History of the University of Auckland

University of New Zealand

As early as 1862 an unknown writer, "J.G.", proposed in Chapman’s New Zealand Monthly Magazine that a university should be established in Auckland. The pioneer town, founded less than a quarter of a century before, had other, more pressing issues, and initially there was no response to the suggestion. Consequently the first university, Otago, was created in 1869 in the South Island, where the inhabitants were wealthier and more keen on education. In 1870, Parliament passed legislation to create the University of New Zealand as an examining body with affiliated teaching colleges. An Auckland politician, later Speaker of the House of Representatives, Maurice O’Rorke, advocated that the University be located in Auckland but it was established as a federal body with no fixed location. Canterbury, which had been planning to create a university, became the first place to open a college of the new federal university in 1873.

The citizens of Auckland at first received university instruction at the Auckland Grammar School. Students sat the examinations of the University of New Zealand. In 1877, one of these students, Kate Edger, became the first woman to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts from a British university.

Auckland University College

In 1878, O’Rorke chaired a Royal Commission on higher education that recommended the establishment of university colleges in Auckland and Wellington. In 1882, the Auckland University College was set up by Act of Parliament and was formally opened on 21 May 1883 in the Choral Hall, then the largest hall in Auckland. The Governor, Sir William Jervois, announced that the College was to be a thoroughly democratic institution, open to women as well as men, and to all classes.

The applicants for the first four chairs, of Classics and English, Mathematics, Natural Science, and Chemistry and Physics, were interviewed in England by the New Zealand Agent-General and some of the most famous scientists and scholars of the day, including the great Benjamin Jowett of Balliol College, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. The men appointed were an impressive group. The chemist, F.D. Brown, had studied in France and Leipzig as well as London, and taught at Oxford and London. He had published a dozen papers. Algernon Phillips Thomas, the biologist, was a Balliol man who had revealed the life history of the liver fluke. The classicist, T.G. Tucker, was to become a famous scholar. When he left to go to Melbourne University in 1885, he was succeeded by Hutcheson Macaulay Posnett, an Irishman who had written several books, including one on comparative literature – what would now be called the sociology of literature – a subject he is credited with inventing. The first professor of Mathematics, George Walker, was accidentally drowned shortly after he reached Auckland and was succeeded by W.S. Aldis, who had been the top scholar in his subject at Cambridge and was the author of several mathematical books.


Finding a home

When O’Rorke first tried to secure a university for Auckland he suggested housing it in Government House, left empty when the Governor moved with the capital to Wellington in 1865. This immediately aroused opposition in the press because many Aucklanders hoped that the capital – and the Governor – would eventually return to Auckland. These conflicting ambitions lay at the basis of a recurrent feature of the history of the College, the great "site row", with the College trying to get at least part of the grounds of Government House while some influential citizens strongly opposed it. One result was that for years the College had no permanent site or permanent buildings. Teaching started in the disused District Court House, expanded into Admiralty House and, in 1890, into the original Parliament Building. In 1907, the Choral Hall was purchased and, in 1917, the College occupied the building vacated by the Grammar School. In 1926 the College acquired its first permanent building, now the ClockTower Building, in Princes Street.


Early difficulties

The College was poor: its statutory grant was for many years only £4,000 a year, while land reserves, set aside by government to provide an income, brought in very little. There were few students: 95 in 1883, 156 by 1901. Some had not passed the matriculation examination and were not studying for degrees. Most were part-time, trainee teachers and law clerks, with music students from 1888 onwards, and commerce students by 1905. The College was dominated by the lay members of Council, especially by Sir Maurice O’Rorke, who was an autocratic chairman from 1883 to 1916.

The early College struggled to keep its small staff – some left for positions in Australia and elsewhere. Most of the remainder grew increasingly out-of-date in their subjects. There was no system of sabbatical or study leave until the 1920s. The teachers’ role was to hand on traditional knowledge. The staff lectured for very long hours and, in general, the students were given a good, traditional undergraduate education. Research was not expected and was rarely done. In some subjects research was impossible. For instance, the Library took no mathematical journals, so the mathematicians knew little about recent work. Some students, however, started to carry out good research, notably in Chemistry.



In the 1920s and well into the 1930s the College was ruled by a Registrar, Rocke O’Shea, and a new Chairman of the Council (President after 1924), another former Cabinet Minister, Sir George Fowlds. Under their leadership the University started to change. The first New Zealand graduates with postgraduate education abroad were appointed to the staff, notably the very able economist, Horace Belshaw, the philosopher, R.P. Anschutz, and the physicist, P.W. Burbidge. An excellent researcher, W.F. Short, was appointed as a lecturer in Chemistry.

Some advances were made in providing professional education. The only such education offered at the College was in Law, which attracted large numbers of students. The only "professional schools" recognised by the University of New Zealand were Medicine at Otago and Engineering at Canterbury. In 1906, the College established a School of Mining, which slowly and covertly was turned into a "School of Engineering". After fierce battles with Canterbury, fired by provincial rivalry, the Auckland School received University recognition for its teaching in the first two professional years. Students then had to go to Canterbury to complete the final year of their degree. In 1917, the College began instruction in Architecture.


Academic freedom and development

During the Depression of the early 1930s, the College experienced its first dispute over academic freedom. The temporary appointment of a lecturer in History, J.C. Beaglehole, later a world-famous scholar, was terminated, his friends believed, because of a letter he wrote to a newspaper defending the right of communists to distribute their literature. This episode led to a Council election in which the liberal, Hollis Cocker, defeated a conservative candidate. The College Council then adopted resolutions in favour of academic freedom and received the undeserved congratulations of the British academic establishment, including Lord Rutherford and Wittgenstein. At the same time the College enrolled a lively group of students led by James Bertram, who established a new literary journal, Phoenix. This journal was the focus for the first literary movement in New Zealand history: Allen Curnow, A.R.D. Fairburn, R.A.K. Mason and other writers, later distinguished, wrote for it.

The College received a great intellectual stimulus in 1934 when four new professors arrived: H.G. Forder, a very able mathematician; Arthur Sewell, a brilliant lecturer in English; a classicist, C.G. Cooper; and a new historian, James Rutherford.


The University of Auckland

The College gained its first academic leader in the 1950s, when the Council appointed a Principal (later Vice-Chancellor) K.J. Maidment, a Classics don from Merton College, Oxford. He came in 1950 and remained for two decades. Maidment faced a further, fierce "site row". The Council wanted to move the College to a larger site out of town. Instead, in 1956, the National government offered Government House as compensation for staying in Princes Street. Another citizens’ "save Government House" campaign followed. Both academic staff and the public were deeply divided over the issue, which was resolved in 1960: the University was to stay where it was. In 1957 the slow move towards autonomy was marked by legislation which changed the title of the College to the University of Auckland while leaving the functions and powers of the University of New Zealand intact.

The "site row" held up the building programme for about six years, while student rolls rose rapidly, to 4,000 by 1959, with the result that there was overcrowding in quite inadequate buildings. Universities everywhere were expanding rapidly. New Zealand academic salaries could not compete with those of overseas universities and many able Auckland staff left for positions in Australian and other universities. Despite these problems, there was significant progress. New subjects were introduced: Geography, Anthropology, Māori Studies and Fine Arts. There was a new emphasis on staff research. Many of the new and younger academics became very active researchers, reflected in the growing lists of staff publications.

In the 1960s, the Report of the Hughes Parry Committee led to major improvements in University conditions and governance. Staff salaries were raised. For the first time the students were given fairly generous bursaries, which led to a rapid increase in the proportion of full-time students. The government grant to the University rose rapidly. In 1962, the University at last became independent when the University of New Zealand was abolished.


Growth and change

A massive university building programme commenced, and over the next two decades the campus was transformed as one large building after another was erected: Fine Arts, Science, Engineering buildings, a Student Union, a new Library. A number of new subjects were introduced, including Political Studies, Art History and Sociology. In 1968, teaching commenced in the new Medical School on the Grafton Campus. By the end of the 1960s Auckland had the largest University Library in the country.

When Dr Maidment departed in 1970, there were 9,300 students. His successor, Dr Colin Maiden, was an Auckland engineer who had headed a research division of General Motors in Michigan. One of the first things that struck him in Auckland was the need for better student facilities. He pushed ahead to provide a theatre, a gymnasium and recreation centre, and a large playing-field "complex". The entire administrative organisation, from faculties and committees to deputy vice-chancellors, was reformed. The academic boom of the 1960s continued well into the 1970s and several new buildings, such as Human Sciences, were constructed and new subjects, including Management Studies and Computer Science, were introduced.

The 1970s brought numerous social changes: an increase in the proportion of Māori and Pacific students and in the proportion of women and older students. In 1975 and 1981 the first two women professors were appointed, Marie Clay and Patricia Bergquist. At a time of high inflation, the government grant to the University rose rapidly, to $95.2 million by 1989. In 1983 the University celebrated its centennial. Although there was a certain economic austerity, after a century of growth the University had established itself strongly within its own community and nationally.

There were still to be challenges. The wide-ranging restructuring of education undertaken by the Labour government after 1984 encompassed the universities, and their autonomy and their identity were seen to be threatened. As a result of efforts by the universities, supported by alumni, some changes were secured in the Education Amendment Acts of 1989 and 1990, but the University Grants Committee was abolished, the Ministry of Education became responsible for tertiary education policy, and the composition of the Council was altered. At the turn of the century, the government took another look at the whole range of tertiary education with the Tertiary Education Advisory Commission, out of which came the Tertiary Education Commission as the funder of tertiary education.


The 1990s onwards

Anxious to respond to the growing demand for university education in the early 1990s, the University offered courses at other tertiary institutions in Auckland and Northland. Acquiring buildings used for the 1990 Commonwealth Games village, it began to develop a campus at Tāmaki, initially offering courses in Commerce. Increasing student enrolments obliged it, like other universities, to introduce quotas for all first-year courses in 1992, breaking the historic policy of "open entry".

From the mid-1990s, the University introduced semesters, launched its first major fund-raising appeal, produced its first strategic plan and inaugurated a Summer School. It joined Universitas 21, an international network of research-intensive universities in Australasia, Asia, North America and Europe, as a foundation member. In the late 1990s, the School of Medicine expanded to become a Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, introducing degrees in Nursing, Health Sciences and Pharmacy.

The third Vice-Chancellor, Professor Kit Carson, served from 1995 to 1998 and was followed by Dr John Hood in 1999. Dr Hood was an alumnus of the University, a former Rhodes Scholar and business leader. He faced a difficult financial situation as governments had progressively reduced tuition subsidies per student, and the University needed to re-activate its building programme. The last period of intensive construction had ended with completion of the new School of Music in 1986 and the Marae complex in 1988. The Law School had moved into refurbished premises in a new precinct to the north of Waterloo Quadrant in 1992. However, the University was growing very rapidly, with increasing numbers of international students as well as a growing number of domestic students, who could now borrow to fund their tuition and other costs. This growth reached a peak in 2004 and then started to slow. In its 2005 Strategic Plan the University resolved to pursue a quality agenda and to limit student growth to an average of one percent per annum over time. Consequently the University extended limits on admission from a few professional qualifications to all of its undergraduate degrees. In 2010, the student roll was 40,997 or 32,654 equivalent full-time students (EFTS).

From the 1990s, research became very much more important in the life of the University and its academics. The country started to look more than ever to universities to generate new ideas and knowledge, including innovations that might be harnessed for economic development. The University had already founded UniServices as an organisation to develop and commercialise research. In the early 2000s it became host to four of eight national Centres of Research Excellence funded by the government.

In 2004 it was designated the country’s leading research university "on virtually any measure" in the Performance Based Research Fund (PBRF) assessment carried out by the recently created Tertiary Education Commission. In the PBRF assessments released in 2007 and 2012, the University of Auckland again emerged as the New Zealand university with the greatest overall strength. Revenue from research and contract activities grew from $153 million in 2006 to $243 million in 2016. International ranking systems started to become important to university reputations and placed great significance on research performance. The University was consistently placed first among New Zealand universities, although its actual placement varied from year to year and among the ranking systems.

Between 2000 and 2007 the University embarked on another major building programme. The impressive Kate Edger Information Commons and Student Commons, the Engineering Atrium and greatly expanded library wing, and a seven-floor extension to the Science Centre, which houses Computer Science and Software Engineering, enhanced the City Campus. At Tāmaki, a new building was constructed for the new School of Population Health. A Fale Pasifika opened in 2004 and the Sir Owen G. Glenn Building, a large and striking new complex for the Business School, was completed in 2007.

Organisational change saw Architecture, Dance Studies, Fine and Visual Arts, Music, and Planning combine to form the National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries (NICAI).

The University and the Auckland College of Education amalgamated in September 2004 to form a Faculty of Education. The new faculty, based primarily at the College’s campus in Epsom, was established with the aim of becoming New Zealand’s leading provider of teacher and social services education. Then in 2015, the Faculty of Education changed its name to the Faculty of Education and Social Work, making more visible the two main practitioner communities the faculty engages with and serves – teachers and educators – and those in the human services/social work and counselling professions. With the move towards cross-disciplinary teaching and research, it is planned that the Faculty of Education and Social Work will be relocated to the City Campus.

In 2016 the National Institute of Creative Arts and Industries changed its name to the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries (CAI) to align with the naming conventions of other University faculties.


University Leadership

Dr John Hood left the University in mid-2004 to take up the position of Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. Professor Stuart McCutcheon, formerly Vice-Chancellor at Victoria University of Wellington, succeeded him as Vice-Chancellor in January 2005. Under his leadership a new strategic plan, which was refreshed in 2013, envisaged the development of a University focused on excellent undergraduate teaching and learning, dynamic and challenging postgraduate education, and research that contributes to international knowledge, understanding and economic and social development. The University also recognised that it must play a role in addressing inequities in educational participation and achievement by Māori and Pacific students, and placed an emphasis on enhancing its recruitment and support programmes for potential students.

In 2019 it was announced that the new Vice-Chancellor of the University of Auckland will be Professor Dawn Freshwater, the current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia. Professor Freshwater takes up the role in March 2020 and will be the first woman to hold the position since the University was founded.



The University has become increasingly dependent on its own ability to raise the funds it requires to operate. Student tuition fees, including the fees of international students, are now an important part of University income, alongside the tuition subsidies contributed by government. Income from research is substantial. Philanthropic donations have also become a very important way in which friends and alumni of the University show their support for its activities, for the staff and the students. The University has come a long way from the early fund-raising appeal of the 1990s. A "Leading the Way" fundraising campaign, which ran from 2009 to 2012, exceeded its target of $150 million in 2011. The “For All Our Futures” campaign” was launched in 2016, with the goal of raising $300 million by 2020 to support life-changing research to address critical challenges facing our communities. The fund-raising campaign was the largest ever undertaken by any university in New Zealand.


Recent campus developments

In 2009 the University adopted a Campus Development Strategy that proposed a major investment in infrastructure. The initial major projects included the redevelopment of the Grafton Campus to refurbish laboratories, upgrade plant and construct the Boyle building (completed 2012); a student accommodation building at Elam to house 442 students (completed 2011); and a new South Pacific Centre for Marine Science, based at the Leigh Marine Laboratory, which fosters marine research and educates visitors on the marine environment. A major development of the Maths and Physics buildings was completed in 2011.

In 2013, in a bid to underpin 50 years of growth on a site close to the existing City and Grafton Campuses, the University purchased 5.2 hectares at Newmarket. The site, previously owned and occupied by Lion Breweries, has been partially redeveloped, and the mixed-use campus was officially opened in May 2015, with Engineering and Science occupying the first facilities.

As a result of the Newmarket purchase, in January 2014 the University transferred the 20-hectare Colin Maiden Park and its associated facilities at the Tāmaki Innovation Campus to Auckland Council. This transaction was followed by a sale of the balance of the campus in April 2016 with the University scheduled to fully exit the Campus at the end of 2019. This sale was part of the University’s long-term strategy to consolidate activities at the City, Grafton and Newmarket campuses and significantly reduce landholdings. It also reflects the growing importance of cross-disciplinary teaching and research at the University and the need for faculties to be co-located.

After refurbishment in 2014, the University’s iconic building, the ClockTower on Princes Street now houses the Office of the Vice-Chancellor, as well as aspects of student administration and the Council Room. The refurbished Alfred Nathan House (completed 2017) also on Princes Street, where the Office of the Vice-Chancellor was previously located, is now home to  AskAuckland (the former Student Information Centre), Communications and Marketing, the Schools Partnership Office, the International Office and other administrative and student support services.

The Maidment Theatre, which opened in 1976 and played a crucial role in the development of Auckland's vibrant theatre scene, was closed in December 2015 and later demolished due to concerns about its seismic strength. The University hopes to build a new performing arts facility elsewhere on the City Campus to meet the teaching, research and service requirements in theatre, music and dance as well as providing a venue for University public events.

The new Science Centre on the corner of Princes and Wellesley streets has been a significant enhancement to the City Campus (completed 2016) and a major new Engineering building is due to open in Semester One, 2020.

In 2018 Council approved the development of a new state-of-the-art Recreation and Wellness Centre. Demolition of the old centre and surrounding structures on the City Campus is planned for 2020, with the new facility due to be completed in 2023. In the meantime, temporary sports and recreation facilities will be available at 70 Stanley Street and in Wynyard Street. The existing Recreation Centre was built in 1978 when the University had 10,000 students. It now has 40,000 students and more than 5,000 staff.

The provision of accommodation has increased dramatically to cater for the increased number of students seeking a residential experience. Additional self-catered student accommodation, the Carlaw Park Student Village, opened in 2014 next to the Domain, to provide more than 700 student places; a further 315 self-catered single and double studio apartments in Symonds Street opened for Semester One, 2017. Grafton Hall reopened in 2019 after a two-year refurbishment, and provides catered student accommodation, while Waipārūrū Hall is due to be completed in 2020, providing almost 800 first-year student places. A further 488 self-catered single rooms are available in Te Tirohanga o te Tōangaroa on Anzac Ave, accommodation that will be completed in time for Semester One, 2020.

In 2018 the new Early Childhood Centre opened at Park Avenue in the city.

In May 2019 the new state-of-the-art facility for the Department of Exercise Sciences was officially opened, after their move from Tāmaki. The Newmarket facilities include a Health and Rehabilitation Clinic and a Movement Neuroscience Laboratory and the move has brought the department closer to allied health organisations with which it has relationships, as well as Auckland City Hospital.

In November 2019 the School of Population Health and associated clinics is due to move to a new purpose-built facility at the Grafton Campus on Park Avenue. The School of Medicine, currently accommodated in Auckland City Hospital, will also be relocating to the new building by Semester One, 2020.