The idea of a provincial university was first articulated in 1872 by the Superintendent of Education, John Jessop. In a Supplementary Report to the first annual Public Schools Report (1871-1872), Jessop noted
British Columbia will soon require a Provincial University, capable of conferring degrees in arts, law and medicine,...and public lands in aid of such an institution should be granted at the outset of our career as an integral portion of the Dominion of Canada.
Nearly twenty years elapsed before the provincial government made provisions to create a university. In 1890, Premier John Robson's government introduced An Act Respecting the University of British Columbia. The act was intented to establish "one university for the whole of British Columbia for the purpose of raising the standard of higher education in the Province, and of enabling all denominations and classes to obtain academical degrees." However, because of procedural wrangling and sectional rivalries between Vancouver Island and the Mainland, the university never got underway. The statute that was to have created the academy was subsequently repealed.
Still, a few avenues were open for B. C. scholars who wanted to pursue higher education in the province. Whetham College (1890-1893), a small, independent institute in Vancouver, offered preparatory courses for students entering B.A. degree programs in Canadian universities. In New Westminster, the Methodist Church estabished Columbian College (1892) which offered courses towards Arts & Theology degrees at Victoria College at the University of Toronto. These were private, rather than public, initiatives.
Publicly funded post-secondary programs originated in 1894, when the Public School Act (1891) was amended and the door was again opened to higher education. The 1894 Public School Act Amendment enabled any school district in the province to affiliate its high school with an established university in Eastern Canada.
At the time, only a handful of school districts in British Columbia supported a high school. Vancouver and Victoria were the first and only school districts to affiliate their secondary schools with a university. As it happened, both communities looked to McGill University in Montreal for affiliations.
In 1899, the Vancouver School Board made arrangements with McGill University to provide first year Arts courses at Vancouver High School. The courses were offered under the name of Vancouver College. In 1902, Vancouver College was authorized to offer second year Arts courses in conjunction McGill. The Victoria School Board also made arrangements with McGill in 1902, although courses at the newly established Victoria Arts College did not get underway until the fall of 1903.
In 1908, the provincial legislature passed the University Act, a statute that established and incorporated The University of British Columbia. The University of British Columbia opened in 1915. At first, classes were conducted in temporary quarters on the grounds of the Vancouver General Hospital in the city's Fairview district, but in 1925 the university moved to its permanent site at Point Grey. Vancouver College immediately became part of the new university.
Victoria College affiliated with The University of British Columbia in 1920. It evolved into an independent degree-granting institute, the University of Victoria, in 1963. The province's third public university, Simon Fraser University, was established in 1965. About the same time, a post-secondary technical institute - British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) - and several community colleges and vocational schools were established.
For a comprehensive account of the history and development the province's oldest and largest university, see Eric Damer's essay, UBC - The First 100 Years. Archival documents relating to the development of The University of British Columbia are accessible at the UBC University Archives Virtual Displays.
The history of Victoria College is documented in a web site developed by the Special Collections Division of the University of Victoria Library.