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A professor giving a lecture at the Helsinki University of Technology
A professor giving a lecture at the Helsinki University of Technology

A university is an institution of higher education and of research, which grants academic degrees. A university provides both tertiary and quaternary education. University is derived from the Latin universitas, meaning corporation (since the first medieval European universities were simply groups of scholars).



Because of the above definition, the oldest universities in the world were all European, as the awarding of academic degrees was not a custom of older institutions of learning in Asia and Africa. However, institutions of higher learning considerably older than the most ancient European universities existed in countries such as China, Egypt and India.

The Academy, founded in 387 BC by the Greek philosopher Plato in the grove of Academos near Athens, taught its students philosophy, mathematics, and gymnastics, and is sometimes considered a forerunner of modern European universities. Other Greek cities with notable educational institutions include Kos (the home of Hippocrates), which had a medical school, and Rhodes, which had philosophical schools. Another famous classical university was the Museum and Library of Alexandria.

About a thousand years after Plato, institutions bearing a resemblance to the modern university existed in Persia and the Islamic world, notably the Academy of Gundishapur and later also al-Azhar University in Cairo.

In Asia, there were a number of institutions of higher learning that vaguely resembled universities in the Western sense of the word. In general, these are of considerable antiquity, predating western institutions of higher learning by centuries. For example, the early Chinese state depended upon literate, educated officials for operation of the empire, and an imperial examination and education system was established in the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220) for evaluating and selecting officials from the general populace.The ancient cities of Nalanda, Vikramasila, Kanchipura and Takshasila were greatly reputed centres of learning in the east, with students from all over Asia. In particular, Nalanda was a famous center of Buddhist scholarship, and as such it attracted a vast number of Buddhist scholars from China, central Asia and Southeast Asia.

In the Carolingian period, a famous academy was created by Charlemagne for the purpose of educating the children of aristocrats to help train the professionals needed to run an empire. It was a foreshadow of the rise of the University in the 11th century.

The first European medieval university was the University of Magnaura in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), founded in 849 by the emperor Bardas, followed by the University of Bologna in Bologna, Italy, and the University of Paris in Paris, France. Many of the medieval universities in Western Europe were born under the aegis of the Catholic Church, usually as cathedral schools. 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 the university when they had completed the study of the trivium–the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic–and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. (See degrees of Oxford University for the history of how the trivium and quadrivium developed in relation to degrees, especially in anglophone universities).

Universities are generally established by statute or charter. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a university is instituted by Act of Parliament or Royal Charter; in either case generally with the approval of Privy Council, and only such recognized bodies can award degrees of any kind.


See Education in France.

In France, students can also attend grandes écoles, which are very prestigious and elite schools, with small student bodies—usually a couple of hundred students—and very selective and competitive entrance exams. There are grandes écoles for literature, business, and engineering. Formation provided in these schools is usually of a better level than the corresponding one in French universities. The system of the grandes écoles is particular to the French education system.

United States

See Education in the United States.

In the United States, universities are usually treated by the law as a corporation like any other, although many states impose special responsibilities to safeguard the welfare of a university's students. Because the U.S. federal government does not directly organize or regulate universities, unofficial but formalized systems of accreditation have been developed by regional networks of academic institutions.

In the late 19th century, the U.S. Congress encouraged the creation of many land-grant universities. In the last decades of the 20th century, a number of "mega-universities" have been created, teaching with distance learning techniques.

The vast majority of American private and public universities are non-profit (meaning that excess tuition is put into providing more and better services), but starting in the 1970s, many for-profit colleges and universities were founded to take advantage of changes in the federal student assistance programs.

Selective admissions

Unlike community colleges, enrollment at a university is generally not available to all. However, admission systems vary widely around the world, as discussed in the article college admissions.

Colloquial usage

Colloquially, the term university is used around the world for a phase in one's life: "when I was at university…"; in the United States, college is often used: "when I was in college…". See college, §3, for further discussion. In the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia "University" is often contracted to simply "Uni".

The usual practice in the United States today is to call an institution made up of several faculties and granting a range of higher degrees a "university" while a smaller institution only granting bachelor's or associate's degrees is called a "college". (See liberal arts colleges, community college). Nevertheless, a few of America's oldest and most prestigious universities, such as Boston College, Dartmouth College and the College of William and Mary, have retained the term "college" in their names for historical reasons though they offer a wide range of higher degrees.

See also

Related terms

academia - academic rank - academy - admission - alumnus - aula - 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 - lecturer - medieval university - medieval university (Asia) - mega university - perpetual student - professor - provost - rector - research - scholar - senioritis - student - tenure - tuition - undergraduate - universal access - university administration


  • Walter Ruegg (ed), A History of the University in Europe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (3 vols) ISBN 0521361079 (vol 3 reviewed by Laurence Brockliss in the Times Literary Supplement, no 5332, 10 June 2005, pages 3-4).
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