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90 Years of the University of Ljubljana

December 2009

The University of Ljubljana, Slovenia's oldest higher education institution in December 2009 celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding. The reasons behind the relatively late founding of Slovenia's first university are to be found in the unfavourable historical circumstances.

The Academia Operosorum Labacensium, an association of 'industrious men', was active in Ljubljana from 1693 to 1725, while Jesuit colleges, whose origins date back to the late 16th and early 17th centuries, offered a level of instruction that fell somewhere between grammar school and university studies. Following the dissolution of the Jesuit order in 1773, the Jesuit colleges became state lyceums. As well as philosophy and theology they taught medicine and, lastly, veterinary science. After the changes in 1848, Austria abolished the lyceums. As a result, it was no longer possible to study at a higher level in Slovenia. Slovenians were only able to gain a higher education at foreign universities (Padua, Vienna, later Prague, Graz and Zagreb).

From as early as the mid-nineteenth century, calls for the founding of a Slovenian university began to be heard. These grew particularly strong in the years preceding the First World War, but the Austro-Hungarian authorities continued to refuse them.

Foundation of the University of Ljubljana

The university's first rector was the world-renowned mathematician Josip Plemelj (1873-1967).

An opportunity was offered immediately after the end of the First World War and the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The University of Ljubljana was actually founded on 23 July 1919, with the adoption of the University Act of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians. At the time of its founding the university had just five faculties: theology, law, arts, engineering and medicine (the last of these was incomplete, since it only offered two years of preliminary study). Lectures began at the newly founded university in the 1919/20 academic year, in the premises of what until then had been the Carniolan Provincial Assembly, a magnificent building in the centre of Ljubljana.

Teaching at the university was initially entrusted to 18 professors, the majority of them from foreign universities. A total of 942 students – including just 28 women – enrolled in the various courses offered by the university. The university's first rector was the world-renowned mathematician Josip Plemelj .

The first two decades in the new Yugoslav state were not propitious for the development of the University of Ljubljana, since it was not viewed with favour by the authorities in Belgrade and preference was given, particularly from the financial point of view, to the universities of Belgrade and Zagreb. Despite their financial difficulties, the faculties developed well in educational and academic terms. At the start of the war the University of Ljubljana had 124 professors and 2,474 full-time students, more than a fifth of them women. Somehow the university managed to survive the war years and the Italian and German occupations. The liberation in 1945 gave a new impetus to the University of Ljubljana. A number of new faculties were founded in the years that followed.

Among the 500 top universities in the world

The main building of the University of Ljubljana.

Today the University of Ljubljana has 26 member institutions (23 faculties and 3 art academies) employing 2,717 teaching staff, and the number of enrolled students is almost 50,000 – with female students the clear majority.

The development of the University of Ljubljana from its beginnings to the present day has thus covered an enormous distance in less than a century, not only in terms of numbers and statistics, but also in terms of the reputation that the University of Ljubljana has gained in this time, both among the public in Slovenia and in international academic circles. Although it remains a medium-sized university in European and world terms, in several international tables measuring course quality and staff excellence it appears among the 500 top universities in the world.

Eloquent proof of the University of Ljubljana's position in the currents of global academic thought and artistic creativity is provided by the honorary doctorates. Holders of honorary doctorates from the University of Ljubljana have included the philosopher Tomáš G. Masaryk, who became the first president of Czechoslovakia, the heart surgeon Michael E. DeBakey, the linguist Noam Chomsky, the semiotician Umberto Eco, the legal expert Robert Badinter and many others. Honorary members of the University Senate include the writer and former president of the Czech Republic Václav Havel and the distinguished Polish philosopher and sociologist Adam Michnik.

Text by:  Albert Kos, Sinfo 12, January 2010