The history of higher education is distinct from other forms of education, with some universities among the oldest learning institutions in the world. The development of universities, and higher education more generally, over the course of the last millennium is closely tied to religion. Universities were established as organisations free from direct control of the church or other religious institutions, a privilege usually granted by the king or state. This privilege allowed for academic freedom to question, research and advance knowledge. Religious studies remained an important focus in most early medieval universities. In the modern world universities have two purposes: equip students with advanced skills useful in the workplace and to further human knowledge and understanding of the world.
More information on the rise of education across the world is available here, while a more detailed discussion of the returns to higher education can be found here.
# Empirical View
This section covers both the historical perspective on higher education as well as recent trends and future projections.
# The Historical Perspective: Religion and Higher Education
In the past, there were very few higher education institutions since only a small fraction of the population was able to read or write. During this early period, centers of education mostly had a religious focus and trained clergy. In Western Europe these centers were monasteries, while in the Islamic world these were madrasas. The following table shows the increasing number of monasteries in Western Europe between the 6th and the 15th century.
# Estimated number of monasteries in Western Europe, 6th – 15th century – Van Zanden (2009)1
Century 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
Central Europe 0 0 0 0 16 79 458 718 695 690
Bohemia 0 0 0 0 17 32 113 119 107 113
Great Britain 236 460 463 437 437 526 1325 1530 1447 1333
France 586 988 1240 1636 2091 5051 8104 8564 8189 7554
Belgium 0 53 68 70 88 175 313 364 361 335
Netherlands 0 2 4 7 13 20 68 189 336 679
Germany 0 138 622 824 1129 1652 2873 3110 2967 2752
Switzerland 10 19 37 71 104 144 247 321 337 333
Austria 12 11 70 99 113 186 344 406 413 372
Italy 291 306 495 704 995 2072 2990 3405 3416 3333
Iberia 58 117 170 537 1340 2549 3290 3223 3003 2876
Western Europe 1193 2094 3168 4385 6343 12485 20125 21948 21270 20369
New foundations 1013 1021 1284 1533 2397 6776 8888 3836 1516 1226
Increase in % 86 58 44 48 91 63 17 6 4
# The Secularization of Higher Education in Europe
|Increase in %||86||58||44||48||91||63||17||6||4|
The number of all monasteries in Western Europe is displayed below. Between the end of the first millennium and the 13th century the number grew rapidly, before coming to a halt and declining.
At the same time evolved a new form of a higher education institution: the university. These secular institutions began to rise as monasteries slowly started to decline, and the religious powers lost their monopoly on higher education. Still, this was only the beginning; as late as the 18th century there were still fewer than 100 universities in Western Europe.
The following table paints a more detailed picture of the early rise of universities in Western Europe. By clicking on the top row, you can sort the cells and track the shift of higher learning from the mediterranean countries to the North. In the 15th century, there were 17 universities in Italy and 9 in the Iberian countries. Thereafter there were no new universities in these two regions, and only one new institution in France. But in the northern countries – especially in Germany and Central Europe – the rise of universities intensified and more universities were founded as time went on.
# Cumulative distribution of foundation dates of universities in Western Europe, 1200-1800 – Buringh & Van Zanden (2009)3
|Century||< 12||12||13||14||15 (I)||15 (II)||16 (I)||16 (II)||17 (I)||17 (II)||18 (I)||18 (II)|
# Higher Education Today and into the Future
The following visualisations show estimations and projections from 1970 to 2050 of higher education by country. The numbers completing degrees is expected to increase around the world as advanced skills become more important in both developing and developed economies. For more information on how these projections are constructed, visit the projections of future education page here.
# Data Sources
# UNESCO Institute of Statistics
- Data: Comprehensive data on enrollments, out-of-school children, repetition, completion, gender, teachers, education expenditures, learning outcomes, educational attainment, education equality, literacy, population, labor, and EMIS.
- Geographical coverage: Global by country
- Time span: 1999-2015
- Available at: http://data.uis.unesco.org/
# World Bank EdStats
- Data: indicators on educational attainment, enrolment, attendance, teachers, financing and more
- Geographical coverage: Global, over 200 countries
- Time span: 1970 to most recent data year; Projections to 2050
- Available at: It is online here
# Historical monasteries data – Van Zanden
Van Zanden, Jan Luiten. The long road to the industrial revolution: the European economy in a global perspective, 1000-1800. Vol. 1. Brill, 2009.
- Data: Number of monasteries by country
- Geographical coverage: Western Europe
- Time span: 600-1600
- Available at: http://www.brill.com/long-road-industrial-revolution
# Historical universities data – Buringh and Van Zanden
Buringh, Eltjo, and Jan Luiten Van Zanden. “Charting the “Rise of the West”: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, a long-term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries.” The Journal of Economic History 69, no. 02 (2009): 409-445.
- Data: Number of universities by country
- Geographical coverage: Western Europe
- Time span: 1200-1800
- Available at: The Journal of Economic History
# Population and Human Capital Projections- International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
- Data: Educational by level of attainment, population projections
- Geographical coverage:
- Education: 120 countries
- Population: 190 countries
- Time span: 1970-2050
- Education: 1970-2050
- Population: 1970-2100
- Available at:
- Latest research from the IIASA