraduate - universal access - university administration


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