What is a university? Definition and examples

A university is an educational institution where people study for degrees. They may also study masters or doctorate courses. It is a high-level educational institution. Academic research also takes place in universities.

A vast diversity of educational institutions come under the term ‘university.’ They vary regarding mission, priorities, and their relationship to the wider public. They also vary in size and scope.

The Oxford Living Dictionaries has the following definition:

“A high-level educational institution in which students study for degrees and academic research is done.”

Etymology of university

Etymology is the study of the origin of words and how, over time, their meanings evolved.

The term first emerged in the English language in the thirteenth century. At that time, it meant an “institution of higher learning,” and also a “body of persons constituting a university.”

The 13-century word came from the Anglo-French word Université, the Old French word Universite, and the Medieval Latin word Universitatem. The Medieval Latin word meant “the whole, aggregate,” while the Late Latin word meant “corporation, society.” It came from the Latin word Universus, which meant “whole, entire.”

Spanish Universidad, German universität, and Russian universitetŭ also come from Latin. In fact, in most European languages, the word for a higher educational institution comes from the Latin word.

People go to university if they want to study for a Bachelors or Masters degree. You can also study for a Ph.D. or Doctorate at university.

College vs. university

Sometimes, the words college and university have the same meaning. In some parts of the world, their meanings are often the same. However, in many contexts, their meanings are different.

The term ‘college’ may refer to a higher educational institution where students study for a degree, such as the colleges of Oxford University. However, some colleges do not offer degrees. They may offer diplomas and other non-degree courses.

Community college

A community college, for example, typically offers courses that are academically lower than degree level.

Universities, on the other hand, offers undergraduate and graduate degrees. Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science, for example, are undergraduate degrees. Masters and doctorates (Ph.D.) are graduate degrees.


Famous universities United States
The most famous universities in the United States are probably Harvard and Stanford.

Regarding the meanings of the two terms, BestValueSchools.com writes:

“Sometimes, the line between college and university can be a little blurry. For example, The College of William & Mary in Virginia is called a college, but they offer graduate degrees in business, law, education and marine science. St. Joseph’s College in New York offers graduate degrees in education, business, creative writing and more.”

Some institutions that offer degrees have a long history of calling themselves colleges. They, therefore, want to continue calling themselves colleges.

In other words, often the reason some colleges that offer degrees call themselves colleges is ‘tradition.’

Famous universities United Kingdom
The most famous universities in the United Kingdom are probably Oxford and Cambridge.

Oldest universities

The world’s oldest degree-granting educational institution is the University of Al Quaraouiyine (Al-Karaouine), founded in Morocco by Fatima al-Fihiri in 859.

The ten oldest universities in the Western World are:

– Università degli Studi di Bologna, Italy – founded in 1088.

– The University of Oxford, England – founded in 1096.

– La Universidad de Salamanca, Spain – founded in 1134.

– The University of Cambridge, England – founded in 1209.

– L’Università di Padova, Italy – founded in 1222.

– Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, Italy – founded in 1224.

– Université de Toulouse, France – founded in 1229.

– The Università degli Studi di Siena, Italy – founded in 1240.

– La Universidad de Valladolid, Spain – founded in 1241.

– Universidad de Murcia, Spain – founded in 1272.

Oldest university in the world
According to Guinness World Records: “The oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world is the University of Karueein (Al Quaraouiyine), founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco. (Image: adapted from Wikipedia)

The oldest university in the United States is Harvard University. It was established and chartered in 1636 and 1650 respectively. Université Laval, which was founded in 1663, is Canada’s oldest.

The University of Sydney, which has been around since 1850, is Australia’s oldest university.