The creation of a university in British Columbia was first advocated in 1877. In 1890 an act of the provincial legislature established "The University of British Columbia" but the venture failed for lack of a quorum at the first meeting of the Senate. In 1908 the earlier act was repealed and a new act was established, incorporating the University. The University operated under this act and its amendments as the sole public university in the province until 1963 at which time a new Universities Act was passed by the legislature making provision for sister institutions.

The University opened its Vancouver campus in the autumn of 1915 in temporary quarters on part of the site of the General Hospital in Fairview. At the beginning of the 1925/26 Session, the University commenced work on its permanent Vancouver campus on Point Grey.

UBC Okanagan was established as a campus of the University on April 1, 2005 on the North Kelowna campus of the former Okanagan University College. The first UBC Okanagan students began their studies in September 2005.

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