The original Latin word "universitas" refers in general to "a number of persons associated into one body, a society, company, community, guild, corporation, etc." At the time of the emergence of urban town life and medieval guilds, specialised "associations of students and teachers with collective legal rights usually guaranteed by charters issued by princes, prelates, or the towns in which they were located" came to be denominated by this general term. Like other guilds, they were self-regulating and determined the qualifications of their members.
In modern usage the word has come to mean "An institution of higher education offering tuition in mainly non-vocational subjects and typically having the power to confer degrees," with the earlier emphasis on its corporate organization considered as applying historically to Medieval universities.
The original Latin word referred to degree-granting institutions of learning in Western and Central Europe, where this form of legal organisation was prevalent, and from where the institution spread around the world. For non-related educational institutions of antiquity which did not stand in the tradition of the university and to which the term is only loosely and retrospectively applied, see ancient higher-learning institutions.