In July 1959, Essex County Council accepted a proposal from Alderman Leatherland that a university be established in the county. A University Promotion Committee was formed chaired by Lord Lieutenant of Essex, Sir John Ruggles-Brise, which submitted a formal application to the University Grants Committee requesting that a University of Essex should be established. Initial reports suggested that the Promotion Committee had recommended Hylands Park in Chelmsford as the site for the new University, however in May 1961, the foundation of the university was announced in the House of Commons with Wivenhoe as the preferred location and in December of the same year, Wivenhoe Park was acquired for the new university. In July 1962, Albert Sloman, Gilmour Professor of Spanish and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Liverpool, was appointed as Vice-Chancellor and the Rt. Hon. R. A. Butler, was invited to be Chancellor, with Anthony Rowland-Jones appointed as Registrar.
The first Professors were appointed in May 1963: Alan Gibson in Physics, Peter Townsend in Sociology, Donald Davie in Literature, Richard Lipsey in Economics, Ian Proudman in Mathematics, Jean Blondel in Government, and John Bradley in Chemistry. With its first staff appointed, a development plan for the university was published and a £1million Appeal Fund was launched. Within six months the Appeal Fund had exceeded its £1million target with The Queen Mother and Sir Winston Churchill among contributors, while work began on clearing the site for building work. In Autumn 1963, red was chosen as the University colour and the first prospectus was prepared and work began on the first permanent buildings; the science block and boiler room next to Wivenhoe House. In January 1964, Hardy Amies designed the university's academic robes and temporary teaching huts had to be erected close to Wivenhoe House, while in March Sir John Ruggles-Brise was appointed the first Pro-Chancellor and Alderman Leatherland the first Treasurer of the University. Two months later the university's Armorial Bearings were published, with the motto "Thought the harder, heart the keener".
In October 1964, the first 122 students arrived with 28 teaching staff in three schools: Comparative Studies, Physical Sciences and Social Studies. Departments of Chemistry, Physics, Government, Sociology, Literature, Mathematics and Economics open along with the Language Centre (later the Department of Language and Linguistics) and the Computing Centre (later the Department of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering) with Denis Mesure elected as the first President of the Students' Council. Work started on the first residential tower, Rayleigh, in December with The Queen approving the grant of Charter to take effect from 11 January 1965.
1965 brought 399 students enrolling for the start of the new academic year; the number of academic staff more than doubled to 61; and the first degrees, five MSc and five MA degrees were awarded. The Physics building opened and the first six floors of Rayleigh tower were ready for occupation, while work began on the Albert Sloman Library. The first female lecturer was appointed: Dorothy E. Smith in the Department of Sociology. In December, University Court met for the first time with around 500 members. Six months later, work started on the Lecture Theatre Building, plus the 'Topping out' of Keynes tower.
In October 1966, the Hexagon Restaurant and General Store opened, with the number of students reaching 750. Lord Butler was installed as Chancellor at a ceremony held in Colchester's Moot Hall in 1967 and the first Honorary Degrees were presented, the University's Mace was carried for the first time, while the first annual Degree Congregation saw 135 degrees conferred in July. At the start of the next academic year, the departments of Computer Science and Electronic Systems Engineering accepted their first students, the SSRC Data Bank (later renamed the UK Data Archive) was established and the Lecture Theatre Building and Library opened along with the first phase of the Social and Comparative Studies building, while work proceeded on Tawney and William Morris residential towers.
The University of Essex was at the forefront of 1960s student unrest. At a time of worldwide protest against the Vietnam War, the student movement was taking off all over the world. In March 1968, a demonstration against a visit to the University by Enoch Powell received national publicity. Seven students were summoned to disciplinary hearings but student sit-ins prevented these hearings taking place.
On Tuesday, 7 May 1968, Dr Thomas Inch from Porton Down came to give a lecture at the university. In a carefully planned demonstration, an indictment was read out as Inch attempted to speak, citing chemical and biological warfare activities at Porton Down. University authorities called in police with dogs, probably for the first time in an English university. Students outnumbered police and managed to prevent arrests.
On Friday, 10 May, three students, Pete Archard, Raphael Halberstadt and David Triesman (now Lord Triesman) were suspended and ordered off the campus. No evidence or charges were notified to the students, and no opportunity was given for the students to present their defence.
The University's magazine, Wyvern, reported that on Monday, 13 May, “Students picket all entrances to the University from early morning distributing leaflets calling all students and staff to meeting to discuss suspension of the three students. A huge meeting attended by nearly all the University population, voted overwhelmingly to refuse to participate in the University – in its place a Free University was declared ”. After a week the three students were reinstated.
Between the 1970s and the 1980s, the University added a health Centre, day nursery, printing centre, bookstore, exhibition gallery and expanded the current student residences. New student residences were also constructed. The departments of philosophy, school of law, human rights centre and the department of biological sciences were opened.
In the late 1970s, financial problems plagued the university and threatened its existence. During this later period of the 70s to the early 80s, the university began concentrating its teaching into large departments. Cooperation with local companies was forged, allowing the university to secure vital research contracts. Due to its growing international reputation, the university began to attract a sizable number of International Students.
In 1987 Martin Harris was appointed Vice-Chancellor, taking over from the founding Vice-Chancellor, Albert Sloman. Also, in this year, University of Essex alumnus Oscar Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize.
The university entered the 1990s with the expansion of its facilities, adding new residential blocks to provide further living space for its student population between 1991 and 1992. The Rab Butler building was opened in 1991 as the headquarters for the British Household Panel Survey. By its 30th anniversary in 1993, the university had built itself up into 17 key departments, providing education and research opportunities for 5,500 students, and employing 1,300 staff and faculty. The university also contained 5 industrial units and housed the Economic and Social Research Council's Data Archive. Further expansion continued to take place after 1993, with the £5.5 million expansion scheme for the provision of 234 new apartments for 1,200 students in a new student village.
On 25 November 2004, Her Majesty the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the university as part of its 40th anniversary celebrations (1964–2004). Some of the longest running members of staff were invited to meet them at the presentation including the University's first student, John M. Dowden. Starting postgraduate research on fluid dynamics at the age of 23 in 1963, John later became a professor of mathematics and was the head of the University's Mathematics Department from 2001–2005. He retired in September 2008.
The university is constantly expanding. The Network Centre building opened in May 2004 housing the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering and parts of the Department of Computer Science (who merged in 2007 to create Computer Science and Electronic Engineering). The University Quays, a student accommodation complex housing 770 students, opened in September 2003. The Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall, with a 1,000 seat capacity, opened in 2006. In Southend the £26m Gateway Building opened in 2007, a former church been converted to the Clifftown Studios providing East 15 students with a theatre, studios and workshop spaces. University Square, a 560 bedroom development near to the Gateway building opened in September 2010. At Wivenhoe Park, the 'Social Science Research Centre' was completed in February 2007, housing the University's Institute for Social and Economic Research and the UK Data Archive. A new building for the School of Health and Human Sciences was opened in 2008, as was the 'Centre for Brain Science' housing part of the Psychology department. In 2013, The Meadows, a new 540-bedroom student accommodation complex opened on the Colchester Campus, and The Forum, a new public and academic library and learning centre opened in Southend. In 2015 two major projects were completed on the Colchester campus: a new Student Centre and Library extension, and a new zero-carbon Business School building complete with trading floor with Bloomberg terminals.
Wivenhoe House, an 18th-century manor house on Wivenhoe Park, closed in December 2009 and reopened in 2012 as a four star country house hotel and home of the Edge Hotel School, which is the UKs first working hotel school dedicated to the development of future leaders of the hotel and hospitality industry.
The main campus, Wivenhoe Park, was once painted by famous landscape painter John Constable. With its concrete architecture, it is typical of England's 1960s universities. Wivenhoe Park houses the main 1960s buildings along with an 18th-century house that also features in Constable's painting. Wivenhoe House was, until 2010, operated as a hotel and conference centre. It was closed in December 2010 for major refurbishment and will reopen in 2012 as a combined four-star country house hotel and hotel school.
There are 2 small lakes on campus (in the middle of one is the Vice-Chancellor's house).
The architect of the University of Essex campus, Kenneth Capon, took the Tuscan town of San Gimignano with its squares and towers as an inspiration (the university has six residential towers mainly for undergraduates, but the original plan was to build 29). As well as the towers, South Courts, The Houses, The Meadows and the University Quays residences provide enough space to guarantee every first year a place on campus as well as all overseas students. Due to its particular form of architecture involving the use of prefabricated concrete and glass, the university is referred to as a Plate Glass University.
The library has one of the few remaining still operating continuous loop paternoster lifts in the country.
The Ivor Crewe Lecture Hall, which opened in October 2006 and was designed by the architect Patel Taylor, has attracted a mixed response, with Prince Charles referring to it as 'like a dustbin'., while the Civic Trust, a charity of which he is patron, awarded it a Civic Trust award (2008) for making 'an outstanding contribution to the quality and appearance of the environment', The building was named after Sir Ivor Crewe in April 2007, to mark his retirement from the position of vice chancellor, a position he had held since 1995.
The university's 'Gateway' building in Southend was opened in January 2007, housing the academic activities including business, health and acting, as well as being home to programmes operated in collaboration with Barts and the London Dental School, a GP practice and a business incubation centre.
New buildings have opened housing the departments of Psychology and Health and Human Sciences.
The Tony Rich Teaching Centre, built on the site of the former central boiler house, was officially opened on 6 October 2010.
The Silberrad Student Centre and Albert Sloman Library extension opened in 2015 providing additional study space and modern IT-rich learning facilities.
The Essex Business School building opened in 2015, believed to be the UK's first zero-carbon business school building, with a winter garden giving the building its own micro-climate and a rainwater pond recycling water to cool the building. The building includes a trading floor with Bloomberg terminals offering direct use of Bloomberg information.
The university is organised into three faculties, comprising 17 schools and departments, spanning the Humanities, Social Sciences and Science and Health.
Its departments of Economics, Government (Political Science) and Sociology are well-known and are among the best in Europe. In the UK's national Research Excellence Framework 2014 Essex research in politics was again ranked top in the UK, as it has been since rankings began in 1986. Essex's economics research was ranked 5th and sociology 12th, positioning Essex in the top five UK universities for social science research.
According to Times Higher Education's world ranking exercise, Essex ranks in the Top 100 universities in the social sciences.
The Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) is a research centre for the analysis of panel data in Economics and Sociology. It opened in 1989 as the ESRC Research Centre on Micro-Social Change in Britain and now houses the ESRC-funded Understanding Society project, a longitudinal study of the socio-economic circumstances and attitudes of 100,000 individuals in 40,000 British households.
In September 2000 the East 15 Acting School became part of the university. The school is based in Loughton in southwest Essex and has a branch in Southend.
The School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering was inaugurated on 1 August 2007. It was created by merging two long-established departments: The Department of Computer Science and the Department of Electronic Systems Engineering which both began in 1966.
It has particular strengths in Robotics, Telecommunications, Artificial Intelligence and Logic and Computation. In 1999 a robotic football team from the department came third in the RoboCup 99 - part of the Robot Wars (TV series).
Current notable academics include Richard Bartle, best known as co-creator of MUD1, Edward Tsang for his work on constraint satisfaction and computational finance, Ray Turner for his numerous publication relating to Logic and Computation, Vic Callaghan as head of the Intelligent Environments Group (IEG) ，Huosheng Hu for Robotics Research and Simon Lucas for his research into Computational Intelligence and Computer Games namely for his research with the UK Research Network on Artificial Intelligence and Video Game technologies.
In the Research Assessment Exercise 2008 the University of Essex scored well in Computer Science and Informatics achieving 50% for research at level 3 of the RAE scale and 40% at level 3 in Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
The university has strong regional agenda and a number of partner institutions in the region: Colchester Institute, South Essex College (in Southend), Writtle College (near Chelmsford), the Tavistock and Portman Trust (in London) and University Campus Suffolk, a joint venture with the University of East Anglia, with a central campus in Ipswich and five centres in Suffolk and Norfolk. The University also has a partnership with Kaplan Open Learning (KOL), delivering online degrees under the title University of Essex Online.
For many years Essex was among the smallest multi-faculty universities in Britain but it is planning to expand to around 15,000 students. It was a member of the 1994 Group. Essex has developed an international reputation for teaching and research. The annual Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis and Collection, now approaching its 50th year, attracts faculty and students from all over the world as does the human rights centre which has celebrated its 25th year.
The university was known as a left-wing hotbed with respect to faculty and students, but today is characterized, as most UK campuses, by rather less radical student politics.
The University of Essex was rated in the top 20 in the UK in the Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014) and was in the top 5 for student satisfaction, amongst mainstream English universities, following the National Student Survey (NSS, 2015).
The 2010 Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Christopher Pissarides who gained his BA and MA degrees in Economics at the university in the early 1970s. In 2016 former Essex academic Oliver Hart won the Nobel Prize for Economics.
Despite a national trend, showing a drop in the number of applications to Higher Education institutions; applications to the University of Essex have increased by 46% in the last four years.
The University is considered by Times Higher Education World University Rankings as one of the top 2% of universities in the world, and a provider of excellent research and teaching for over fifty years.
Previously, according to the Times Higher-QS world ranking exercise, the university faculty areas of Social Sciences and Management and Arts & Humanities ranks at 71 and 272 respectively.
The university also performs well in the Guardian, Times and The Independent Rankings for universities. It was placed 31st in the Guardian's 2009 League Table, 34th in the Times 2009 Good University Guides, and 25th in The Independent's University Guide 2009.
The university confirmed its position as one of the UK’s elite research universities when it was ranked as the 9th-best university in the UK for the quality of its research in The Times, The Guardian, and The Independent's 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) tables.
A separate Subject Ranking of Political Science Departments by Simon Hix of the London School of Economics places the University's Government Department 2nd in UK and 17th worldwide from 1995–1999.
According to the Times Higher Education 100 Under 50 2014 rankings, the University is placed at 22nd, up seven places from the previous year.
In 2015, it was ranked second for National Student Survey. It has consistently achieved top spots in student satisfaction since 2013.
In her article "Diary: Why I Quit" in the London Review of Books, the novelist and the chair of judges for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize Dame Marina Warner compared the University of Essex to "the world of Chinese communist corporatism where enforcers rush to carry out the latest orders from their chiefs in an ecstasy of obedience to ideological principles which they do not seem to have examined, let alone discussed with the people they order to follow them, whom they cashier when they won’t knuckle under." And in "The Strange Death of the Liberal University" , Michael Bailey describes the university as a place that promotes "divisive competition, false economies and philistine instrumentality".
The university has a very large population of international students, with over 5,000 international students in 2015. Nearly 50% of postgraduates, and 40% undergraduates are students whose country of origin is outside of the UK (including EU). The university boasts a large proportion of local students from state schools, and a third of its undergraduates are from working-class homes.
The University of Essex Students' Union is well regarded nationally with awards including: officially recognised as a leading Students’ Union by the Students’ Union Evaluation Initiative, awarded Investors In People status as a good employer, winner of Sound Impact Environmental Award for ethical and environmental performance, Sub Zero was voted ‘Best Student Venue in the UK’ at the Smirnoff BEDA Awards. Some of the major music bands to play in Sub Zero include AC/DC, Blur, Iggy Pop, The Kinks, Can, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Radiohead, The Smiths and The Specials.
The Students' Union runs the majority of commercial services on campus. Its shops stock imported food products, reflecting the university's international community. It has licensed venues including the SU bar and club-style venues: Frango's, Base, Top Bar, and Sub Zero (formerly the Underground and before that the Dancehall), which have hosted many bands and DJs. Sub Zero was voted best student union venue upon its refurbishment and is one of the biggest in the country, with a capacity of over 1,200. The Students' Union Bar underwent a £400,000 refurbishment in the summer of 2010.
The Students Union employs about 380 student staff and 50 permanent staff to work in its shops, venues, etc. The University of Essex Students Union was the first SU in the UK to receive the 'Investors in people Gold' award in late 2009.
The Students' Union underwent reform in 2007-8, in which the trustee and executive functions were separated, and greater voice was given to satellite campuses. The Executive Committee is composed of seven full-time officers and ten part-time officers. In 2016, students tried to change the constitution in order to introduce an 11th part-time officer, the working class officer. This referendum failed by 3 votes. The Students' Union is a member of the National Union of Students.
The Students' Union newspaper, is called Albert.
The University has a number of sports clubs, such as disc golf, table tennis, Fencing, Lacrosse and American Football. Many of the university's sports clubs, known as the Essex Blades, achieve national success.
The university has a sports centre, including a fitness suite, squash courts, netball and tennis courts and a 9-metre climbing wall used by the University of Essex Mountaineering Club. The university has a sailing clubhouse and boat-park at nearby Brightlingsea.
Once a year, 'Derby Day' is a sports contest between the University of Essex clubs and the University of East Anglia sport teams. The event is hosted alternately by Essex and UEA. They have lost every year since 2013.
Through the 1990s, and the influence of policy activity in the United States stimulated by the Bayh-Dole Act, the British Government wanted to strengthen links between universities and industry. The University of Essex has received grants from the Higher Education Innovation Fund (HEIF) delivered by HEFCE and other government departments to develop such capacity. A Research and Enterprise Office has been established, which is to be complemented with the development of a research park adjacent to the campus. Links between the university and industry have mostly been found within the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering (CSEE). CSEE has maintained a long-standing relationship with the Japanese photography and printing company, Canon, as well as links with British Telecom.
The former President of Costa Rica, Óscar Arias, completed his doctorate in Political Science at the University in 1973, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. Ex-Vice President of Costa Rica, Kevin Casas Zamora, also completed his studies in Essex, earning a MA in Latin American Government and Politics in 1993. In October 2010, the Nobel Prize in Economics was jointly awarded to Christopher A. Pissarides, who had completed his BA and MA in Economics at the University of Essex in the early 1970s. Other political figures educated at Essex include the foreign ministers of Slovenia (Dimitrij Rupel) & Iraq (Hoshyar Zebari), Conservative Party MPs Virginia Bottomley and John Bercow, now Speaker of the House of Commons, Labour Party MP Siobhain McDonagh, Pakistani Social Activist Omar Asghar Khan, South African politician Thozamile Botha and Singapore social activist James Gomez (MA 1994). Two of those convicted of conspiracy to cause explosions connected to The Angry Brigade, Hilary Creek and Anna Mendleson, had been to Essex University but left without taking their degrees.
Notable alumni in the field of the Humanities and Media include Stephen Daldry and Mike Leigh, who both studied at the East 15 Acting School (part of the University of Essex since 2001), the Artistic Director William Burdett-Coutts (MA Drama), the Documentary Filmmaker Nick Broomfield, filmmaker David Yates, writer and graphic artist Tom Raworth, the TV comedy producer Geoff Posner, the Malaysian poet Kee Thuan Chye, the BBC Correspondent Brian Hanrahan, fashion designer and Fashion Revolution founder Carry Somers and the Booker Prize–winning novelist Ben Okri. Musicians include jazz guitarist John Etheridge and jazz saxophonist Gilad Atzmon.
In the field of architecture, world-renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, who was commissioned to rebuild the World Trade Center Site in New York City, attended Essex and completed an MA in the History and Theory of Architecture in 1972. The architectural historian Alberto Pérez-Gómez, subsequently head of the History and Theory of Architecture program at McGill University in Canada, obtained his M.A. and PhD degrees at Essex, graduating in 1975.
Many of the university's graduates have gone on to staff university departments worldwide. These include Erkin Bairam (Economics, Otago), Kusuma Karunaratne (Sinhala, Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies, and Vice-Chancellor, Colombo), Farish A. Noor (NTU), Michael Taylor (Politics, Washington) and Jean Drèze (Economics, Delhi). It has been estimated that half of the sociology professors in UK Higher Education have completed all or part of their education at Essex. Some graduates have returned to Essex to hold positions within the university's academic departments. These include the philosopher Simon Critchley, Dean of International Development, Martin Henson and the Director of Essex's Human Right's Centre, John Packer.