History and chronology

© Restricted/University of Canterbury

Established in 1873 Canterbury College, as it was then known, was only the second university in Aotearoa New Zealand.

It was set up on the Oxbridge model with one major difference: women students were admitted from the start. An early graduate, Helen Connon, became the first woman in the then British Empire to win honours.

Housed in graceful stone buildings on a central city block, the College was dependent on rents from high country farms with which it had been endowed by the Canterbury Provincial Council.

Ernest Rutherford, Canterbury’s most distinguished graduate, studied at the University in the 1890s. He discovered his scientific ability during a year of postgraduate research before taking up a scholarship to Cambridge. He would go on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry and in 1917, became the first person to split the atom.

Leader and politican Sir Apirana Ngata (Ngati Porou) was a contemporary of Rutherford and became the first Māori graduate from an Aotearoa New Zealand university. Portraits of the two grace Aotearoa New Zealand’s $100 and $50 bank notes respectively.

Canterbury College was renamed Canterbury University College in 1933 before becoming the University of Canterbury in 1957.

For most of its first 100 years the University was situated in the centre of Ōtautahi Christchurch (now the Arts Centre) but moved to its current location in 1975, a spacious, purpose-built 76 hectare site in the suburb of Ilam. The ‘new’ University campus has a central complex of libraries, lecture theatres, laboratories and student accommodation surrounded by playing fields, woodlands and the renowned Ilam Gardens.

The University of Canterbury has five Colleges:

  • College of Arts | Te Rāngai Toi Tangata
  • College of Education, Health and Human Development | Te Rāngai Ako me te Hauora
  • College of Engineering | Te Rāngai Pūkaha
  • College of Science | Te Rāngai Pūtaiao
  • College of Business and Law | Te Rāngai Umanga me te Ture

UC now has a diverse range of study options, offering over 120 qualifications in more than 150 subject areas. Ten local accommodation facilities provide board for more than 2,200 students.

It also has the most extensive network of field stations for student and staff research of any university in Aotearoa New Zealand, including Kaikoura, Cass, Westport, Harihari (South Westland), the sub-Antarctic Snares Islands and Antarctica, and Aotearoa New Zealand’s premier astronomical research facility at Mount John in Tekapo.

UC is privileged to also operate a field station in Nigeria as part of the Nigerian Montane Forest Project.

YearKey Events


June 16: Canterbury College (University of New Zealand) foundation day.

Alexander Bickerton appointed first professor (in chemistry).


Teaching begins, with five part-time lecturers until founding professors arrive from England.

John Macmillan Brown appointed first professor of classics, history and English literature; Charles Cook first professor of mathematics and natural philosophy.


First annual examinations.


Julius Von Haast appointed professor of geology and palaeontology.


Bachelor of Laws (LLB) course introduced.

Lyttelton Times, mid-1877: "…after innumerable stoppages and delays the new buildings of
Canterbury College are completed, so far as they go, and are ready for occupation."


James Hay and Frederick Fitchett become the first graduates from Canterbury College.


The College Library established.


Helen Connon becomes the first female to graduate from Canterbury College.


Helen Connon becomes first female honours graduate in the British Empire.


School of Art opens.


Bachelor of Science (BSc) and Master of Science (MSc) courses are introduced.

First annual rugby match against Otago University.


Engineering courses are introduced.


Ernest Rutherford starts at Canterbury College.


Apirana Ngata becomes first Māori scholar to complete a university degree.


Ernest Rutherford awarded Nobel Prize (for chemistry).


Alice Candy graduates with a Masters of Arts with Hons in Political Science.


Ernest Rutherford knighted for his contribution to science.

Henry Stokes Richards becomes Canterbury's first Rhodes Scholar.


Ernest Rutherford splits the atom.


Helen Connon Hall and Rolleston House open, the first hostels for female and male students (respectively).


Four faculties are established: Arts, Science, Commerce & Law and Mental, Moral & Social Sciences.


Music faculty established.


Law and Commerce become separate faculties. 

Apirana Ngata knighted for services to the Māori people.


James Hight appointed Rector.


Students' Union opens.


The first edition of student magazine Canta is produced.


Canterbury College becomes Canterbury University College.


University Library adopts Library of Congress classification scheme.


Philosopher Karl Popper arrives at Canterbury University College.


First internal examinations, papers were previously sent to Britain. 

17 Rolleston House men fined for their part in penning 50 sheep in College quadrangle overnight and tampering with the clock tower.


Professor Albert Tocker appointed Rector.


For the first time it was not compulsory to study a foreign language.


James Hight knighted for services to Education.


Henry Rainsford Hulme appointed Rector.

University Grants Committee established.


The intention to move to Ilam is officially announced.


James Logie appointed Registrar.


Sir Frederick Llewellyn appointed Vice-Chancellor and Rector.
After 1957, he dropped 'rector' from his formal title whenever he could, in effect creating the role of Vice-Chancellor for Canterbury University College.

Miss Marion Steven gifts her collection of classical antiquities to the University following her husband’s death, with the stipulation the ‘James Logie Memorial Collection’ be used primarily for teaching.


Canterbury University College becomes the University of Canterbury.

Donald Bain appointed chancellor.

The move to Ilam begins, with the School of Fine Arts transferring to Okeover.


Carleton Perkins appointed chancellor.


The Erskine Programme established to support teaching staff overseas.


Dr Leslie Pownall appointed Vice-Chancellor.

Beatrice Tinsley - ‘Queen of the Cosmos’ - graduates with MSc in Physics with First Class Honours.


Rt. Rev. Alwyn Warren appointed chancellor.


Ngaio Marsh becomes a Dame for distinguished services in the arts, especially writing and theatre production.

Professor Neville Phillips appointed Vice-Chancellor.


Terence McCombs appointed chancellor.


Jane Soons appointed professor of geomorphology, becoming UC’s first female professor.


The Staff Club opens at Ilam Homestead.


Three new halls of residence open, initially named 'North', 'South' and 'West'. 

John Matson appointed Chancellor.


The University celebrates it’s centenary, during which:

  • Buildings at the University’s old town site are gifted to the people of Ōtautahi Christchurch as an arts centre.
  • Sir Karl Popper receives Honorary Doctorate.


The James Hight Library opens. At the time, it was Aotearoa New Zealand's largest university building. 

Ilam’s three university halls of residence become known, collectively, as University Hall.

Alumnus Bill Rowling is confirmed as Prime Minister of New Zealand, following Norman Kirk’s unexpected death.


Student radio station Radio U to broadcast during enrolment and orientation in 1976.


Professor Albert Brownlie appointed Vice-Chancellor. 

Brian Anderson appointed Chancellor.


Jean Herbison becomes the first female Chancellor of an Aotearoa New Zealand university. 

School of Fine Arts moves from the Okeover Homestead to its new buildings.


Department of Extension Studies establishes New Start programme for adult students.


Sixteen year old David Tan completes a BSc (Hons) degree in mathematics.


Charles Caldwell appointed chancellor.


Botany department becomes P.A.M.S. (Plant and Microbial Sciences).


Bachelor of Arts (Hons) degree introduced. 

John Densem's musical Bicky premieres at the Court Theatre, featuring A.W. Bickerton, the only professor ever to be sacked by the University.


Richard Bowron appointed Chancellor.

Elsie Locke receives an Honorary Doctorate for her remarkable contribution to Aotearoa New Zealand society.


UC announces Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, named for Professor John Macmillan Brown, chief creator of Canterbury College’s academic traditions.


Women graduates outnumber men for the first time in the University's 118 years. 

Faces of two UC alumni appear on new Aotearoa New Zealand bank notes; Sir Apirana Ngata on the $50 note and Ernest Rutherford on the $100 note.


Ian Leggat appointed Chancellor. 

Seven year old Michael Tan becomes the youngest New Zealander to attend university. 

Linguistics becomes a department.


Pro-chancellor, Reverend Dr Phyllis Guthardt becomes a Dame.

Alumna Margaret Mahy is appointed to the Order of New Zealand for her lasting contribution to children’s literature.


Alumni Association officially launched and Canterbury's oldest known student, 100 year old Roland Denton, signs on as a member. 

The feminist studies programme receives departmental status.


Alumnus Ian Axford named New Zealander of the Year


Ian Axford knighted for services to science.


Daryl Le Grew appointed Vice-Chancellor.

Dame Phyllis Guthardt appointed Chancellor.


Fine Arts alumnus Vincent Ward's film What Dreams May Come wins an Academy Award (Oscar) for
best visual effects.


College House celebrates 150th anniversary and reunion.


Professor Daryl Le Grew resigns as Vice-Chancellor.
Professor Bob Kirk appointed acting Vice-Chancellor.


Professor Roy Sharp appointed Vice-Chancellor.
Dr Robin Mann appointed Chancellor.

Alumnus Anote Tong elected President of Kiribati.


New structure introduces four colleges: Arts, Business and Economics, Engineering and Science in addition to a School of Law.

First Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF) results released.


Platform, the inaugural University of Canterbury Arts Festival, was held.


1 January: the Christchurch College of Education merges with the University of Canterbury.


Professor Roy Sharp resigns as Vice-Chancellor.

Professor Ian Town appointed acting Vice-Chancellor.


Dr Rod Carr appointed Vice-Chancellor.

Rex Williams appointed Chancellor.


New Zealand Geographic Board names a mountain in honour of UC alumna, Beatrice Tinsley.

Mount Tinsley stands in the Kepler Mountains of Fiordland, 15kms west of Te Anau.


Dr John Wood appointed Chancellor.


Dr Rod Carr reappointed Vice-Chancellor for an unprecedented second term and continues leading the University’s earthquake recovery.

Alumnus Justice Vui Clarence Nelson becomes the first Pacific Islander to be elected to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, based in Geneva.


Dr John Wood re-elected Chancellor | Tumu Kaunihera.


Ernest Rutherford building opened by Prime Minister, Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern with Professor Mary Fowler, great-granddaughter of Lord Rutherford, in attendance


For the first time, the University is led by two women:

  • Sue McCormack is appointed Chancellor | Tumu Kaunihera effective 1 January 2019.
  • Professor Cheryl de la Rey appointed Vice-Chancellor | Tumu Whakarae effective 1 February 2019.

Canterbury Distinguished Professor Roy Kerr appointed a Fellow of the Royal Society (UK) for his exceptional contributions to science, placing him among the world’s most eminent scientists.

25 June: Rehua building officially opened by Education Minister, Hon Chris Hipkins.

2 August: Haere-roa, new home of UC’s Students Association (UCSA) was officially opened.

1 October: Beatrice Tinsley building officially opens, with her family in attendance.

UC Legends: find more about the University’s illustrious alumni here.