Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Old School: Centuries-old Universities

The new education minister's lack of a college degree has caused a mini furore. So, when did the concept of a college degree first come up anyway?

Published: Jun 21, 2014 07:25:19 AM IST
Updated: Jun 16, 2014 05:35:07 PM IST
Old School: Centuries-old Universities
Image: Floris Leeuwenberg / Corbis

1. West Asia & Islamic centres
The Sumerians, says Guiness World Records, had schools in 3500 BC. In ancient pre-Islamic Persia, the academy of Gundishapur trained students in science, among other subjects, and was regarded as the most important medical centre of the 6th and 7th centuries. Morocco’s Al-Karaouine, founded in 859, is accepted as the oldest continuously operating degree-granting madrasah. Egypt’s Al-Azhar, founded around 970, transitioned in mid-20th century to a modern university granting degrees in secular subjects.

2. East Asia

Imperial China trained its administrators in an academy called the Taixue, established around 3 CE. It was a nation-wide network of smaller schools with the main centre in the capital, Chang’an. Civil service exams evolved a thousand years later.

3. Europe & the Americas
The Platonic Academy, in Athens, Greece, ran for over 900 years, from 387 BC. But the first modern universities took shape in the 11th century.

Italy’s University of Bologna is the first degree-granting centre in the Western world. Founded in 1088, the term ‘university’ (from the Latin universitas, meaning ‘a whole’) was coined for its foundation. While Oxford claims to being founded around 250 years before that (teaching happened around the area for a very long time) the formal founding date is 1096. Cambridge was a result of a split from Oxford in 1209.

There were no university-like institutions in the New World before European colonisation. The first to come up were in South America, modelled on the Spanish university of Salamanca (founded in 1288). The earliest one was the university of Santo Domingo in 1538 (in Dominican Republic). North America followed with the New College in Massachusetts in 1636 (it later became Harvard University).

4. India
Takshashila, in Pakistan’s Punjab province, was a centre of higher learning around 2,000 to 2,500 years ago. Some call it one of the world’s earliest universities; others differ, on the grounds that it does not seem to have had lecture halls or dormitories. The city was destroyed in about the 5th century. To the east, in Bihar, Nalanda, from around 5 CE to when it was destroyed at the end of the 12th century, was a Buddhist centre of higher learning that had, at peak, over 10,000 students living and studying under around 2,000 teachers. (A new Nalanda University has been taking shape near the ruins of the old, supported by the national and state governments.)

(This story appears in the 27 June, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)