Charles University

Charles University is the oldest and largest university in the Czech Republic. It is one of the oldest universities in Europe in continuous operation. Today, the university consists of 17 faculties located in Prague, Hradec Králové, and Plzeň. The Charles University belongs to top three universities in Central and Eastern Europe. It is ranked around 200-300 in the world.

The establishment of a medieval university in Prague was inspired by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. He asked his friend and ally, Pope Clement VI, to do so. On 26 January 1347 the pope issued the bull establishing a university in Prague, modeled on the University of Paris, with the full number of faculties, that is including a theological faculty. On 7 April 1348 Charles, the king of Bohemia, gave to the established university privileges and immunities from the secular power in a Golden Bull and on 14 January 1349 he repeated that as the King of the Romans. Most Czech sources since the 19th century—encyclopedias, general histories, materials of the University itself—prefer to give 1348 as the year of the founding of the university, rather than 1347 or 1349. This was caused by an anticlerical shift in the 19th century, shared by both Czechs and Germans.

Monument to the protector of the university, Emperor Charles IV, in Prague (built in 1848)

The university was opened in 1349. The university was sectioned into parts called nations: the Bohemian, Bavarian, Polish and Saxon. The Bohemian natio included Bohemians, Moravians, southern Slavs, and Hungarians; the Bavarian included Austrians, Swabians, natives of Franconia and of the Rhine provinces; the Polish included Silesians, Poles, Ruthenians; the Saxon included inhabitants of the Margravate of Meissen, Thuringia, Upper and Lower Saxony, Denmark, and Sweden. Ethnically Czech students made 16–20% of all students. Archbishop Arnošt of Pardubice took an active part in the foundation by obliging the clergy to contribute and became a chancellor of the university (i.e., director or manager).

The first graduate was promoted in 1359. The lectures were held in the colleges, of which the oldest was named for the king the Carolinum, established in 1366. In 1372 the Faculty of Law became an independent university.

Teacher and students shown in a medieval manuscript from Bohemia

In 1402 Jerome of Prague in Oxford copied out the Dialogus and Trialogus of John Wycliffe. The dean of the philosophical faculty, Jan Hus, translated Trialogus into the Czech language. In 1403 the university forbade its members to follow the teachings of Wycliffe, but his doctrine continued to gain in popularity.

In the Western Schism, the Bohemian natio took the side of king Wenceslaus and supported the Council of Pisa (1409). The other nationes of the university declared their support for the side of Pope Gregory XII, thus the vote was 1:3 against the Bohemians. Hus and other Bohemians, though, took advantage of Wenceslaus’ opposition to Gregory. By the Decree of Kutná Hora (German: Kuttenberg) on 18 January 1409, the king subverted the university constitution by granting the Bohemian masters three votes. Only a single vote was left for all other three nationes combined, compared to one vote per each natio before. The result of this coup was the emigration of foreign (mostly German) professors and students, founding the University of Leipzig in May 1409. Before that, in 1408, the university had about 200 doctors and magisters, 500 bachelors, and 30,000 students[dubious – discuss; it now lost a large part of this number, accounts of the loss varying from 5000 to 20,000[dubious – discuss including 46 professors.

In the autumn of 1409, Hus was elected rector of the now Czech-dominated rump university. The standing of the university declined, and it became merely a regional institution with a very low status. Soon, in 1419, the faculties of theology and law disappeared, and only the faculty of arts remained in existence.

Carolinum – the oldest building of Charles University built in the 14th century

The faculty of arts became a centre of the Hussite movement, and the chief doctrinal authority of the Utraquists. No degrees were given in the years 1417–30; at times there were only eight or nine professors. Emperor Sigismund, son of Charles IV, took what was left into his personal property and some progress was made. The emperor Ferdinand I called the Jesuits to Prague and in 1562 they opened an academy—the Clementinum. From 1541 till 1558 the Czech humanist Mattheus Collinus de was a professor of Greek language. Some progress was made again when the emperor Rudolph II took up residence in Prague. In 1609 the obligatory celibacy of the professors was abolished. In 1616 the Jesuit Academy became a university. (It could award academic degrees.).

Jesuits were expelled 1618–1621 during the early stages of the Thirty Years’ War, which was started in Prague by anti-Catholic and anti-Imperial Bohemians. By 1622, the Jesuits had a predominant influence over the emperor. An Imperial decree of 19 September 1622 gave the Jesuits supreme control over the entire school system of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. The last four professors at the Carolinum resigned, and all of the Carolinum and nine colleges went to the Jesuits. The right of handing out degrees, of holding chancellorships, and of appointing the secular professors was also granted to the Jesuits.

Cardinal Ernst Adalbert von Harrach actively opposed the union of the university with another institution, the withdrawal of the archiepiscopal right to the chancellorship, and prevented the drawing up of the Golden Bull for the confirmation of the grant to Jesuits. Cardinal Ernst funded the Collegium Adalbertinum, and in 1638, Emperor Ferdinand III limited the teaching monopoly enjoyed by the Jesuits. He took from them the rights, properties and archives of the Carolinum making the university once more independent under an imperial protector. During the last years of the Thirty Years’ War the Charles Bridge in Prague was courageously defended by students of the Carolinum and Clementinum. Since 1650, those who received any degrees took an oath to maintain the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin, which has been renewed annually.

On 23 February 1654 emperor Ferdinand III merged Carolinum and Clementinum and created a single university with four faculties—Charles-Ferdinand University. Carolinum had at that time only the faculty of arts, as the only faculty surviving the period of the Hussite Wars. Starting at this time, the university designated itself Charles-Ferdinand University (Latin: Universitatis Carolinae Ferdinandeae). The dilapidated Carolinum was rebuilt in 1718 at the expense of the state.

Baroque library hall in Clementinum, which originally belonged to the university, today part of Czech National Library

The rebuilding and the bureaucratic reforms of universities in the Habsburg monarchy in 1752 and 1754 deprived the university of many of its former privileges. In 1757 a Dominican and an Augustinian were appointed to give theological instruction. However, there was a gradual introduction of enlightened reforms, and this process culminated at the end of the century when even non-Catholics were granted the right to study. On 29 July 1784, German replaced Latin as the language of instruction. For the first time Protestants were allowed, and soon after Jews. The university acknowledged the need for a Czech language and literature chair. Emperor Leopold II established it by a courtly decree on 28 October 1791. On 15 May 1792, scholar and historian Franz Martin Pelzel was named the professor of the chair. He started his lectures on 13 March 1793.

In the revolution of 1848, German and Czech students fought for the addition of the Czech language at the Charles-Ferdinand University as a language of lectures. Due to the demographic changes of the 19th century, Prague ceased to have a German-language majority around 1860. By 1863, 22 lecture courses were held in Czech, the remainder (out of 187) in German. In 1864, Germans suggested the creation of a separate Czech university. Czech professors rejected this because they did not wish to lose the continuity of university traditions.

Although the university began to recover rapidly after 1945, it did not enjoy academic freedom for long. After the communist coup in 1948, the new regime started to arrange purges and repress all forms of disagreement with the official ideology, and continued to do so for the next four decades, with the second wave of purges during the “normalization” period in the beginning of the 1970s. Only in the late 1980s did the situation start to improve; students organized various activities and several peaceful demonstrations in the wake of the Revolutions of 1989 abroad. This initiated the “Velvet Revolution” in 1989, in which both students and faculty of the university played a large role. Václav Havel, a writer, dramatist and philosopher, was recruited from the independent academic community and appointed president of the republic in December 1989.

According to Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking), Charles University ranked in the upper 1.5 percent of the world’s best universities in 2011. It came 201st to 300th out of 17,000 universities worldwide. It is the best university in the Czech Republic and one of the best universities in Central and Eastern Europe only overtaken by Russian Lomonosov Moscow State University at 74th place. It was placed 31st in Times BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings 2014 (after 23rd University of Warsaw).

It was ranked in 2013 as 201–300 best in the World among 500 universities evaluated by Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking), 233rd among 500 in QS World University Rankings, 351–400 among 400 universities in Times Higher Education World University Rankings and 485th in CWTS Leiden Ranking of 500 universities.

Rector of the University Václav Hampl said in 2008: “I am very pleased that Charles University achieved such a great success and I would like to thank to all who have contributed to it. An overwhelming majority of schools with a similar placement like Charles University have incomparably better financing and therefore this success is not only a reflection of professional qualities of our academics but also their personal efforts and dedication.“

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European Higher Education Organization is a public organization carrying out academic, educational and information activities on higher education in Europe.

The EHEO general plan stresses that:

  • Higher education systems require adequate funding and, as an investment in economic growth, public spending in higher education should be protected.
  • The challenges faced by higher education require more flexible governance and funding systems, which balance greater autonomy for education institutions with accountability to stakeholders.

Thus, EHEO plans:

  • improve academic and scientific interaction of universities;
  • protect the interests of universities;
  • interact more closely with public authorities of European countries;
  • popularize European higher education in the world;
  • develop academic mobility;
  • seek funding for European universities.