It was established in 1959 as the Vidyalankara University of Sri Lanka and was the successor of Vidyalankara Pirivena, established in 1875, which was one of the highly reputed tertiary education institutes committed to monastic education.
As such, the University of Kelaniya is one of the oldest institutes of higher education in Sri Lanka. Although only few subject areas such as Languages, Geography, Buddhist Studies, Philosophy, and Economics were taught at the beginning, today the University of Kelaniya teaches more than 60 subjects and consists of 6 Faculties with 44 academic departments. It caters to about 8,000 internal students and around 30,000 external degree students. The staff consists of about 600 academics and 650 non-academic staff members.