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University: Overview

University: Overview

The university is a legal corporation empowered by civil or ecclesiastical authorities to award degrees certifying that the recipients have achieved significant levels of expertise in various disciplines. Teachers instruct students of various ages and preparation in higher learning in several subjects. Many, but not all, teachers are scholars who carry on original research in order to add to the body of knowledge available to all. The world outside the university expects it to contribute to society by creating new knowledge, by training learned professionals at an advanced level, and helping all students to develop intellectually and culturally. This is the idea of the university. It has not changed in substance in nine hundred years, even though ideas about how universities should fulfill their missions have changed and expanded.

Precedents in the Ancient World and Islam

The ancient world did not have universities. But it did have several centers for research and study at an advanced level that provided the opportunity for a limited amount of informal education. Plato (427348 b.c.e.) after 388 b.c.e. founded an Academy in Athens in which men gathered to discuss broad philosophical issues through interrogation and dialogue. The Academy lasted until 529 c.e., albeit with many changes. Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.) had a circle of friends and pupils who gathered just outside Athens. After his death, Theophrastus (c. 372c. 287 b.c.e. made it into a center, usually known as the Peripatetic School, for the study of the subjects that interested Aristotle, which meant practically everything from natural science to poetry, but especially philosophy. Neither the Academy nor the Peripatetic School, which lasted until the third century c.e., offered structured education or awarded degrees.

The museum and its library in Alexandria, Egypt, was the most important center for advanced learning in the Greco-Roman world. Museum meant a place where learned men cultivated the muses, not a collection of artifacts. Founded in the third century b.c.e. by Ptolemy I Soter (r. 305283 b.c.e.), the museum provided support for writers but soon attracted scholars in many other fields, especially astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. Ptolemy I added a library that attempted to obtain, or make copies of, the works of all known Greek authors. Scholars corrected and edited the texts, an important form of advanced academic scholarship. The museum of Alexandria had numerous scholars, some of whom attracted followers, but it did not offer formal education or confer degrees. The persecutions of Ptolemy VIII (r. 145116 b.c.e.) drove some scholars away and ended the museum's greatest days, although it lasted until 651. The idea motivating Plato's Academy, Aristotle's Peripatetic School, and the museum and library of Alexandria was the advancement of high-level scholarship in many fields through the gathering of scholars and texts.

Between the eighth and eleventh centuries the Islamic world created the college, called masjid khan and later madrasa, a place where mature scholars taught law based on the Koran to younger men. Teachers, advanced students who assisted the master in teaching, and beginning students lived together for several years in inns attached to important mosques. But Islamic law colleges did not develop the corporate structure and legal identity of the university, and they did not influence the Christian West. Nor did Islam have organized institutions for medical and philosophical higher education. Distinguished Islamic scholars such as the medical scholar Ibn Sina (or Avicenna, 9801037) and the philosopher and commentator on Aristotle, Ibn Rusd (Averroës, 11261198), did not hold teaching positions but were court physicians most of their adult lives. In similar fashion, Jewish students came to learn from eminent Jewish interpreters of the Talmud, the basic source for Jewish law, in German and northern French towns, especially in the twelfth century. But the Talmudic schools did not evolve into universities.

The Creation of the University

The Western European Middle Ages created the university, its most significant and enduring achievement after the Roman Catholic Church. No clear idea or plan lay behind the beginning of the university. Rather, the two original universities of Bologna and Paris arose spontaneously as practical responses to circumstances, desires, and needs. In the late eleventh century, law students began to gather in Bologna at the feet of senior jurists who looked to ancient Roman law as the guide for creating legal principles to sort out the conflicting claims and rights of empire, church, kingdoms, princedoms, towns, and individuals. In similar fashion students came to Paris to study arts, philosophy, and especially theology. In both cities enough teaching and organization regulating the teaching and the rights and obligations of teachers and students was in place by about 1150 that it could be said that universities were born.

Recognition that universities were new and unique institutions came after the fact. In the twelfth century universitas meant a group of people legally recognized as a collectivity. The corporation of masters and students at Paris first called itself a universitas in 1221. Hence, universities came into existence when society recognized that teachers and students as a collectivity had certain legal rights. Another term was studium generale (universal school), meaning an institution of higher learning that attracted students from a wide area and had the right to grant degrees authorizing the holder to teach anywhere in the world. A key event occurred in Bologna in the 1220s when the city government began to pay the salaries of teachers. This meant that professors would stay in one place and guaranteed the stability and continuity of the university. While pope and emperor played no role in their creation, civil governments, teachers, and students accepted that it was useful and orderly that popes and emperors should issue charters authorizing universities to award degrees recognized throughout Christendom.

These and other measures gave the university the basic shape that continues in the twenty-first century. The medieval university consisted of a corps of professors teaching arts (including logic, Latin literature, and mathematics), philosophy, medicine, surgery, science, canon law, civil law, and theology at an advanced level. Students of varying ages, from the early teens through men in their mid-twenties, heard lectures, studied texts required by university statutes, and participated in academic exercises for several years, sometimes for more than a decade. They submitted themselves to examinations for bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. Upon obtaining degrees, they practiced or taught the disciplines that they had mastered. While sharing a basic structure, universities in northern and southern Europe differed. Many northern universities, including Paris and Oxford, taught mostly arts and theology to students studying for bachelors' degrees. Bologna and other Italian universities concentrated on law and medicine and awarded doctoral degrees.

European monarchs, princes, and towns founded and staffed at considerable expense a very large number of universities in the fourteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. Historians frequently state that monarchs and cities founded universities in order to train civil servants to fill the expanding ranks of government offices, and certainly many law graduates did so. But contemporary documents do not mention this rationale for founding universities. Instead, university foundation charters offered as reasons the universal thirst for knowledge and the benefits to society of men learned in different subjects and full of mature counsel. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of these lofty concepts. And reference to mature advice meant that university training would give those who later served ruler or town the scholarly perspective with which to approach complex issues.

The University in the Renaissance and Reformation

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, universities enjoyed a nearly complete monopoly as educators of Europe's scholarly, civic, and ecclesiastical elites. Although no author or treatise articulated the idea that universities should train the intellectual and sometimes the political and ecclesiastical leaders of Europe, they did. In the sixteenth century European universities probably exerted the greatest influence on learning and society in their history. Professors at Italian universities made extraordinary, original, scholarly contributions in medicine, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. The original anatomical research of Andreas Vesalius (15141564) while at the University of Padua from 1537 to 1543 and the mathematical and scientific research of Galileo Galilei (15641642), who taught at the University of Pisa from 1589 to 1592 and the University of Padua from 1592 to 1610, were just the best known of many examples of innovative research with enduring consequences. Martin Luther (14831546) created a new theology while teaching at the University of Wittenberg from 1513 on. He and many other professors of theology led the Protestant Reformation through their teaching, writing, and advice to princes. The Reformation, in turn, changed Europe religiously, politically, and culturally.

As a result of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, many European universities became closely allied with religious groups in ways that they never had been in the past. The Society of Jesus in particular dominated some older universities or played major roles in newly founded ones from the middle of the sixteenth century onward. On the other side of the religious divide, some universities became closely identified with Protestant churches, such as the University of Wittenberg with the Lutheran Church and several universities with Calvinism, especially in the Netherlands. The University of Leiden (founded in 1575) was the most important among the latter.

Universities beyond Europe

When Europeans took their civilization to new continents, they quickly founded universities modeled on those of Europe. Catholic religious orders and Protestant churches founded most of the overseas universities, which trained indigenous clergy and produce educated lay leaders. The first universities founded in the New World were Santo Domingo (after 1538), Mexico (1551), and Lima (1571). A Catholic bishop of the Dominican Order founded the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, the Philippines, in 1611. The Congregational Church founded Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1636 and named it for a minister who bestowed a considerable gift on the new college. These and many other universities across the world were based on European models. They were small in enrollment, faculty, and instruction at first, but grew over the centuries.

Universities in Decline

By 1600 European universities were beginning a period of decline in accomplishments and influence that lasted about 250 years. Many new schools arose in both Catholic and Protestant Europe to take students away from universities and to offer employment for scholars. In the Catholic world the Society of Jesus or Jesuits and other new religious orders developed schools that taught part of the university curriculum. The Jesuits began by teaching Latin grammar, humanities, and rhetoric to boys aged ten to sixteen, then added a three-year program of logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics at a higher level, as well as mathematics and occasionally other subjects. These were university subjects. The Jesuits had 578 schools, many with university-level instruction, across Europe in 1679. In Protestant Europe academies competed with universities. These were small schools offering higher instruction in a limited number of disciplines, especially arts and theology, without necessarily conferring degrees. The prototype was the Geneva Academy, founded by John Calvin in 1559. Academies hired excellent teachers and took students away from universities.

Learned societies, such as the Royal Society of London for the Advancement of Natural Knowledge, founded in 1662, offered more competition to universities by supporting scholars without requiring them to teach. Most learned societies on the Continent received funding from governments, which enabled them to offer salaries to members who carried on research in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and other subjects without teaching.

Enlightenment philosophes of the eighteenth century strongly criticized universities for not being useful to society because they held on to a traditional curriculum, a criticism often repeated in the next two centuries. The philosophes persuaded rulers to create nonuniversity institutions of higher learning to teach specialized practical subjects, such as agricultural technology, engineering, military science, surgery, even painting. They thought that such institutions would produce citizens capable of contributing useful knowledge to society and the state. Napoléon Bonaparte (who ruled France and much of Europe from 1799 to 1815) agreed. He abolished many universities in France and Germany and created technical schools in their place.

The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

Nineteenth-century German educational reformers revivified and gave new meaning to the idea of the university. Karl Wilhelm, baron von Humboldt (17671835), minister for education in Prussia, believed that universities should support Wissenschaft, faculty research and discovery in all fields, and should foster Bildung, or cultivation, meaning broad intellectual development and humanistic culture, in students. The new University of Berlin, founded in 1810, embodied Humboldt's vision. The renewed emphasis on research echoed the importance of innovative scholarship in theology, philosophy, law, and medicine by professors at medieval and Renaissance universities. The German research university of the second half of the nineteenth century realized the first goal and was widely copied by North American universities in the twentieth century. Many universities, especially those focusing on undergraduate education, in England, North America, and parts of the world influenced by England, emphasized a version of Bildung and called it liberal education in English and culture générale in French.

Beginning in the nineteenth century, governments assumed a greater role in higher education in Western Europe and the United States. National governments in France, Germany, Italy, and elsewhere founded new state universities and closed or took control of church-sponsored institutions. Governments provided funding for universities, but also brought them under the control of ministries of education and made professors into civil servants. This process continued in the twentieth century, especially in the former Soviet Union (19171991). In the United States, state governments founded land-grant colleges in the nineteenth century that often became the largest and most important universities in the state. Although the United States still has a large number of colleges and universities affiliated with religious denominations, the ties between churches and universities have weakened and sometimes been dissolved. Church-affiliated universities have become less insistent that professors be members of the affiliated church, and they increasingly attract students of many faiths or none at all.

Since World War II (19391945) the dominant ideas shaping the university are that it should create new learning, teach skills in all fields and especially science and medicine, help the economy create wealth, and support a knowledge-driven society. While not ignored, humanistic research and teaching are less central. The multi-university, as it is sometimes called, offers an astonishing range of institutes, centers, and schools to teach all manner of knowledge, much of it practical. Emblematic of the new conception of the university is the addition of business schools preparing students to be successful in the many areas of national and international commerce and finance.

The idea that universities should provide higher education for a much larger proportion of the population has also won wide support from the public and governments. Hence, beginning in the 1960s governments increased the number and enrollments of universities and eased or broadened admission requirements. In addition, many more older students attended universities than in the past. As a result, the number of university students in Europe, North America, and other parts of the world greatly increased in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. One or two percent, at most, of the university-age population (eighteen through twenty-four) attended European universities in the first half of the twentieth century. By contrast, about half of the university-age population received some university education in the United States at the end of the twentieth century. In Europe as well, an increasing number of young people are attending university. Also, the European Union is slowly moving toward cooperation between universities in different countries and greater mobility of professors and students.

Women Students and Professors

Women were neither students nor professors in universities for many centuries. This was probably not the result of a conscious decision to exclude them, but the logical consequence of the view that universities prepared students for public careers and professions that women traditionally did not enter or from which they were barred. The path toward acceptance of women in universities was long and slow. The first woman to obtain a university degree was Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (16461684), a Venetian noblewoman, who received a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Padua on 25 June 1678. She did not attend lectures but obtained the degree through examination, an accepted practice in Italian universities. The second was Laura Bassi (17111778), a highborn Bolognese woman who obtained a doctorate of philosophy, again through examination, from the University of Bologna on 12 May 1732. She was the first female professor, as she taught experimental science at the University of Bologna from 1732 to 1738. The third was Maria Pellegrina Amoretti, who earned a doctorate in law from the University of Pavia on 25 June 1777.

From 1800 through 1945 more women, although still a small minority, attended university and earned degrees. Because many universities did not accept women as students, undergraduate colleges for women were founded, as well as new colleges and universities that admitted both men and women, especially in the United States. This changed greatly in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. Nearly all male-only colleges and universities in the United States accepted women as students, and a majority of women-only institutions enrolled men. But except for traditional female-dominated professions, such as nursing, only a few women were university professors in Europe and North America as late as the 1960s. Then, in response to larger societal moves to provide equal rights and opportunities for women, the barriers became lower or disappeared. By the twenty-first century women constituted the majority of undergraduates in American universities and about half of the students in law and medical schools. The number of women professors has increased greatly, although their distribution by fields varies. European universities also saw an expansion in the number of female students and professors, although the number of female faculty members varies considerably from country to country.

The idea of a university that offers education to students and supports advanced research by professors has proven to be one of the most enduring and influential ideas in Western civilization.

See also Education .


Addy, George M. The Enlightenment in the University of Salamanca. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1966.

Bendall, Sarah, Christopher Brooke, and Patrick Collinson. A History of Emmanuel College Cambridge. Woodbridge, U. K.: Boydell Press, 1999. Has interesting intellectual, personal, and social detail.

Brockliss, L. W. B. French Higher Education in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: A Cultural History. Oxford: Clarendon, 1987.

Clark, Burton R., and Gary R. Neave, eds. The Encyclopedia of Higher Education. 4 vols. Oxford and New York: Pergamon Press, 1992. Provides information on higher education in all parts of the world with a contemporary emphasis.

Grendler, Paul F. The Universities of the Italian Renaissance. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

History of Oxford University. 8 vols. in 9 parts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 19842000. Comprehensive history beginning with the earliest schools at Oxford through the twentieth century. History of Universities. Avebury and Oxford, U.K.: Avebury Publishing Co. and Oxford University Press, 1981. Annual volume covering universities in all centuries. Includes articles, comprehensive bibliography, and reviews.

Jarausch, Konrad H., ed. The Transformation of Higher Learning 18601930: Expansion, Diversification, Social Opening, and Professionalization in England, Germany, Russia, and the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Jílek, Lubor, ed. Historical Compendium of European Universities/Répertoire historique des universités européennes. Geneva: CRE, 1984. Useful list with short historical summaries of European and overseas universities based on European models founded before 1800.

McClelland, Charles E. State, Society, and University in Germany, 17001914. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Ridder-Symoens, Hilde de, ed. A History of the University in Europe. Vol. 1, Universities in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Vol. 2, Universities in Early Modern Europe (15001800). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Rothblatt, Sheldon, and Björn Wittrock, eds. The European and American University since 1800: Historical and Sociological Essays. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Seabury, Paul, ed. Universities in the Western World. New York and London: Free Press and Collier Macmillan, 1975.

Paul F. Grendler

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