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The history of Debrecen’s higher education dates back to the 16th century. The Reformed College of Debrecen, established in 1538, played a central role in education, teaching in native language and spreading Hungarian culture in the region, as well as in the whole country. The College soon became the most important cultural center in the whole country, where a great number of writers, scientists and politicians were educated at.
In the 18th century, the schools of Law and Theology were founded, and although no separate School of Medicine existed at that time, physicians were also trained within the walls of the College.
In 1908, the Calvinist Academy of Humanities was created, and in 1912, the Hungarian Royal University was founded. The College was a sound base for the Royal University, thus making the University of Debrecen a higher education institute with the longest continuous history in Hungary.
The university incorporated the Theology, Law, and Arts faculties of the College and also added a medical school. Teaching began in 1914, in the old Calvinist College buildings. The University was officially inaugurated on October 23, 1918.
In 1921, the university took the name of István Tisza, former prime minister of Hungary. In 1932, the university's main building, designed in eclectic and neo-baroque style, was completed making it one of the largest buildings in the city.
In 1949/1950, the University was restructured under communist control. The primary goal of the “reorganization” was to split the university into smaller, less influential institutions, and also to weaken or even dissolve units which did not fit the political agenda of the day.
The Faculty of Medicine became an independent university under the supervision of the Ministry of Health in 1951 (until 2000), the Faculty of Theology was returned to the Calvinist College, the Faculty of Law was discontinued, and members of the teaching staff were expelled from the University. The departments of English, French, Italian, German, and Classical Philology were closed down, while the Department of Russian expanded dramatically. The teaching of western languages only resumed after 1956, with the exception of Italian which was not offered again until the 1990s.
The Faculty of Natural Sciences became an independent faculty in 1949, and moved into the new Chemistry Building in 1970. In 1952 the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Natural Sciences changed their name to Lajos Kossuth University, which they retained until 2000.
On January 1, 2000, the colleges and universities of Hajdú-Bihar county, the University of Agriculture, Lajos Kossuth University, and the Medical University, were combined. The resulting University of Debrecen had five university and three college level faculties with 20,000 students. The Conservatory of Debrecen and University campuses in Hajdúböszörmény and Nyíregyháza joined later.
With a student body of about 30 thousand, over 4,300 of which are international students, the University of Debrecen is one of the largest institutions of higher education in Hungary today. The cooperation of 14 faculties ensures the multidisciplinary background guaranteeing the University a leading role as a research and education institution, and the intellectual center of Eastern Hungary.