History and chronology

Ilam homestead 1 landscape

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

1873

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

Alexander Bickerton appointed first professor (in chemistry).

1874

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.

1875

First annual examinations.

1876

Julius Von Haast appointed professor of geology and palaeontology.

1877

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."

1878

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

1879

The College Library established.

1880

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

1881

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

1882

School of Art opens.

1886

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

First annual rugby match against Otago University.

1888

Engineering courses are introduced.

1890

Ernest Rutherford starts at Canterbury College.

1894

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

1908

Ernest Rutherford awarded Nobel Prize (for chemistry).

1911

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

1914

Ernest Rutherford knighted for his contribution to science.

Henry Stokes Richards becomes Canterbury's first Rhodes Scholar.

1917

Ernest Rutherford splits the atom.

1918

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

1921

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

1924

Music faculty established.

1927

Law and Commerce become separate faculties. 

Apirana Ngata knighted for services to the Māori people.

1928

James Hight appointed Rector.

1929

Students' Union opens.

1930

The first edition of student magazine Canta is produced.

1933

Canterbury College becomes Canterbury University College.

1934

University Library adopts Library of Congress classification scheme.

1937

Philosopher Karl Popper arrives at Canterbury University College.

1941

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.

1943

Professor Albert Tocker appointed Rector.

1944

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

1947

James Hight knighted for services to Education.

1948

Henry Rainsford Hulme appointed Rector.

University Grants Committee established.

1949

The intention to move to Ilam is officially announced.

1950

James Logie appointed Registrar.

1956

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.

1957

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.

1959

Carleton Perkins appointed chancellor.

1960

The Erskine Programme established to support teaching staff overseas.

1961

Dr Leslie Pownall appointed Vice-Chancellor.

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

1965

Rt. Rev. Alwyn Warren appointed chancellor.

1966

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

Professor Neville Phillips appointed Vice-Chancellor.

1968

Terence McCombs appointed chancellor.

1971

The Staff Club opens at Ilam Homestead.

1972

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

John Matson appointed Chancellor.

1973

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.

1974

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.

1975

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

1977

Professor Albert Brownlie appointed Vice-Chancellor. 

Brian Anderson appointed Chancellor.

1979

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.

1980

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

1983

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

1984

Charles Caldwell appointed chancellor.

1985

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

1986

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.

1987

Richard Bowron appointed Chancellor.

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

1988

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

1991

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.

1992

Ian Leggat appointed Chancellor. 

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

Linguistics becomes a department.

1993

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.

1994

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.

1995

Alumnus Ian Axford named New Zealander of the Year

1996

Ian Axford knighted for services to science.

1998

Daryl Le Grew appointed Vice-Chancellor.

Dame Phyllis Guthardt appointed Chancellor.

1999

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

2000

College House celebrates 150th anniversary and reunion.

2002

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

2003

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

Alumnus Anote Tong elected President of Kiribati.

2004

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.

2006

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

2007

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

2008

Professor Roy Sharp resigns as Vice-Chancellor.

Professor Ian Town appointed acting Vice-Chancellor.

2009

Dr Rod Carr appointed Vice-Chancellor.

Rex Williams appointed Chancellor.

2010

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.

2012

Dr John Wood appointed Chancellor.

2013

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.

2014

Dr John Wood re-elected Chancellor | Tumu Kaunihera.

2018

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

2019

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.