The University of Nottingham traces its origins to the founding of an
adult education school in 1798, and the University Extension Lectures inaugurated by the
University of Cambridge in 1873—the first of their kind in the country.
 However, the foundation of the university is generally regarded as being the establishment of University College Nottingham, in 1881 as a college preparing students for examinations of the
University of London.
In 1875, an anonymous donor provided £10,000 to establish the work of the Adult Education School and Cambridge Extension Lectures on a permanent basis, and the Corporation of Nottingham agreed to erect and maintain a building for this purpose and to provide funds to supply the instruction.
The foundation stone of the college was duly laid in 1877 by the former Prime Minister
William Ewart Gladstone,
 and the college's neo-gothic building on Shakespeare Street was formally opened in 1881 by
Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany.
 In 1881, there were four professors – of Literature, Physics, Chemistry and Natural Science. New departments and chairs quickly followed: Engineering in 1884, Classics combined with Philosophy in 1893, French in 1897 and Education in 1905; in 1905 the combined Department of Physics and Mathematics became two separate entities; in 1911 Departments of English and Mining were created, in 1912, Economics, and Geology combined with Geography; History in 1914, Adult Education in 1923 and Pharmacy in 1925.
The university college underwent significant expansion in the 1920s when it moved from the centre of Nottingham to a large campus on the city's outskirts. The new campus, called University Park, was completed in 1928, and financed by an endowment fund, public contributions, and the generosity of
Sir Jesse Boot (later Lord Trent) who presented 35 acres (14 ha) to the City of Nottingham in 1921.
 Boot and his fellow benefactors sought to establish an "elite seat of learning" committed to widening participation,
 and hoped that the move would solve the problems facing University College Nottingham, in its restricted building on Shakespeare Street. Boot stipulated that whilst part of the Highfields site, lying southwest of the city, should be devoted to the University College, the rest should provide a place of recreation for the residents of the city, and by the end of the decade the landscaping of the lake and public park adjoining University Boulevard was completed. The original University College building on Shakespeare Street in central Nottingham (known as the Arkwright Building), now forms part of
Nottingham Trent University's 'City campus'.
D. H. Lawrence commented on the endowment and the architecture in the words
In Nottingham, that dismal town where I went to school and college,
they've built a new university for a new dispensation of knowledge.
Built it most grand and cakeily out of the noble loot
derived from shrewd cash-chemistry by good Sir Jesse Boot.
Trent Building – Originally housed the entire university when it moved to University Park in 1928
Jubilee Campus in 2012. On the left is the Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Learning Resource Centre
, a library which has the form of an inverted cone.
University College Nottingham was initially accommodated within the
Trent Building, an imposing white limestone structure with a distinctive clock tower designed by Morley Horder and formally opened by
King George V on 10 July 1928. During this period of development, Nottingham attracted high-profile lecturers including
H. G. Wells and
 and the blackboard used by Einstein during his time at Nottingham is still on display in the Physics department.
Apart from its physical transfer to surroundings that could not be more different from its original home,
the College made few developments between the wars. The Department of Slavonic Languages (later Slavonic Studies) was established in 1933, the teaching of Russian having been introduced in 1916. In 1933–34, the Departments of Electrical Engineering, Zoology and Geography, which had been combined with other subjects, were made independent; and in 1938 a supplemental Charter provided for a much wider representation on the Governing Body. However, further advances were delayed by the outbreak of war in 1939.
University College Nottingham students received their degrees from the University of London,
 however in 1948 the university was granted its
Royal Charter, which endowed it with university status and gave it the power to confer degrees in its own name as The University of Nottingham.
In the 1940s, the Midlands Agricultural and Dairy College at
Sutton Bonington merged with the university as the School of Agriculture, and in 1956 the Portland Building was completed to complement the Trent Building. In 1970, the university established the UK's first new medical school of the 20th century.
In 1999, Jubilee Campus was opened on the former site of the
Raleigh Bicycle Company, one mile (1.6 km) away from the
University Park Campus. Nottingham then began to expand overseas, opening campuses in
Malaysia and in China in 1999 and 2004 respectively. In 2005, the
King's Meadow Campus opened near the University Park Campus.
The logo the University used until 2001.
The university has used several logos throughout its history, beginning with its coat of arms. Later Nottingham adopted a simpler logo, in which a stylised version of
Nottingham Castle was surrounded by the text "The University of Nottingham". In 2001 Nottingham undertook a major re-branding exercise, which included replacing the logo with the current one.