The university was established in 1873 as Canterbury College, in the centre of Christchurch. It was the second institution in New Zealand providing tertiary level education, following the University of Otago which was established in 1869, and the fourth in Australasia.
Until 1961, the university had been part of the University of New Zealand, and issued degrees in its name. In that year the federal system was dissolved and the University of Canterbury became an independent institution, having its own coat of arms and issuing its own degrees.
Over the period 1961 - 1974, the university campus relocated from the centre of the city to its much larger current site in the suburb of Ilam. The neo-gothic buildings of the old campus are now the site of the Christchurch Arts Centre, a hub for arts, crafts and entertainment in Christchurch.
Famous past graduates and staff of the University of Canterbury include Ernest Rutherford and Karl Popper. Displays on Ernest Rutherford can be seen at the Rutherford Birthplace, Nelson, and at the Arts Centre.