A look at the history of European Higher Education. Expansion and differentiation
Since the founding of the University of Bologna in 1088, European higher education has undergone over the centuries a phenomenal expansion of institutions, in terms of diversity, missions and students as well as changes in institutional structures. Data on the foundation year included in ETER provide interesting information on the historical roots of the current Higher Education Institutions (HEIs).
Half of the European HEIs included in ETER were founded after 1988.
Data shows that the 400 HEIs in ETER founded before the XX century enroll 44% of all PhD students today (but only 20% of the undergraduate students). This points to a pattern where a core of older universities progressively expanded their activities, particularly concerning research, while new HEIs have been created to accommodate the incredible increase in the number of students after World War II.
ETER shows that this expansion took place in three successive waves. First, the foundation of “new universities” after World War II, such as l’Aquila in Italy or Nantes in France, largely  established in regions without older universities. The second wave, which began in the 1970s, saw the creation of many HEIs that did not have the right to award the PhD, but instead were mostly focused on education, such as colleges or Fachhochschulen. The third wave, which occurred after the deregulation of the education market, saw the founding of a large number of private HEIs, a movement that accelerated at the beginning of the XXI century.
On the contrary, European HEIs at the top international rankings are quite old, such as Cambridge (1209), Oxford (1096) and Heidelberg (1386), with only technical universities being slightly younger (ETH Zurich was founded in 1855).
HEIs in ETER by foundation year. Number of HEIs, undergraduate and PhD students enrolled today.
The chart shows for example that 30% of the HEIs in ETER were founded after the year 2000, but enrolled only 12% of the undergraduate students and 9% of the PhD students in 2014. 55% of the undergraduate students are enrolled today in HEIs borne between 1950 and the end of the XX century.
To provide a nuanced view of the history of the European higher education, ETER includes three variables:
  • the main variable is the foundation year, defined as the first year the HEI existed in the current structure. In most cases, this corresponds to the historical foundation year, but there are exceptions. For example, all Paris universities were founded in 1971 when the old Sorbonne university was split. Data availability is excellent (only 12 missing cases out of 2,767 HEIs in the 2014 edition of ETER). This is the variable we use in the previous analysis.
  • The ancestor year is the first traceable ancestor of the current HEI. For the Sorbonne, the ancestor year is 1257, i.e. the Paris University’s foundation year. Even if ancestor year data is only available for one-fourth of ETER HEIs, there are several hundred HEIs whose ancestors are smaller and more focused schools, which, at some moment, were reformed to universities.
  • The legal status year is the year when an HEI acquired its current legal status. This information is available for about half of the HEIs in ETER. Most differences between foundation and legal status are due to HEIs that received accreditation or were recently granted the right to award PhD degrees.
ETER also includes remarks on the institutional history. This information is being updated and extended within the RISIS organizational register to create a basis for an in-depth analysis of the history of higher education in Europe.
ETER is a European Commission initiative implemented by a consortium of five partners, which aims at providing data on Higher Education Institutions in Europe. It is an Erasmus+ project fully financed by the European Commission. The opinions expressed in this message are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Commission.

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European Tertiary Education Register · Università della Svizzera italiana · Lugano 6900 · Switzerland

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