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University education in the Tarragona area goes back to the 16th century when Cardinal Gaspar Cervantes de Gatea founded a university in the city of Tarragona to teach Grammar, the Arts and Theology. This Universitas Tarraconensis was practically wiped out by the reprisals of Philip V after the War of Succession. One school did remain, however: the Estudi Literari, which depended on the new University of Cervera until the middle of the 19th century when university education was discontinued. Only the Escola de Mestres (the Teacher Training School), which had been founded shortly before, was to survive and it continued to provide non-university education until it became a part of the University in 1972.

From the end of the 19th century to the 1930s, the Ecclesiastical University in Tarragona taught further education courses in Philosophy, Theology and Canon Law.

University education did not return to the Tarragona area until the second half of the 20th century, when a series of events led to the formation of the Rovira i Virgili University: the Universitat Laboral (Technical College), created by the Ministry of Employment in 1956, started to teach technical courses for the first time in 1961-62 with specialities in mechanical, electrical and chemical engineering. It depended on the Terrassa School of Engineering. Later, in 1972, the title of "Engineer" was changed to "Technical Engineer", and the Universitat Laboral ceased to depend on Terrassa and dropped its mechanical and engineering courses.

When the university reform bill was passed in 1984 the university sector was restructured, and the institutions in Tarragona underwent the corresponding changes. The University of Barcelona set up the Divisió VII to bring together all the institutions in the Tarragona area: the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, the Faculty of Chemical Sciences, the Faculty of Medicine and the Teacher Training School (which had become part of the University of Barcelona in 1972). Subsequently, new centres were created within this Division: in 1988, the School of Oenology in Tarragona and the University School of Business Studies in Reus, and in 1990 the University School of Information Technology in Tarragona. Finally, in 1991 the School of Nursing became part of the University.

There were also a number of other institutions that taught courses in the south of Catalonia and which were affiliated to the University of Barcelona through the Divisió VII: the "Verge de la Cinta" University School in Tortosa, the "Sant Fructuós" University School of Social Work in Tarragona and the Social School, also in Tarragona.

In 1973, the so-called University School of Industrial Engineering became part of the Technical University of Catalonia. In 1971, the University of Barcelona set up local branches of the faculties of Philosophy and Letters, and Sciences in the city of Tarragona. From the very beginning, the aim was for these new courses to achieve the highest possible university recognition. As early as 1972, a request was made to convert these branches into a university college so that they could provide complete first-cycle courses. In 1977, medical courses began in Reus, and in 1983 the Spanish parliament established the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts and the Faculty of Chemistry in Tarragona.

On 30th December 1991, the Catalan Government passed Law 36/1991 and created the Rovira i Virgili University (published in the Catalan Government's official gazette on 15th January 1992). This law stipulates that "the Rovira i Virgili University (URV) must integrate and order the university studies that are at present being taught in the south of Catalonia as well as any new subjects, so forming the base for the development of a new University with a character all of its own". And it goes on: "The aims are, among others, to improve the territorial organization, the quality and the potential of the public service of further education to make it possible for people to exercise their right to education established in article 27.5 of the Spanish Constitution, and to increase and improve the structure of the provision of university places throughout Catalonia."

The same law states: "The name of the University is in honour of the illustrious Catalan, Antoni Rovira i Virgili, writer, historian and politician and one of the most important theorisers and champions of Catalonia's national cause, who was president of the parliament of Catalonia and an example of public-spiritedness, hard work and esteem for the values of our people."