Africa is home to oldest and youngest universities – Map
While the North African region plays host to the oldest higher learning institutions in the world, Sub-Saharan Africa hosts some of the world’s most recent universities, with São Tomé and Príncipe, an island state in the Atlantic Ocean right on the equator, having established its first university in 2014.
A project focusing on the history of the institutions finds that, contrary to the commonly held belief that the oldest university in the world was established in Greece, Tunisia’s Ez-Zitouna University, established in 737 AD, is the planet’s most ancient institution still in operation.
Founded first as a Madrasa-Islam teaching school, and later as a university, El-Zitouna’s students could still study science, philosophy, mathematics, and the arts, among other subjects, despite its religious focus, the study by Erudera claims.
Erudera, described on its website as “the world’s first education search engine backed by artificial intelligence and the largest university database”, created a map of the oldest operational universities, the first map of its kind. The map was launched on 26 June 2023.
North Africa the cradle of HE
The University of Al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco, which was established in 859 AD is the second-oldest higher learning institution still operational to date, cementing North Africa’s place as the cradle and home of higher education.
The university, which also constituted a mosque – a testimony to its Islamic education leanings and background was founded by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri, an unusual development and a rare feat in the medieval age.
“Fatima is believed to have used money inherited from her father to build the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque, which subsequently developed a teaching institution and later became the University of al-Qarawiyyin,” according to the map. Other than al-Fihri, Queen Elizabeth I of England, and Queen Christina of Sweden, few women had succeeded in establishing the first university in any country.
Egypt’s Al-Azhar University in the capital, Cairo, comes in third, founded in 970 AD – nearly 100 years after Al Qarawiyyin, again confirming the region’s place as the home of medieval intellectualism.
Oldest in Sub-Saharan region
Twenty years later, Mali’s famous king Mansa Musa, often described as the wealthiest individual in human history, gifted Sub-Saharan Africa with the first and the world’s fourth-oldest university, the University of Sankoré (a mosque-university), in 989 AD.
Located in the ancient and World Heritage city of Timbuktu, Sankoré was famed for Islamic scholarship, and students admitted here reportedly had to study two degrees: reading and writing in Arabic, and poetry, grammar and literature for the second degree.
The students then studied mandatory programmes in philosophy, Islamic law, the Quran, language studies, and advanced grammar. They also took optional degrees in history, algebra, physics, medicine, chemistry, arithmetic and astronomy, receiving clothes, salt, livestock and cash as rewards upon graduating after an average of 10 years of study, according to BlackPast.
“The majority of the oldest universities in every country were established by people in power, like popes, kings, queens, emperors, sultans, princesses, and dukes,” according to the map information.
UCT first in South Africa
Despite that, it is South Africa that takes pride in the Sub-Saharan Africa region’s ‘proper’ prize for the oldest institution, with the University of Cape Town (UCT) holding the honour of having existed since 1829.
“Starting first as a college, and later evolving into a full-fledged university, UCT has, over the years, evolved to become a prominent centre for research and academic scholarship in Africa,” Erudera CEO Gent Ukëhajdaraj told University World News.
In English-speaking West Africa, Cuttington University in Suacoco, Liberia, founded in 1889 is the region’s oldest university, followed 60 years later in 1948 by the University of Ghana and the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. Both universities were established under the Asquith Commission, a British colonial higher education body.
In East Africa, Uganda’s Makerere University is the oldest institution of higher learning, established in 1922. The university which, until the late 1960s, served the whole of the region, had constituent colleges in Kenya and Tanzania which later become the universities of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, respectively.
Back in the Southern Africa region, Zimbabwe’s Solusi University, established in 1894 by the Solusi Adventist Mission, is the second-oldest institution after UCT.
Besides the University of São Tomé and Príncipe established as the first university on the island state in 2014, the disputed North African territory of Western Sahara hosts the region’s youngest university, the University of Tifariti, founded in 2013.
South Sudan, also the youngest country in Africa, got its first university in 2006. The Dr John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology is located in Bor, the capital of Jonglei State. Djibouti and the Republic of Cabo Verde established their first higher institutions in the same year, the University of Djibouti, and the University of Cabo Verde.
The Indian Ocean Comoro Islands registered its first institution, the University of Comoros, in 2003 – only three years after the archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean off East Africa, Seychelles, established the University of Seychelles-American Institute of Medicine in 2000, its first institution ever.
Countries that set up their first universities in the 1990s include West Africa’s Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and Guinea – all establishing the institutions in 1999. Somalia, Equatorial Guinea, and the Republic of Côte d’Ivoire established theirs in 1993, 1995, and 1992, respectively. Mauritania in north-west Africa, and Eswatini and Botswana in Southern Africa set up their first institutions in the 1980s.
East Africa’s history
In East Africa, Kenya, and Tanzania started their first universities in 1970, after the universities of Nairobi and Dar es Salaam ceased operating as constituent colleges of Makerere.
“It is important to state that, while the North African universities were among the early pioneers, the establishment of universities continued across Sub-Saharan Africa in subsequent decades. For instance, the University of Nairobi in Kenya was established in 1970 and has since become a prominent institution in East Africa,” Ukëhajdaraj said.
Due to the region’s relatively recent history of gaining independence, and the subsequent expansion of higher education, many universities in North Africa were established in the latter half of the 20th century, continuing into the 21st century, he noted.
“Sub-Saharan Africa has a rich and diverse history when it comes to universities and higher education. The establishment of universities in this region played a vital role in shaping the educational landscape and encouraging intellectual evolution,” he added.
Ukëhajdaraj singled out the University of Ibadan which has, since its inception in 1948, become a “prestigious institution known for its academic excellence”. The University of Ghana, also founded in 1948, has played a key role in nurturing intellectualism and producing leaders across various fields in West Africa, he added.
Before the establishment of universities in countries with a young history of tertiary education, students pursued higher education abroad or at other institutions within their respective regions. Many students from Somalia, for example, travelled to nations such as Egypt and Sudan with whom they shared religious identity and heritage, he explained.
“Similarly, prior to the establishment of the University of Djibouti, students from Djibouti sought higher education in foreign countries, particularly in France, which had a significant influence on the country due to its colonial history.”
Save for South Sudan, the last 10 countries worldwide to have established their first universities most recently have a population of less than a million people.
The Erudera project contradicts a similar study published in December 2022 by Study International which listed Morocco’s University of Al Qarawiynn as the oldest on the planet. Study International also lists the University of Bologna, Italy, the University of Oxford in the UK, the University of Salamanca, Spain, and the University of Paris, France as the second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-oldest on the globe.