A university is an institution of higher education and of research, which grants academic degrees. A university provides both tertiary and quaternary education. University is derived from the Latin universitas, meaning corporation since the first medieval European universities were often groups of scholars-for-hire.
Arguably the first western university was the Academy founded in 387 BC by the Greek philosopher Plato in the grove of Academos near Athens, where students were taught philosophy, mathematics and gymnastics. Other Greek cities followed suite, notably the medical school of Kos (Hippocrates' home) and the philosophical schools of Rhodes. The most famous Ancient Greek "university" was the Museum and Library of Alexandria.
About a thousand years after Plato, institutions bearing a resemblance to the modern university existed in Persia and the Islamic world, notably the Academy of Gundishapur and later also Al Azhar university in Cairo, which remains the oldest operating university in the world. One of the most important Asian universities, next to the Persian Academy of Gundishapur, was Nalanda, in Bihar, India, where the second century Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna was based.
In the Carolingian period a famous academy was created by Charlemagne for the purpose of educating the children of aristocrats to help train the professionals needed to run an empire. It was a foreshadow of the rise of the University in the 11th century.
The first European medieval universities were established in Bologna (Italy) and Paris (France) in the Middle Ages for the study of law, medicine, and theology.
In Europe young men proceeded to the university when they had completed the study of the trivium: the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic; and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. See Degrees of Oxford University, §1 for the history of how the trivium and quadrivium developed in relation to degrees, especially in anglophone universities.
Universities are generally established by statute or charter. In the United Kingdom, for instance, a university is instituted by Act of Parliament or Royal Charter; in either case generally with the approval of Privy Council, and only such recognised bodies can award degrees of any kind.
In France, students can also attend Grandes écoles, which are very prestigious and elitist schools, with small promotions—usually a couple hundred students—and very selective competitive exams at the entrance. There are Grandes écoles for literature, business, and engineering. Formation provided in these schools is usually of a better level than the corresponding one in French universities. The system of the Grandes écoles is particular to the French education system.
In the United States, universities are usually treated by the law as a corporation like any other, although many states impose special responsibilities to safeguard the welfare of a university's students. Because the American federal government does not directly organize or regulate universities, informal systems of accreditation have been developed by regional networks of academic institutions. The vast majority of private and public American universities are non-profit (meaning that excess tuition is plowed into providing higher quality of service), but starting in the 1970s, many for-profit colleges and universities were founded to take advantage of certain changes in the federal student assistance programs.
In the late 19th century, the U.S. Congress encouraged the creation of many land-grant universities.
In the last decades of the 20th century, a number of mega universities have been created, teaching with distance learning techniques.
Unlike community colleges, enrollment at a university is generally not available to all. Prospective university students typically apply for admission through a selective (and frequently arduous) process during their last year of high school or community college.
In many industrialized countries, universities have formed non-profit organizations (or arranged for the formation of government agencies) to centralize the administration of standardized admission exams and the processing of applications.
Such organizations include:
See also: college admissions
Colloquially, the term university is used around the world for a phase in one's life: "when I was at university…"; in America college is often used: "when I was in college…". See college, §3, for further discussion.
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