How did universities develop?

Figure 1. Depiction of Plato's Academy.

Universities today are a key component for modern states and economies, where the professional classes and academic research are fostered. We often rate societies by their abilities to produce scientific achievement and develop economic success where universities play a critical role in this. However, the history of universities was very different and these institutions were first relatively parochial and only in recent times have they become pervasive.

Early Development

Early institutions of higher learning existed long before universities were established. These early institutions conducted research and taught pupils, similar to our ideas of universities today. Early recordings from Egypt and Mesopotamia suggest there were not only scholars who conducted research but also these scholars likely taught and were affiliated with institutions of learning. The Ashurbanipal Library at Nineveh and Library at Sippar were collections of knowledge that likely also had students and teachers associated with them that taught a select group of individuals who not only learned the complex written languages of their day but also began to study and apply their knowledge. [1]

The first institution that was more fully documented was the Platonic Academy (Figure 1), founded in 387 BCE, with Aristotle's Peripatetic school founded in 335 BCE having derived from Plato's Academy. These schools generally had a select few pupils and were not institutions for mass education.[2] Perhaps one of the first truly international institutions of higher education was the Musaeum, an institutions that brought knowledge to it from around the known world. The Library of Alexandria was part of this institution and it served as a repository for knowledge not just from the Hellenistic world but also accumulated knowledge from Babylonia and Persia that had preceded Greek scholarship. The Musaeum largely functioned like an international university, where students would come to be educated by the best teachers. The Ptolemaic state was tolerant to scholarship and allowed individuals from many regions to come to Alexandria to be involved in this institution.[3]

In the ancient world, several regions developed traditions of scholarship. In the Indian subcontinent, Pushpagiri and Nalanda were two well known centers of higher education. These institutions were devoted to Buddhist teaching but also trained individuals in arts, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. Even politics, or something comparable to political science, or political theory, was taught at these academies. Earlier Hindu higher learning cetnres, such as Taxilia, also inducted students. This place became associated with one of the earliest economic treatises known to us, a text call the Arthashastra, which also discussed other topics as well, such as political statecraft.[4]

China had developed an imperial academy to train bureaucrats during the Han dynasty in Taixue by the 1st century CE. While earlier academies were more akin to private institutions, the imperial training system the Chinese developed became more similar to public education. The school seemed to recruit students nationwide and admission was based on skills and accolades, demonstrating that by then higher education had become a form of social mobility and mass education. Up to 30,000 students may have attended the academy at a given time. Later in the 1st millennium CE, the school began to develop an examination system that evaluated its enrolled classes.[5]

In ancient Persia, during the Sasanid dynasty at around 3rd century CE, Gundishapur functioned as a medical training and higher education academy. This academy continued to function for some time after the arrival of Islam and became one of the key influences and foundations for Islamic higher education that succeed it.[6]

In Europe, during the Roman and later Antiquity period, scholarship continued to follow the Platonic tradition established by the Greeks. However, these institutions were closed by the 6th century CE, due to their association with pagan practices and philosophies. With the fall of the Roman Empire, scholarship became confined to isolated monasteries. These monasteries trained individuals in learning, mostly those who became priests or monks, and began to document some of the Greek and other knowledge from the past.[7]

Early Universities

Figure 2. Merton College in Oxford, one of Oxford's oldest colleges and residences..

The first true university, that is an institution called as such, was founded in Bologna, Italy in 1088. The Latin phrase universitas magistrorum et scholarium indicated an association of teachers and scholars. As this early date, universities were more of an association or a guild for learning particular crafts. In the case of Bologna, the focus was law. The emphasis was on training students for more developed skills within a particular profession so that they can serve and develop those skills at more professional levels. Oxford, the second oldest university and oldest English speaking university, was founded probably sometime late in the 11th century. Traditions such as having a chancellor and residence halls had become established by the 13th century. Oxford had established its oldest colleges, Balliol and Merton Colleges, by the mid 13th century (Figure 2).[8]

The early universities, such as Paris which later became the Sorbonne, derived from the monastic or also cathedral learning schools that had continued into the early Medieval era after the fall of the Roman Empire. These early universities were thus closely affiliated with the Catholic church, although education began to be broad and offered important skills outside of religious education. Despite the religious association of schools, they also developed to be independent and sometimes trained individuals who would come into conflict with the church.[9]

A key development occurred in the founding of the University of Naples, founded in 1224, as it was founded as a public institution dedicated by a king rather than the pope or Catholic church. Some see this as the beginning of developing the concept of secular education, although virtually all higher education institutions had religious curriculum as part of their broader education. In Germany, where many cities developed very independent traditions, we see municipalities and municipal government being active in the founding of universities. This is the case with the University of Cologne, founded in 1388.[10]

The Modern University

By the late Medieval and Early Modern Period, the number of universities began to grow rapidly in Europe, where by the 18th century there were probably around 143 universities. This does not include other forms of higher education institutions that did not call themselves universities, such as academies. The University of Paris began to develop the idea of faculties that differentiated areas of study. The topics of focus that began to develop in universities were philosophy, where still the traditional title for PhDs is doctor of philosophy, medicine, logic, theology, law, mathematics, astronomy, and grammar. These branches of study were seen to be related to a humanistic perspective, as many required translation of ancient works in addition to a focus on the discipline.[11]

Early universities were rigid and heavily influenced by Aristotle's notion of the sciences and learning. However, scholars began to experiment with new ways of learning and experimentation. Disciplines began to break away from a heavy influence of humanistic influences. This led to the divergent development of the sciences from the humanities within an education system. By the 18th century, universities also began developing research journals, encouraging scholars to publish and circulate their findings with other scholars. In Germany, Wilhelm von Humboldt developed ideas of academic freedom, seminars, and laboratories as a way for universities to foster debate, knowledge, and new scientific inquiry.[12]

During the 19th century, public universities available for the masses became more widespread. It was only in the 19th century that religion began to become less of an important focus in the curriculum. This gradually made universities secular higher education institutions and, with the development of the Industrial Revolution, many universities began to more greatly focus on the sciences as industrialization began to develop as a form of competition between the Western world. In Britain, the concept of the civic university was seen as an engine for developing a secular, economic potential that used the masses by giving them access to education.[13]

The British Empire and later other European empires began to transplant the European model of education around the world. While the United States began to adopt some of the German model for a research university, much of the rest of the world also was instilled with European concepts. These then became pervasive and entrenched within countries such that when colonial powers diminished in the 20th century, the university systems they either founded or had fostered as educational models were largely kept in places such as India, Kenya, and in the Middle East.[14]


Today's universities have diversified further. Private universities that have a business-like or for profit model has been one prominent model developed recently. Intergovernmental and universities built by countries in foreign places have been created as a way to promote ideas or training that is similar to what one might obtain in the home countries. This has spread many similar concepts of universities world wide, where countries with very different cultures and traditions now have relatively similar ideas of universities. This has also become a way in which countries now see universities as a way to compete in the global marketplace, as they train their masses and develop their economic competitiveness.

What we seen then is that higher education changed conceptually from restricted academic institutions, to the foundation of universities, which proved to be similar to guilds in the Medieval period. It was only in the late Medieval and Early Modern era that universities began to spread more rapidly and in the 19th century these institutions became fully secular. This secularization, and later acceptance of women, helped the masses to enroll in universities during the 19th century. The concept of mass education became established as industrialization became a key for countries' economic success and power.


  1. For more on learning in Mesopotamia and Egypt, see: Krebs, Robert E. 2004. Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries through the Ages. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  2. For more on the early Greek higher education institutions, see: Reale, Giovanni, John R. Catan, and Giovanni Reale. 1990. Plato and Aristotle. A History of Ancient Philosophy, Giovanni Reale ; 2. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, pg. 149.
  3. For more on the Musaeum and Library at Alexandria, see: MacLeod, Roy M., ed. 2000. The Library of Alexandria: Centre of Learning in the Ancient World. London ; New York : New York: I.B. Tauris ; In the U.S.A. and Canada distributed by St. Martin’s Press.
  4. For more on India's higher education ancient tradition, see: Mookerji, Radhakumud. 1989. Ancient Indian Education: Brahmanical and Buddhist. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
  5. For more on China's early higher education and imperial academy, see: Becker, Jasper. 2000. The Chinese. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, pg. 8.
  6. For more on Gundishapur, see: Esposito, John L., ed. 1999. The Oxford History of Islam. New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press, pg. 742.
  7. For a history of early Medieval European learning, see: Kleinhenz, Christopher, ed. 2004. Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia. The Routledge Encyclopedias of the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, pg. 314.
  8. For more on the early universities, see: Ridder-Symoens, Hilde de, ed. 1992. Universities in the Middle Ages. A History of the University in Europe, v. 1. Cambridge [England] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  9. For more on the role of the Church in universities, see: Ellis, John Tracy. 1989. Faith and Learning: A Church Historian’s Story. Melville Studies in Church History, v. 1. Lanham, MD : [Washington, D.C.]: University Press of America ; Dept. of Church History, Catholic University of America.
  10. For more on the development of public universities, see: Nicholas, David. 1992. The Evolution of the Medieval World: Society, Government, and Thought in Europe, 312-1500. London ; New York: Longman.
  11. For more on the early modern universities, see: Kirwan, Richard, and Jonathan Davies. 2013. Scholarly Self-Fashioning and Community in the Early Modern University. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate.
  12. For more on Humboldt's developments, see: The University according to Humboldt: History, Policy, and Future Possibilities. 2015. 1st edition. New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media.
  13. For more on the development of mass education in the 19th century, see: Brockliss, L. W. B, and Nicola Sheldon. 2012. Mass Education and the Limits of State Building, C. 1870-1930. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
  14. For more on the British model and spread of universities during the period of European empires, see: Pietsch, Tamson. 2015. Empire of Scholars: Universities, Networks and the British Academic World, 1850-1939. Manchester: Manchester University Press.