History of the University

We've been breaking boundaries from the start

'A new kind of university… where students could live and learn… and research really mattered' – this was the founding vision of Essex’s first Vice-Chancellor Sir Albert Sloman. The plans were seen as so ground-breaking that Sir Albert was asked to give the prestigious Reith Lectures on BBC Radio in 1963, the year before we opened to explain our cutting-edge approach to study, research and teaching.

In this video, Professor Ted Benton explains the impact of Sir Albert Sloman’s BBC Reith Lectures.

Home to a brave new vision

The architecture of Essex’s Colchester Campus was designed to integrate social and educational space to foster a real sense of community. ‘Brutalist’ buildings such s as the Albert Sloman Library and the Hexagon, created by architect Kenneth Capon, have now become iconic. You can listen to Professor Jules Lubbock and Dr William Whyte discuss the celebrated architecture at Colchester Campus.

Essex Spirit

In 1964, 122 students arrived at our University for the very first academic year, attracted by its bold vision. Over the next five decades over 85,000 students from more than 130 countries would graduate, and inspired by the inquisitive and ambitious Essex Spirit, they would go on to make a difference in the world.

We have a proud tradition of encouraging students to challenge convention and think differently. Our graduates include two Nobel Prize winners – economist Professor Chris Pissarides and peace campaigner Óscar Arias Sánchez, who has served as President of Costa Rica on two occasions.

Research pioneers

Our academics have produced work which has inspired entire generations and helped establish Essex’s reputation for research in the UK, particularly in the social sciences. This ranges from pioneering work on poverty and inequality by Professor Peter Townsend, to the development of the world’s first publicly available computer language by Professor Tony Brooker.

Marking our history

In our 50th anniversary year we are asking our students, alumni, staff and the wider community to help create a shared history of the University of Essex through our Memory Maps project. Full details will be available soon. We have created a University podcast series that celebrates Essex’s achievements and work over 50 years.

Highlights from the past five decades

1959 Essex County Council starts inquiry into establishing a university in the county.

1960 after the inquiry, a Promotion Committee is set-up to prepare a formal application for submission to the University Grants Committee


  • May - Chancellor of the Exchequer announces he has authorised the establishment of a university and Wivenhoe Park on the outskirts of Colchester is officially chosen as the site
  • September - Academic Planning Board is constituted, under the Chairmanship of the Provost of King's College, Cambridge, Noel (later Lord) Annan


  • June - Albert E Sloman, MA, DPhil, Gilmour Professor of Spanish and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Liverpool, is appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor
  • September - University is incorporated as a limited company and in the first meeting of the Council of Governors, it is agreed to invite leading Conservative politician the Right Honourable R A (later Lord) Butler, CH, MP, to be the first Chancellor of the University. Essex County Council presents the University with the two-hundred-acre Wivenhoe Park site at Wivenhoe Park. Architects are appointed and a site plan is prepared which is adopted a year later when the University launches a public appeal for £1 million

1963 first professors are appointed

1964 first students are admitted - 77 men and 45 women. The founding departments are Chemistry, Economics, Government, Literature, Mathematics, Physics, Sociology, the Language Centre and the Computing Centre

1965 our Royal Charter is granted and the first new permanent buildings are completed towards the end of the autumn

1966 first residential tower Rayleigh is completed

1967 first graduation ceremony takes place with 135 degrees conferred

1968 Department of Art History and Theory admits first students

1969 an Essex team reaches the finals of University Challenge, losing to Sussex

1970 number of students reaches nearly 2,000

1971 University Radio Essex makes first broadcast and the Lakeside Theatre opens

1972 Department of History admits first students

1974 departments of Philosophy and Biological Sciences open

1975 first Students' Union bar opens

1976 plans to turn Wivenhoe House into a hotel and conference centre approved

1977 Sports Centre opens

1978 major extension to the Day Nursery opens

1979 The Kinks and Iggy Pop play in the dance hall

1980 School of Law established and student numbers exceed 3,000

1983 Human Rights Centre is established

1984 Data Archive appointed to help the BBC to compile a new Domesday book to mark the 900th anniversary of William I's original survey of England

1985 Students in Ivor Crewethe Queen makes her first visit to the University to mark the University's 21st anniversary

1986 the Gallery opens with a major exhibition of pre-Columbian Peruvian pottery

1987 Professor Martin Harris is appointed Vice-Chancellor, taking over from founding Vice-Chancellor, Albert Sloman and Essex alumnus Oscar Arias Sanchez receives Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end civil wars in South America

1988 Department of Accounting and Financial Management opens

1989 Wivenhoe Park is listed in English Heritage's Register of Parks and Gardens

1990 student numbers top 4,000

1991 Department of Psychology founded

1992 Ron Johnston, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Professor of Geography at the University of Sheffield appointed Vice-Chancellor, succeeding Professor Martin Harris

1993 University of Essex Collection of Latin American Art (UECLAA) formally launched and Qualidata, a national archive for machine-readable survey data, established with the Department of Sociology

1994 more than 1,000 revellers attend the Students' Union first Summer Ball

1995 Professor Ron Johnstone succeeded as Vice-Chancellor by Ivor Crewe, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Professor in the Department of Government

1996 building work starts on a £1.6 million extension to the Albert Sloman Library

1997 South African President Nelson Mandela accompanies Graca Machel to the Colchester Campus as she collects her honorary doctorate

1998 Library becomes home to the Sigmund Freud Collection

1999 Essex Wizards, a robotic football team from the Department of Computer Science, come third in RoboCup 99 - an international tournament where teams of robots compete in football-like games

2000 University and East 15 Acting School merge

2001 Essex research is ranked tenth in the national Research Assessment Exercise

2002 new partnership with South East Essex College in Southend is launched and the Department of Health and Human Sciences is created

2003 work begins on a £4 million Networks Centre

2004 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visit the Colchester Campus to mark the University's 40th anniversary

2005 University, in partnership with the University of East Anglia, receives funding for the development of University Campus Suffolk in Ipswich

2006 Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall opens as one of the largest lecture halls at a UK higher education institution and a new partnership with Colchester Institute is announced

2007 Southend Campus' flagship building the Gateway Building, on the town's High Street, opens it doors and Professor Colin Riordan takes over from Professor Sir Ivor Crewe as Vice-Chancellor

2008 Essex is ranked ninth in the national Research Assessment Exercise and Essex Business School is created with the merger of the schools of Accounting, Finance and Management and Entrepreneurship and Business

2009 University is awarded the Queen's Anniversary Prize for its work in promoting and protecting human rights. Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott is appointed Professor of Poetry

2010 Clifftown Studios opens at Southend, uniquely giving Essex a theatre at each of its three campuses, while work starts on developing a research park at the Colchester Campus.

2011 The first findings from University of Essex-based Understanding Society, the world’s largest ongoing study of 40,000 households, are published, while East 15 Acting School celebrates its 50th anniversary.

2012 Wivenhoe House reopens as a luxury hotel and home of the pioneering Edge Hotel School, and Essex’s sixth Vice-Chancellor, Professor Anthony Forster, is appointed.

2013 Essex ranks second in the UK for student satisfaction in the National Student Survey, The Forum, Southend-on-Sea, opens providing a pioneering academic and public library plus study and teaching space; and work starts on the £26 million new Student Centre and library extension at Colchester.

2014 Just before the University starts its 50th anniversary celebrations, it is ranked 22nd among world universities under the age of 50 by the Times Higher Education.