Is the University of San Carlos Really Older Than UST?

Historians have the final word on whether USC is the oldest school in the Philippines.

For the longest time, the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas or UST has been recognized as the oldest university in Asia. But there are people disputing this, claiming the University of San Carlos or USC in Cebu is the oldest. 

UST was founded by the Order of Preachers or the Dominicans in 1611. It was originally named Colegio de Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario (College of Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary). The Dominicans changed its name to Colegio de Santo Tomás de Manila in 1617, and finally to  Universidad de Santo Tomás in 1645 when it was finally elevated to university status. It was none other than Pope Innocent X who conferred the university status upon the request of Spain’s King Philip IV. 

According to some people, USC predates the establishment of UST, because allegedly, it was founded in 1595—16 years ahead of UST’s founding date. 

Tom Ong, moderator of the Facebook group History and Trivia Philippines World, claims USC is the oldest school in the Philippines because it was established in 1595, but was not recognized because its founders failed to have their school registered in Spain. 

But what do historians have to say?

USC is not the oldest school in the Philippines.

In a paper published on the 400th anniversary of UST, none other than Fr. Aloysius Cartagenas, professor at the Seminario Mayor de San Carlos of Cebu, argued “UST is older than USC,” and not by a dozen years, but by hundreds. The seminary was part of the Colegio de San Carlos until 1924 when they separated. 


According to Cartagenas, the dispute is not whether USC is older than UST, but whether the present-day USC could rightfully trace its roots to Colegio de San Ildefonso, the school founded by the Jesuits in 1595.

Main Building of the University of Santo Tomas

Photo by Walter Eric Sy / Shutterstock.

Main Building of the University of San Carlos

Photo by SanJoSugbu | Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).
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USC was not the Colegio de San Ildefonso founded in 1595.

Cartagenas argues there is no clear and visible link between USC and the now-defunct Colegio de San Ildefonso, and therefore, USC cannot claim to be the oldest school in the Philippines. At the time it was established by the Jesuits, San Ildefonso was a grammar school for boys attached to the Jesuit residence in Cebu.

In 1768, the Jesuits were expelled from the Philippines. Many of the institutions they established in the country, including the Colegio de San Ildefonso, were closed. 

Fourteen years after the Jesuit expulsion, the school facility of then-closed San Ildefonso was renamed Colegio-Seminario de San Carlos, but it was no longer the Jesuits who run it. It had become a different institution run by a different religious order. 

“The latter (USC) was specifically for the training of diocesan priests, and it simply took over the facility of the former, a Jesuit central house with an attached day school,” said Categenas in his paper published in Philippiniana Sacra as quoted by The Varsitarian.

Vatican's Archbishop Angelo Vincenzo Zani Examines Documents Related to UST's Establishment in 1611

Photo by UST Archives | Public Domain.

In 1867, the school facility was taken over by the Vincentians when Bishop Romualdo Jimeno turned over the seminary to the Congregation of the Missions. 

The present-day administrators of USC, the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), took over the college in 1935. It was not until 1948 when San Carlos was elevated to university status. UST held the same status since 1645—some 303 years earlier than USC.


Unlike UST, whose operations were only interrupted by the Japanese occupation of the Philippines, and whose administrators remained the same throughout the years, the facility where USC is located changed ownership several times and had been closed for many years after the Jesuit expulsion. There was simply no continuity. 

How old is Cebu's University of San Carlos?

Throughout the history of its facilities in Cebu, which changed ownership several times, there should only be one basis for determining the official age of the University of San Carlos, says Cartagenas. 

“Following Church tradition, the foundation event and date of University of San Carlos should be the decree of Bishop Romualdo Jimeno on 15 May 1867 (turning over the seminary to the Congregation of the Missions) and the first day of classes in the history of what is now USC is 1 July 1867, the day P. Jose Casarramona welcomed the first lay students to attend classes at the Seminario de San Carlos,” said Cartagenas.

USC cannot claim it was founded in 1595.

Another historian, Fr. Fidel Villarroel, O.P., argued in 1995 in his paper published in Unitas that the Society of the Divine Word cannot claim its school was founded in 1595 when it was the Jesuits, not them, who established San Ildefonso. All Jesuit institutions in the Philippines ceased to exist when they were expelled in 1768. 

A mere takeover of San Ildefonso’s facilities by several religious orders and missionaries does not mean continuity of the institution or its mission.

“It should be noted that most Jesuit residences in the Philippines, as elsewhere, were called colegios, whether they were educational institutions, houses of formation, centers of apostolate, or seats of government and administration for the Society,” wrote Villaroel. 


The Spanish government confiscated all the Jesuit facilities after the expulsion, including Jesuit houses, churches, schools, and properties. 

“All other Jesuit institutions, without exception, ceased to exist, never to rise again as they were. No institution took over its works and mission, and none claims to be its continuator,” wrote Villaroel. 

In other words, the Colegio de San Ildefonso was clearly not the same school as today’s University of San Carlos. A mere takeover of San Ildefonso’s facilities by several religious orders and missionaries does not mean continuity of the institution or its mission. USC is not the oldest extant school in the Philippines. That title rightfully belongs to UST. 

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