The university was established in 1897 by an Act of Parliament. It was named after Queen Victoria, as 1897 was the sixtieth anniversary of her coronation. There was initially dispute as to where to site the university, and it initially opened in temporary facilities. It was eventually decided to place it in Kelburn, where it still has its primary campus. This decision was influenced in part by the Cable Car Company's donation of UKP1000 if the University was located in Kelburn, so students would patronise its cable car, between the city and the University. The university's historic Hunter Building was opened in 1904.
Gradually, the university expanded its facilities, its courses, and its student body. It presently has around 16,500 students (including around 2000 students who came to study at the university from other countries). It has around 1,500 staff.
Its main campus is located on the hill of Kelburn, above the Wellington central business district, where its commerce, law and design faculties have campuses. A smaller campus in the Te Aro region of Wellington serves as a base for the architecture and design schools.
Some degrees and papers in the fields of teaching and education are jointly taught with the Wellington College of Education, located in the suburb of Karori. It was agreed in 2003 that the College of Education would become a campus of the university.
Victoria University is also home to the McDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology. In late 2003, it was announced that the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research would move to the university's Kelburn campus.