Universities generally consist of groups of schools, faculties, or colleges. They arose in the 12th and 13th cent. in Europe as a means of providing further training in the professions of law, theology, and medicine, and as centers of study for the rediscovered works of Aristotle and the Arab scholars. Of the earliest universities, Salerno (9th cent.) and Montpellier (13th cent.) specialized in medicine; Bologna (1088) in law; and Paris (12th cent.) in theology. Students and faculty were originally organized in guildlike groups. The student groups, known as "nations" and comprising students from particular localities, gradually diminished in power, however, as the faculty, which controlled both teaching and graduation requirements, became more powerful.
In the Middle Ages, universities were usually begun through royal or ecclesiastical initiative or through migrations of students from other universities. The migrations were sometimes influenced by political events. The Univ. of Oxford, for example, was founded (12th cent.) by English students from the Univ. of Paris who were forced to leave that institution as a result of conflicts between England and France; similarly, the university at Leipzig was founded (15th cent.) by German scholars who were driven out of Prague by John Huss's Czech national movement. Medieval universities often had many thousands of students and played an important role in public affairs. Among the famous institutions founded were Salamanca (c.1230), Prague (1348), Vienna (1365), Uppsala (1477), Leiden (1575), and Moscow (1755). The oldest universities in the New World, both founded in 1551, are Mexico Univ. and San Marcos of Lima.
In the 19th cent. many governments reorganized and nationalized universities, as in Italy after unification (1870), in Spain (1876), and in France, where 17 autonomous regional universities were established after 1876. By 1900 many universities were secularized in administration and curriculum, and religious tests had been largely eliminated (in England by act of Parliament in 1871). Through the centuries, the majority of women were educated in separate institutions; however, since 1870 the benefits of coeducation have impelled nearly all universities to admit both sexes.
In the United States, modern universities developed during the late 19th cent. from the expansion of private colleges and the establishment of state tax-supported universities. Largely as a result of the Morrill Act (1862), public lands were granted to the states for the formation and support of state agricultural and mechanical schools (see land-grant colleges and universities). Another important influence at that time was the founding of institutions (e.g., Johns Hopkins Univ.) devoted to graduate study and research. They were modeled on the German universities, with their separate graduate and professional schools each devoted to a particular area of study.
Since the early 20th cent. universities have played an increasingly important role in scientific and technical research, largely as a result of social and governmental demands for these services. The nationalization and bureaucratization of research functions has been especially marked in the United States, where various government agencies dispense large amounts of money to both public and private universities for research purposes. The federal government also provides direct aid to various categories of students, such as veterans and disadvantaged students.
Since World War II there has been worldwide proliferation of new universities, expansion of old ones, and merging of small institutions into larger university systems. As former colonies gained independence during the 1960s and 1970s, each struggled to define its specific educational needs and establish a university system. In Africa, for example, universities were established in Ghana and Nigeria in 1948, in the Côte d'Ivoire in 1959, and in Congo (Kinshasa) in 1971.
Further proliferation has occurred as a result of the desire for political equality. Educational reforms in Japan, for example, have decreed that there must be at least one national university in each of 47 sections of the country, so that there are now more than 80 such institutions. Similar pressures operated in Great Britain, where seven new universities were established in the 1960s alone, and in the United States, where the State Univ. of New York grew from a small group of teacher training colleges in 1948 to a multicampus system with some 460,000 students in 2010.
The development of radio and television led to their use as an alternative means of instruction, but the broadcasting of university courses was generally not significant except in a few cases (see Open Univ.). The rise of the Internet has led to the development of online instruction, one result of which has been the rise of educational institutions that teach most or all of their classes online. The development of universities (and colleges) the operate largely online has also contributed to an increase in the United States of the number of institutions that are run on a for-profit basis. Many universities now use various combinations of online and classroom instruction depending on the course being taught; videos of classroom sessions are often posted on a university website for the benefit of students. So-called massive open online courses are designed to be available to anyone with a suitable Internet connection, and can reach beyond the walls of the classroom to enroll tens of thousands of students in a single class.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.