Purpose: As oral communication in higher education is vital, good classroom acoustics is needed to pass the verbal message to university students. Non-auditory factors such as academic language, a non-native educational context and a diversity of acoustic settings in different types of classrooms affect speech understanding and performance of students. The purpose of this study is to find out whether the acoustic properties of the higher educational teaching contexts meet the recommended reference levels. Design/methodology/approach: Background noise levels and the Speech Transmission Index (STI) were assessed in 45 unoccupied university classrooms (15 lecture halls, 16 regular classrooms and 14 skills laboratories). Findings: The findings of this study indicate that 41 classrooms surpassed the maximum reference level for background noise of 35 dB(A) and 17 exceeded the reference level of 40 dB(A). At five-meter distance facing the speaker, six classrooms indicated excellent speech intelligibility, while at more representative listening positions, none of the classrooms indicated excellent speech intelligibility. As the acoustic characteristics in a majority of the classrooms exceeded the available reference levels, speech intelligibility was likely to be insufficient. Originality/value: This study seeks to assess the acoustics in academic classrooms against the available acoustic reference levels. Non-acoustic factors, such as academic language complexity and (non-)nativeness of the students and teaching staff, put higher cognitive demands upon listeners in higher education and need to be taken into account when using them in daily practice for regular students and students with language/hearing disabilities in particular.