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 simply groups of scholars.
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.
Well before, similar institutions already 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 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, ž1 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 Úcoles, which are very prestigious and elitist schools, with small promotions -- usually, a couple of hundreds students -- and very selective competitive exams at the entrance. There are Grandes Úcoles for litterature, 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 Úcoles is particular to the French education.
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.
Colloquially, the term university is used around the world for a phase in one's life: "when I was at university…"; the American equivalent is college: "when I was in college…". See college, ž3, for further discussion.
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