Brainy Behemoths: The Biggest Universities in the World

The largest universities in the world are not just centres of learning. They are breeding grounds for the next generation of leaders, thinkers, and innovators. But where is the world’s biggest university and how many students does it teach?

Building Big Engineering
19 January 2024

The biggest universities in the world have long stood as pillars of knowledge, innovation, and social progress. They’re more than just educational institutions; they are vibrant communities where ideas are born, cultures intersect, and future leaders are moulded. Their significance extends beyond their physical or virtual campuses, influencing economies, policy-making, and global discourse.

In a rapidly evolving world, universities, from small, specialised technical centres to the largest university in the world by area, are increasingly recognised as crucial for fostering critical thinking, promoting research and development, and addressing complex global challenges.

The largest universities in the world aren’t just physically large, they’re colossal in their academic offerings, research capabilities, and student populations, covering everything from the arts and humanities to cutting-edge science and technology. Their extensive networks of alumni and global partnerships further amplify their influence. Additionally, the rise of distance learning has allowed them to extend their reach globally, providing education to students who may not have the means or the opportunity to attend in-person classes.

There are a number of ways in which the world’s biggest university can be measured – by physical size, number of buildings, annual endowment, or faculty, but for the purposes of this article the metric we’re using is by total student enrollment, which includes undergraduates, postgraduates and doctoral students, as well as in-person and distance learners.

A Very Short History of Universities

Library at Oxford University, Oxford, UK (Credit: rhkamen via Getty Images)

From the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, roughly translated to ‘a community of teachers and scholars’, the majority of the mediaeval universities still in operation today can trace their lineage back to the monastic schools which began as early as the sixth century AD.

Many of the most prominent ancient civilisations – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Persian, Chinese, Indian and Islamic – had institutions dedicated to higher or advanced learning, though they were nothing like the universities we recognise today. Indeed two of the world’s oldest learning institutions, the University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, and the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, which were founded in the ninth century, officially became universities as late as the 1960s, over a thousand years after they were formed.

The oldest university in continuous operation is the University of Bologna in Italy which started teaching around 1088. The UK’s oldest universities, Oxford and Cambridge, were established in 1096 and 1209 respectively.

The oldest university in the Spanish-speaking world is the University of Salamanca in Spain, founded in 1218, while the University of Padua in Italy, founded in 1222, is believed to be the first to give a degree to a woman, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, in 1678. It’s also believed she was the first woman to receive a PhD.

Today, there are thousands of universities all over the world – including on Antarctica – but where is the world’s largest university?

Berry College

A man studies a book at a university library. (Credit: John Giustina via Getty Images)

Location: Georgia, USA | Established: 1902 | Students: Approx. 2,400

Berry College is a private liberal arts college, and with a student body of a little over 2,000, it’s nowhere close to being the world’s biggest university. However this tiny college, around 100 kilometres northwest of Atlanta, Georgia, and eighty-five kilometres south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, is worthy of a place on this list because it’s the largest university in the world by area.

The stunning English Gothic-style campus sits in over 27,000 acres (110 square kilometres) of land and includes a wildlife refuge with around 2,500 deer, and designated areas for hiking, cycling, horse riding and camping.

Texas A&M University

Jack K. Williams Systems Administration Building at Texas A&M (Credit: TriciaDaniel via Getty Images)

Location: Texas, USA | Established: 1876 | Students: Approx. 73,000

Founded as the Agricultural & Mechanical College of Texas in 1876, Texas A&M is one of the largest universities in the world. By student enrollment, it’s the largest university in the USA, and their stadium is one of the largest in the world with a capacity of over 100,000.

Texas A&M offers around 130 degree courses spread across eighteen colleges, and the largest enrollments are at the College of Engineering, followed by the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences. Texas A&M is also a contender for the title of largest university in the world by area, with a campus size of around 5,500 acres, or twenty square kilometres.

The Open University

OU Campus, Walton Hall, c.1971 (Credit: Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive via Getty Images)

Location: Buckinghamshire, UK | Established: 1969 | Students: Approx. 208,000

The UK’s Open University is a distance learning and in-person university established in 1969. With a student body of around 208,000, it’s the largest university in the UK and one of the biggest universities in the world.

The central administration building is located at the 110-acre Walton Hall in Milton Keynes (where some of the OUs postgraduate research students are based) but there are administration centres all over the UK and throughout Europe.

University of Buenos Aires

The Faculty of Law building at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA). (Credit: Bloomberg / Contributor via Getty Images)

Location: Buenos Aires, Argentina | Established: 1821 | Students: Approx. 330,000

One of South America’s most highly-respected universities, UBA is a world-class public research institution that has educated – at the time of writing – seventeen Argentine presidents and produced four of the country’s five Nobel Prize winners. One of the biggest universities in the world, it has around 300,000 undergrads and 30,000 postgraduate students. The undergraduate programs are free for all, regardless of nationality.

Split into thirteen faculties, UBA also administers sixteen museums, thirteen scientific institutes, six hospitals, the University of Buenos Aires Symphony Orchestra and Argentina’s largest university press.

Anadolu University

University graduates (Credit: Barry Austin Photography via Getty Images)

Location: Eskişehir, Turkey | Established: 1958 | Students: Approx. 2 million

Of the more than two million students enrolled at Anadolu University, all but around 24,000 are distance learners being taught from almost ninety administrative centres throughout Turkey. Anadolu, one of the largest universities in the world, was formed from the amalgamation of four higher education establishments in Eskişehir – the Academy of Economics and Commercial Sciences, the State Academy of Architecture and Engineering, the Institute of Education, and a medical school.

Like many universities of this type, it was formed in part to educate Turkey’s rural young people “who do not have the time or resources to enrol in conventional schools.”

National University, Bangladesh

A Bangladeshi student studying at university. (Credit: Appography via Getty Images)

Location: Gazipur, Bangladesh | Established: 1992 | Students: Approx. 2.1 million

With a staggering network of over 2,200 affiliated colleges and institutions, Bangladesh’s National University was established by an Act of Parliament – the National University Act 1992 – to ensure that higher education is accessible to as many young people as possible.

It’s the second largest university in the world and, taking into account the number of affiliates, it’s a contender for the largest university in the world by area. As well as more than two million students, it has an academic and administrative staff of around 160,000.

Indira Gandhi National Open University

19th Convocation of Indira Gandhi Open University (Credit: Anjali Sinha/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Location: New Delhi, India | Established: 1985 | Students: Approx. 4.3 million

By some distance, the Indira Gandhi National Open University – IGNOU – is the world’s biggest university. It’s reported that around 20% of India’s higher education students are enrolled with IGNOU and it has a network of around twenty-one schools, sixty-five regional centres, as many as 1,800 study centres, and around twenty overseas centres in fifteen countries.

It was established to offer tertiary education opportunities to everyone, and one of its aims is to establish, coordinate and encourage distance and open learning in India.

Teaching Titans: The Biggest Universities in the World

University students arriving for night school. (Credit: xavierarnau via Getty Images)

In the fascinating world of enormous educational institutions, the world’s largest university and the pretenders to its throne aren’t just large in student numbers or campus size. They represent hubs of cultural exchange, innovation, and academic excellence.

Looking to the future, these colossal institutions will continue to adapt, grow, and lead in the ever-evolving landscape of global education, remaining pivotal in shaping many of the minds that will steer our world towards new horizons.


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