The Australian Government set up the Currie Commission to inquire into higher education in Papua New Guinea in 1964. The outcome of that report was the establishment of the University as a corporate body under The University of Papua New Guinea Ordinance in 1965, by the then House of Assembly. The 1965 Ordinance was repealed in May 1983, and a new Act known as The University of Papua New Guinea Act No.18 of 1983, was passed by the National Parliament

An Interim Council was established in 1965, which governed the University until December 1968 when a permanent Council was appointed.

In 1978, a review of the University Ordinance and its accompanying Statutes and By-laws was called for, following a period of student unrest. As a result, a Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the problems and to ascertain whether or not the current legislation was adequate to deal with them. The Commission ultimately recommended the repeal of the 1965 Ordinance and the creation of a new Act to replace it.

After thorough research, a bill to repeal the old Ordinance and establish the new University Act was passed by the National Parliament in May 1983. The new Act saw the restructuring of the University Council. The present membership then was 32, including representatives of the National Parliament elected by it, members nominated by the Minister and appointed by the Council, elected representatives of the academic and non-academic staff, representatives of university graduates, not being employees or currently registered students, appointed by Council, members from connected institutions appointed by the Council, and elected representatives of current, full-time students.

Another restructure was drawn up after a decade of planning to introduce wide-ranging changes to academic programs and the administration. A Bill to amend the University Act (Chapter 169) and its Statutes was passed by the National Parliament in June 2000 to effect the implementation of the new restructure.

Implementation of the restructure began on 15 January 2001, after confirmation by the Council. The existing academic departments and faculty structure at the time were de-established and replaced by a school structure. Single school offices were established to support respective Strands under them. The focus of the restructure was to enhance the operations of the whole University by fostering interdisciplinary and interschool relationships in the interest of the core business of education, research, scholarship, and service. In addition, the former Institute of Distance and Continuing Education was reorganised as the Open College.

Produced National Leaders: The University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG) has a rich history of producing prominent personalities and national leaders of the country including one Governor General of PNG, four Prime Ministers including the current Prime Minister Hon. Mr James Marape, State Ministers, two Chief Justices, three Chief Ombudsmen, five Governors of the Bank of Papua New Guinea, two Chancellors, Vice-Chancellors, and Heads of National Government Departments, and Chief Executive Officers of Private and Public Sector Companies. In addition, UPNG also produced two Prime Ministers of the Solomon Islands.

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