UQAM was founded on April 9, 1969 by the government of Quebec, through the merger of the École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, a fine arts school; the Collège Sainte-Marie, a classical college; and a number of smaller schools. Although part of the UQ network, UQAM possesses a relative independence which allows it to print its own diplomas and choose its rector.
In 2011, UQAM had a student population of 41,325 in six faculties (Arts, Education, Communication, Political Science and Law, Science and Social science) and one school (Management). It offers Bachelors, Masters, and Doctoral degrees. It is one of Montreal's two francophone universities, along with the Université de Montréal, and only 1% of its student population is of anglophone origin.
In mid 1970, construction on UQAM's campus began in the Saint-Jacques neighbourhood. The old St. Jacques Cathedral was condemned and the worshipers were moved to the Chapel of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes. The architect of the university, Dimitri Dimakopoulos, chose to respect the plans of John Ostell and Victor Bourgeau by deciding to graft the new construction around the wall of the nave of the church overlooking Saint Catherine Street and highlighting the bell tower and its gateway. These remains are classified as historic monuments by the Quebec government. The new campus of UQAM was inaugurated in September 1979.
In November 2006, UQAM underwent a major financial crisis. It was revealed that the former president, Roch Denis, was partially responsible for the financial mismanagement of the Science Complex and the Ilot Voyageur real estate projects. A recovery plan, required by the Ministry of Education, Sport and Leisure, is still in progress, raising significant challenges from groups of employees, students, lecturers and professors.
With the addition of the Télé-université in June 2005, UQAM, with a student population of close to 60,000, was the largest French-speaking university in the world. On 13 January 2012, it was announced that the TELUQ would again become a separate university from UQAM, but would remain in the Université du Québec system.
Peter Leuprecht, Director of the "Institut d'études internationales de Montréal", United Nations Special Representative on Human Rights in Cambodia, Director of Human Rights (Council of Europe) 1980-1993,
A commissioned report by PricewaterhouseCoopers has called for cost-cutting measures at UQAM to help the university out of a financial crisis, brought on by $100 million in construction cost overruns for its sciences centre and costs for Îlot Voyageur, which soared from $226 million to more than $400 million when the Quebec government pulled out of the project, citing unauthorized design changes. The Quebec government has said that unless UQÀM cuts costs, the university's total project-related debt could be $500 million by 2012. The Îlot Voyageur has been bought back by the government of Quebec in November 2010, thus solving a painful financial problem for UQAM.