List of colonial universities in Hispanic America

Old campus of the colonial university San Antonio Abad in Cusco, Peru

The list of universities established in the viceroyalties of the Hispanic America comprises all universities established by the Spanish Empire in Latin America from the Discovery of America in 1492 to the Wars of Independence in the early 19th century.

The transfer of the European university model to the American overseas colonies represented a decisive turning point in the educational history of the continent:

Nothing remotely resembling a university existed in the New World before Europeans arrived and settled there. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century, numerous universities and other institutions of higher education could be found in North, Central and South America. They had not been invented de novo; they were implants from the European university tradition and its stocks.[1]

The Christian mission of the Indians and the increasing demand for skilled hands in the administration of the rapidly growing colonial empire made the Spanish colonists realize the need to offer a university education on American soil.[2] The foundation of a colonial university required, following the medieval tradition, either a papal bull (or papal brief) or a royal privilege granting the right to confer academic degrees to the students. Usually a bestowment from both clerical and secular authorities was sought and achieved.[3] Universities were all subjected to the king's supervision, only San Nicolas in Bogotá held the status of a private university.[4]

Privilege by Charles V granting the establishment of the University of San Marcos in Lima (1551), the first officially established and the longest continuously operating university in the American continent.

The new foundations modeled their charters mainly on that of the University of Salamanca, the oldest and most venerable Spanish university.[5] The curriculum of smaller universities was confined to the artes, a kind of basic studies, and Catholic theology (plus church law).[5] A leading role was assumed by the gradually evolving full universities which additionally offered courses in medicine and jurisprudence, thus comprising all four classic faculties.[5] The influential first universities were founded in the colonial centers Lima, Mexico City and Santo Domingo. When it became apparent that the vast distances of the Spanish realm required a greater geographical spread of universities, they contributed to the creation of further foundations.[6]

A key role in the development of the university system was played by the Catholic orders, especially by the Jesuits, but also the Dominicans and Augustinians. The founding and operation of most universities resulted from the – usually local – initiative of one of these orders, which sometimes quarreled openly over the control of the campus and the curriculum.[2] The (temporary) dissolution of the Jesuit order in the late 18th century proved to be a major setback for the university landscape in Latin America, several of the suppressed Jesuit universities were reopened only decades later.[7]

The successful export of the university, a genuine European creation,[8] to another continent demonstrated its "extraordinary effectiveness and adaptability" as the highest educational institution and marked the beginning of its universal adoption in the modern age (see also List of the oldest universities).[9] Yet there is no denying that at the end of the colonial era the intellectual and academic life in the younger colonial colleges of the British territories appeared more vital.[9] Nevertheless, the Spanish colonial universities fulfilled their primary task, the education of the clerical and secular colonial elite, and could thus assume an important function in aiding the development of the young republics after the separation from the motherland.[9]

In Portuguese Brazil, by contrast, no university existed far beyond the colonial period (the first was established as late as 1912 in Curitiba as University of Paraná).[10] The lower local demand for theological and legal specialists was largely met by Jesuit colegios, while students aspiring to higher education had to take up studies overseas at the University of Coimbra. Instead of universities for general studies, the Portuguese favored the creation of professional academies to respond to the local needs of technicians and skilled professionals, including creating the first school of higher studies in engineering of the Americas.[10]


The list is sorted by the date of recognition. At places where more than one university was established, the name of the institution is given in brackets.

16th century

Recognized University Modern country
1551[11] Lima Peru
1551[11][12] Mexico City Mexico
1552[13] La Plata o Charcas[uncertain 1] Bolivia
1538[6][11] Santo Domingo (Santo Tomás) Dominican Republic
1558[11] Santo Domingo (Santiago de La Paz) Dominican Republic
1580[11] Bogotá (Santo Tomás) Colombia
1586[13] Quito (San Fulgencio) Ecuador

17th century

Recognized University Modern country
1613[11][14] Córdoba Argentina
1621[13] Santiago (San Miguel) Chile
1621[13] Cuzco (San Ignacio de Loyola) Peru
1621[11] Sucre Bolivia
1624[4][11] Mérida, Yucatán (Spanish) Mexico
1676[11][13] Guatemala City Guatemala
1677[11] Ayacucho Peru
1681[11] Quito (Santo Tomás) Ecuador
1685[11] Santiago (Rosario) Chile
1690[4][11] Cuzco (San Antonio Abad) Peru
1694[4][13] Bogotá (San Nicolás) Colombia
1696[11] Quito (San Gregorio Magno) Ecuador

18th century

Recognized University Modern country
1704[11] Bogotá (Javeriana) Colombia
1721[11] Havana Cuba
1721[11] Caracas Venezuela
1733[7] Asunción Paraguay
1738[11] Santiago (San Felipe) (Spanish) Chile
1744[7][15] Popayán Colombia
1749[11] Panama City Panama
1749[13] Concepción Chile
1791[11] Guadalajara, Jalisco Mexico

19th century

Recognized University Modern country
1806[11] Mérida Venezuela
1812[11] Managua Nicaragua

See also


  1. University status open to dispute


    1. Roberts, Rodriguez & Herbst 1996, p. 256
    2. 1 2 Roberts, Rodriguez & Herbst 1996, pp. 218f.
    3. Roberts, Rodriguez & Herbst 1996, p. 216
    4. 1 2 3 4 Roberts, Rodriguez & Herbst 1996, p. 219
    5. 1 2 3 Roberts, Rodriguez & Herbst 1996, p. 215
    6. 1 2 Roberts, Rodriguez & Herbst 1996, p. 218
    7. 1 2 3 Roberts, Rodriguez & Herbst 1996, p. 220
    8. Rüegg 1993, pp. 13f.
    9. 1 2 3 Roberts, Rodriguez & Herbst 1996, pp. 231f.
    10. 1 2 Roberts, Rodriguez & Herbst 1996, pp. 220f.
    11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 Jílek 1984, pp. 325–339
    12. La Universidad Pontificia de México: Historia (Spanish)
    13. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Tünnermann 1991, pp. 26, 35–38
    14. Universidad Nacional de Córdoba: Orígenes (Spanish)
    15. Tünnermann 1991, p. 26


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