The University originated in 1873 in the centre of Christchurch as Canterbury College, the first constituent college of the University of New Zealand. It became the second institution in New Zealand providing tertiary-level education (following the University of Otago, established in 1869), and the fourth in Australasia.
The Canterbury Museum and Library and Christ's College, dissatisfied with the state of higher education in Canterbury, had both worked towards setting up Canterbury College. In 1933, the name changed from Canterbury College to Canterbury University College. In 1957 the name changed again to the present University of Canterbury.
Until 1961, the University formed part of the University of New Zealand (UNZ), and issued degrees in its name. That year saw the dissolution of the federal system of tertiary education in New Zealand, and the University of Canterbury became an independent University awarding its own degrees. Upon the UNZ's demise, Canterbury Agricultural College became a constituent college of the University of Canterbury, as Lincoln College. Lincoln College became independent in 1990 as a full university in its own right.
Over the period from 1961 to 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 became the site of the Christchurch Arts Centre, a hub for arts, crafts and entertainment in Christchurch.
In 2004, the University underwent restructuring into four Colleges and a School of Law, administering a number of schools and departments (though a number of departments have involvement in cross-teaching in numerous academic faculties). For many years the university worked closely with the Christchurch College of Education, leading to a full merger in 2007, establishing a fifth College.