The Historical Universities of Lund and Uppsala

Did you know that there was a time when Sweden’s historical universities were as influential as Oxford, Cambridge and Paris?

And no, it is not the Karolinska Institutet (which awards the Nobel Prize and is one of the most prestigious medical universities in the world).

Universities are educational and research powerhouses, vital to the long term economic health of a country. Since knowledge is universal and does not respect geographical boundaries, the main battle between universities is very much a battle of influence – influence gives an advantage in hiring the best minds as students and staff, it ensures that the work coming out from the institution is taken seriously and the findings that arise from the institution define the cutting edge.

Just as there are Cambridge and Oxford universities in the United Kingdom, there are Lund (began 1425, established 1666) and Uppsala (established 1477) universities in Sweden. In the world of academia permanence tends to be power. Lund University is technically the oldest university in Scandinavia and traces its roots back to 1425 when Franciscan monks founded a medieval university (called the studium generale) next to Lund Cathedral. I use the word techincally because the university was destroyed in the heat of the Protestant Reformation, and was so when Lund University was established in 1666 it was considered a separate entity.

Another studium generale was opened in Uppsala in 1477 and a third in Copenhagen in 1479. These two places can therefore claim to be the oldest universities in Sweden and Denmark too. Regardless these three are history-bound institutions.

Many historical universities were built outside of cities to take learning away from the movements of daily life. Many of these historical universities therefore end up having small towns develop around them, and accruing to themselves a very unique sense of history and energy in the city. A university town where the town is essentially built around the college has buildings of learning at almost every corner. All around the university town permeates a scholarly air that inspires you to immerse yourself deep in the intellectual exercise. In these cases, the university marketing is not too far from the truth.

Now much of the prestige of these universities comes precisely from their long histories and the collective intellectual heft that time accumulates. Prior to this age of mass higher education, a university education was reserved for the social/cultural/political/religious/intelelctual elite, many of whom would go on to lead and shape the societies they lived in. Since the educational options were much lesser a few centuries ago the movers and shakers would therefore have come from a small collection of institutions.

Like today, these historical universities competed for talent. They battled each other to draw the best brains to their city and there was a time, at the peak of the Swedish Power (Stormarkstiden), when the universities of Lund and Uppsala were beacons that drew the very top intellectuals like moths to light.

Intellectuals whose work has revolutionized the way we live such as Anders Chydenius (Uppsala) a forerunner of economic liberalism before Adam Smith talked about the invisible hand; Samuel Pufendorf‘s (Lund) philosophical ideas that informed the America’s founding fathers such as Andrew Hamilton, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson; Carl Linneaus (Uppsala) whose classification system of all life forms we still use today. Lund and Uppsala continue to draw some top minds including Nils Alwal (Lund) whose creation introduced practical dialysis treatment; Carl Hertz (Lund) who was key to developing inkjet and ultrasound technology as well as Niklas Zennstrom (Uppsala) who co-founded Kazaa and Skype.

(For a very good story on Chydenius, check this video)

These universities continue to be highly prestigious, high quality and influential in Sweden, Scandinavia and Europe, but the loss of Swedish geopolitical power halted the opportunity to become a superbrand that Oxford and Cambridge have become (thanks in great part to the growth of the British Empire and the spread of their global reputation with the growth of empire).

What do I mean? The Dutch colonised the West Indies and Indonesia and for people in the Indonesia orbit at the time, Dutch universities were at the centre of the academic universe, many top Indonesian students studied in the Netherlands. Similar for Vietnamese/Cambodian/Laotian students in French universities. The British happened to have one of the largest Empires in the world and they passed on global topdog status to another Anglo speaking power, therefore imbuing their top universities with a global stature that most countries do not have. In like vein, China’s top universities will increasing see a larger and larger portion of the brightest minds in the world flock to enter their gates.

But I digress.

While we live in youth-centric society, universities are the exact opposite. History is power, to many ‘old’ is ‘gold’, and this bears out in university rankings where older universities tend to have higher overall reputational rankings and tend to also draw many more applicants than young universities (with exceptions).

History however is both a strength and a curse. Historical universities invoke a desire of learning for learning’s sake and inspire the romance of education, something that young universities tend to not have. The traditions of universities can also be a boon in creating a vibe and experience that a modern university will not be able to provide. In the case of Lund and Uppsala, the nation system is one of these unique examples.

While this depth of history gives old universities a vibe and sense of tradition that younger universities do not have, historical universities are typically also bound by the shackles of history and tradition and are therefore slower to respond to market demands of what sort of education they should provide, something that younger universities are more sensitive and adapt at. Having said that, if you manage to get to a university town, stop a little and enjoy the energy of learning that surround them because this sense of history will inspire you.

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