Coimbra, University of

   Portugal's oldest and once its most prestigious university. As one of Europe's oldest seats of learning, the University of Coimbra and its various roles have a historic importance that supersedes merely the educational. For centuries, the university formed and trained the principal elites and professions that dominated Portugal. For more than a century, certain members of its faculty entered the central government in Lisbon. A few, such as law professor Afonso Costa, mathematics instructor Sidônio Pais, anthropology professor Bernardino Machado, and economics professor Antônio de Oliveira Salazar, became prime ministers and presidents of the republic. In such a small country, with relatively few universities until recently, Portugal counted Coimbra's university as the educational cradle of its leaders and knew its academic traditions as an intimate part of national life.
   Established in 1290 by King Dinis, the university first opened in Lisbon but was moved to Coimbra in 1308, and there it remained. University buildings were placed high on a hill, in a position that
   physically dominates Portugal's third city. While sections of the medieval university buildings are present, much of what today remains of the old University of Coimbra dates from the Manueline era (1495-1521) and the 17th and 18th centuries. The main administration building along the so-called Via Latina is baroque, in the style of the 17th and 18th centuries. Most prominent among buildings adjacent to the central core structures are the Chapel of São Miguel, built in the 17th century, and the magnificent University Library, of the era of wealthy King João V, built between 1717 and 1723. Created entirely by Portuguese artists and architects, the library is unique among historic monuments in Portugal. Its rare book collection, a monument in itself, is complemented by exquisite gilt wood decorations and beautiful doors, windows, and furniture. Among visitors and tourists, the chapel and library are the prime attractions to this day.
   The University underwent important reforms under the Pombaline administration (1750-77). Efforts to strengthen Coimbra's position in advanced learning and teaching by means of a new curriculum, including new courses in new fields and new degrees and colleges (in Portugal, major university divisions are usually called "faculties") often met strong resistance. In the Age of the Discoveries, efforts were made to introduce the useful study of mathematics, which was part of astronomy in that day, and to move beyond traditional medieval study only of theology, canon law, civil law, and medicine. Regarding even the advanced work of the Portuguese astronomer and mathematician Pedro Nunes, however, Coimbra University was lamentably slow in introducing mathematics or a school of arts and general studies. After some earlier efforts, the 1772 Pombaline Statutes, the core of the Pombaline reforms at Coimbra, had an impact that lasted more than a century. These reforms remained in effect to the end of the monarchy, when, in 1911, the First Republic instituted changes that stressed the secularization of learning. This included the abolition of the Faculty of Theology.
   Elaborate, ancient traditions and customs inform the faculty and student body of Coimbra University. Tradition flourishes, although some customs are more popular than others. Instead of residing in common residences or dormitories as in other countries, in Coimbra until recently students lived in the city in "Republics," private houses with domestic help hired by the students. Students wore typical black academic gowns. Efforts during the Revolution of 25 April 1974 and aftermath to abolish the wearing of the gowns, a powerful student image symbol, met resistance and generated controversy. In romantic Coimbra tradition, students with guitars sang characteristic songs, including Coimbra fado, a more cheerful song than Lisbon fado, and serenaded other students at special locations. Tradition also decreed that at graduation graduates wore their gowns but burned their school (or college or subject) ribbons (fitas), an important ceremonial rite of passage.
   The University of Coimbra, while it underwent a revival in the 1980s and 1990s, no longer has a virtual monopoly over higher education in Portugal. By 1970, for example, the country had only four public and one private university, and the University of Lisbon had become more significant than ancient Coimbra. At present, diversity in higher education is even more pronounced: 12 private universities and 14 autonomous public universities are listed, not only in Lisbon and Oporto, but at provincial locations. Still, Coimbra retains an influence as the senior university, some of whose graduates still enter national government and distinguished themselves in various professions.
   An important student concern at all institutions of higher learning, and one that marked the last half of the 1990s and continued into the next century, was the question of increased student fees and tuition payments (in Portuguese, propinas). Due to the expansion of the national universities in function as well as in the size of student bodies, national budget constraints, and the rising cost of education, the central government began to increase student fees. The student movement protested this change by means of various tactics, including student strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations. At the same time, a growing number of private universities began to attract larger numbers of students who could afford the higher fees in private institutions, but who had been denied places in the increasingly competitive and pressured public universities.

Historical dictionary of Portugal 3rd ed.. . 2014.

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