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The roots of the modern university

The roots of the modern university can be traced as far back as eleventh-century Italy. The University of Bologna – thought to have been founded in 1088 – was the first university to take on a similar appearance to the modern university with which we are familiar today. Initially specialising in scholarship of grammar, rhetoric and logic, the University was granted Constitutio Habita by Emperor Frederick I in 1188, which granted its scholars a particular set of rights and privileges.

Whilst the University of Bologna had been officially recognised by the Holy Roman Emperor a century after its founding, the significance of elite European schools was beginning to emerge. These schools were known as studia generalia and among these were schools that became the Universities of Paris and Oxford in 1150 and 1167 respectively.

However, the prestige that several studia generalia had earned through historical achievement could also be ordained. In 1225, Emperor Frederick II conferred the title of studium generale to his new school in Naples, signalling the start of the general acceptance that educational establishments would need a license in order to confer degrees to its students. This saw several more universities established across Europe. By the turn of the 14th century many of these had been ratified by Papal Bulls, a charter issued by the Pope of the Catholic Church.

As the oldest university in the English-speaking world, the University of Oxford has long been recognised as one of the foremost higher education establishments in the world. Formed in 1167 when Henry II forbade English students from attending the University of Paris, it remains at the pinnacle.

The University of Cambridge, the second oldest English-speaking university, also has its roots in Oxford, the town its founding scholars had fled in 1209. Despite only being recognised as a studium generale by Bull of Pope John XXII in 1318, it also retains a standing at the apex of world higher education.

In contrast to the early universities of Southern Europe which were largely led by student corporations, English and Central European universities were run by teaching fraternities. This model was adopted when Harvard University, the oldest university in North America, was founded in 1636 with a student body of nine and one master. Formed by vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Colony, it became the latest colonial university to be established in the Americas (one of the first and most prominent being the National University of Mexico, founded in 1551).

Today, Harvard University has distinguished itself through its stellar academic achievement and boasts what is perhaps the greatest reputation of any current world university. However, one cannot ignore the history of Scotland’s oldest university, the University of St. Andrews, which this year celebrates its 600-year anniversary. Founded by Papal Bull in 1413, a quote from its Vice Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson sums up this storied institution immaculately:
‘We were founded: before the printing press, before the battle of Agincourt, before the construction of the Forbidden City in Beijing, before the construction of Machu Picchu in Peru, before Columbus arrived in the Americas, and before Joan of Arc waged battle.’