Heidelberg University – also known as Ruperto Carola – was established in 1386 and is Germany’s oldest university. It is also one of the strongest research universities in all of Europe. In 1386, Ruprecht I, Elector Palatine, received the Pope’s permission to establish the university in his residential city of Heidelberg. The Dutch scholar Marsilius of Inghen who came to Heidelberg from the Paris University became the new university’s first rector.
In the centuries since its founding, Heidelberg University has experienced many ups and downs in connection with its scientific reputation, its intellectual charisma, and its attractiveness to professors and students. In the 16th century Heidelberg evolved into a centre of humanism. Martin Luther’s public defense of his Ninety-Five Theses in April 1518 had a lasting effect. In the years following, the university gained a special reputation as a Calvinist stronghold. The Heidelberg Catechism was written in 1563 and to this day remains a fundamental confessional for the reformed church.
After a difficult span of years marked by revolutions and financial mismanagement, Baden’s first grand duke Karl Friedrich reorganised the university. The university added his name to that of its founder, thereafter calling itself Ruprecht-Karls-Universität.
During the 19th century, Heidelberg was widely celebrated not only for its high level of research but also for its liberality, commitment to democratic ideals, and openness to new ideas. Resulting from this, the high reputation of the university attracted a large number of foreign students. This second flowering was marked by extraordinary research efforts across all faculties and was punctuated by such researchers as Robert Bunsen, Hermann Helmholtz, Gustav Kirchhoff, and Max Weber.
As with its first flowering, Heidelberg saw its second great prospering end with the outbreak of war in 1914. The two world wars in the first half of the 20th century and the circumstances associated with the National Socialist dictatorship plunged Heidelberg University into a nadir from which it only recovered with great difficulty.
From the mid-1960s, Heidelberg University became a mass university, like many others. Between 1950 and 1960 the student numbers doubled, then tripled again between 1961 and 2010, leading to extreme overcrowding. Despite financial bottlenecks in this period, Heidelberg University was able to regain and expand its outstanding reputation and its related attractiveness for international students and researchers.
The successes of Heidelberg University in the Excellence Competitions and in international rankings are evidence of its leading role on the academic scene. In the Excellence Initiative of 2006/07 and 2012 the university was successful with all its proposals and received funding for its institutional strategy “Heidelberg: Realising the Potential of a Comprehensive University” as well as for the two Clusters of Excellence “Cellular Networks” and “Asia and Europe in a Global Context”. Three graduate schools were also funded – the Heidelberg Graduate School for Physics, the Heidelberg Biosciences International Graduate School and the Heidelberg Graduate School of Mathematical and Computational Methods for the Sciences.
In the framework of the Excellence Strategy, the university has been funded since 2019 as a University of Excellence with its institutional strategy “The Comprehensive Research University – Heidelberg: The Future since 1386” and the two Clusters of Excellence “STRUCTURES” and “3D Matter Made to Order”. Within the Excellence Strategy, the university is further expanding the link between its Fields of Focus with two new Flagship Initiatives and, furthermore, laying special emphasis on promoting the transfer of research findings into society.