It was one of the oldest colleges in Pakistan as well as one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the Muslim world. It was founded in 1864 as an affiliate college of Calcutta University under the leadership of Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, a professor at King's College London. In 1882 it was affiliated with the University of the Punjab. In 2002, It was granted university status by the Government of Pakistan ; the word college is retained in its title for preserving its historical roots.
GCU has grown into one of the largest universities in Lahore with 10,808 students and 376 faculty members with 103 PhDs amongst them offering undergraduate, post-graduate, and doctoral studies with an emphasis on science and arts. Its departments of physics and mathematics has international prestige. GCU has four faculties, 29 academic departments and four research institutes.
The GCU secured its second place in the medium category by the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan (HEC) in 2013. GCU has the highest graduation rate in the country, with an average of 95.5% annually. Alumni of the GCU are called Ravians which is derived word from the name of the student magazine "Ravi", published by the administration of the college; the magazine name is inspired by the Ravi River. The GCU is noted for its historical roots and attracted notable scholars such as Leitner, Abdus Salam and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal to studied and became alumnus of the GCU.
Under the British Raj Government College was opened on 1 January 1864 in part of the Palace of Raja Dhyan Singh Haveli. The institution was affiliated with the University of Calcutta for examination. Along with the establishment of the college, Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner (professor of Arabic and Islamic Law at King's College in London) was nominated as principal of college. Later, he was instrumental in founding University of the Punjab, established in 1882. The first class consisted of nine students, all of whom matriculated from the University of Calcutta. In April 1871, the college moved to its present site. Eric C. Dickinson became its Principal. He taught English at the Aligarh Muslim University.
In 1996, it received autonomous status; on 9 September 2002, it became a university.