The University of Latvia with its 15,000 students, 13 faculties and more than 20 research institutes is one of the largest comprehensive and leading research universities in the Baltic States. The University offers more than 130 state-accredited academic and professional study programmes. At University of Latvia, research is conducted in over 50 research fields which represent four main areas of inquiry: the humanities, sciences, social sciences, and education sciences. The University of Latvia pays great attention to the development of international collaboration. At present the University of Latvia has signed more than 500 agreements with 326 institutions in 31 European countries within ERASMUS programme. Looking back at the history of the University of Latvia, we find ourselves in a more distant time than the founding of the University on September 28, 1919. The creation of the University of Latvia is not a coincidence brought about by external historical circumstances – it is the result of Latvian intellectual maturity accumulated over many decades. The idea about the creation of a higher educational institution on the national level was put forward in the second half of the XIX century by social and cultural activists calling upon the Latvian people to strive for knowledge and aspire to qualitative education. Their calls were heard and fulfilled at the beginning of the XX century.
The Latvian Teachers’ and Education Workers’ Congress that took place from 7th to 13th June, 1917, in Tartu, Estonia, had a crucial role in putting the idea about national higher educational institution into effect. The Congress set up the Higher School Committee with the philosopher Pauls Dāle as its first chairperson. On 13th June, 1917, the resolution “About Latvian Higher School” was made public, and it stated one of the basic defining principles of the new university – unity of humanities, natural and technical sciences as a requisite. The formation and foundation of the University of Latvia were brought about by the Higher School Committee which consisted of P. Dāle, E. Felsbergs, J. Osis, P. Nomals, E. Laube, Ā. Butuls, K. Kasparsons and many other esteemed intellectuals. Several of them were among the first lecturers of the University of Latvia.
After World War I, empires were crumbling, new national, independent states were being formed all over the world, and Latvia was among them. The Republic of Latvia proclaimed its independence on 18 November, 1918. Favourable conditions are necessary for an independent country to form and secure its existence; for example, it is of fundamental importance to have sufficient number of academically educated citizens. Consequently, with the formation of independent Latvia the thought about a national higher school became topical. Against all odds and many premonitions the foundation of a broad higher educational institution of sciences was a success at a time of international perplexity and economic instability dominant in Latvia at the beginning of the XX century.
On the 28th September 1919 the first Latvian Higher School was solemnly opened in the former building of the Riga Polytechnic Institute in Raiņa Boulevard 19 (Since in the organisational process of the Higher School the name Latvian Higher School seemed more acceptable and was more often used it was accepted also as a temporary title. With the adoption of the Constitution the name The University of Latvia was established). The new higher educational institution became one of the most essential freedom manifestos of the Latvian people. Therefore, the University of Latvia is more closely connected with the history of independent Latvia than any other higher school in the country. The University came into existence alongside its country, but later improved it.
The next years in the history of the University of Latvia were marked with particularly intense development – the adoption of the Constitution, the acceptance and passing of the budget in the Parliament, recruiting of distinguished teaching staff, extending of study programmes, refining of Latvian scientific terminology and creation of academic traditions – the University faculty and students had found a common goal that allowed them to rise above their routine and mundane troubles. From 1919 to 1940, the University was the greatest centre of higher education, science and culture in Latvia where intelligentsia was forming and expanding. The Latvian state had high regard for education and supported it both morally and financially. For instance, education was allotted 14.7% of the total budgetary expenses in the academic year 1937/38 (in the rest of Europe - 12.1%). In the state expenditure, education took the third position and was surpassed only by promotion of economic life and defence measures.
The University of Latvia (UL) was the first in the world to present the opportunity of obtaining higher education in the Latvian language. In its 12 faculties students could study the humanities (including Theology), the exact sciences as well as technical and natural sciences. The introduction of Latvian as the language of instruction did not mean that students of other nationalities were slighted. In the academic year 1937/38 out of the total of 6780 students that were studying in UL 86% were Latvians, 6.4% - Jewish, 3.8% - German, 2.8% - Russian, 0.4% - Polish, 0.3% Lithuanian, 0.3% - Estonian and 1% were students of other nationalities.
The University of Latvia as an institution of higher education and science in Latvia encouraged scientific research work, facilitated the spread of science among the people and prepared highly qualified specialists in accordance with national necessities. In the course of time, new teaching staff and generation of scientists grew up and UL became part of international scientific life. In 1939, there were 13 900 people with higher education in Latvia, with 59% of them UL graduates. There were 30.1 students for every 10 000 people (in Sweden - 14.2).
World War II and all the entailed political upheavals that took place in Latvia gave a heavy blow to the University of Latvia discontinuing its development. During both occupations the activities of the University were adjusted to suit the political agenda relevant at the time. Faculties were no longer active, members of the teaching staff were arrested and dismissed, students expelled. After the war the University life was indoctrinated – under the Soviet occupation UL was reorganised in line with the model of other higher educational institutions of the USSR. However, the University of Latvia did not cease to exist. The University of Latvia has existed since 28th September 1919. It has never been liquidated or officially closed.
With the events signalling the awakening, the resistance shown by the University teaching staff and students against the Soviet ideology became part of the movement towards Latvian national awakening. After the Republic of Latvia regained its independence, the events that caused major changes in the whole society were influential also in regards to the University life. The Supreme Council of the Republic of Latvia confirmed the Constitution of the University of Latvia on September 18, 1991. This decision renewed the attributes and symbols of the University of Latvia: the flag, the hymn, the Rector’s chain and the official garments for the Rector, Vice-Rector and deans, thus reinstating the traditions and returning to the Latvian language, history and culture. After Latvia had regained its independence, radical changes took place in the process of accession to academic education at the University of Latvia which being an academic institution incorporates both scientific research activities as well as study courses. The mission of the University was and still remains the development and promotion of higher human values as well as their transfer to future generations, respecting the national language, culture, peculiarities and needs of the development of Latvia.
The University of Latvia has preserved its main goal – to be the centre of the Latvian intellectual life by formulating new tasks and goals. At present new faculties and study programmes have been created with the aim to improve the quality of the studies by focusing on scientific research activities. Over the ninety years of its existence, from a higher school of a hundred lecturers with less than one thousand students, the University of Latvia has evolved into one of the leading Latvian higher educational institutions with approximately 22 thousand students and more than 1,400 lecturers forming the teaching staff. The development of the University of Latvia is based on rich and extensive historical heritage as well as experience and is an ongoing process.