Founded on 1 June 1969 as a statutory body with its own constitution, it is among the oldest institutes of higher learning in Northern Malaysia. Originally called the University of Penang, it operated on a temporary basis at the Malayan Teachers College in Gelugor. In 1971, the school moved to its current location at Minden in Gelugor, 10 km from Georgetown.

The university has 3 campuses: the main campus on Penang Island, one at Kubang Kerian in Kelantan, known as the Health campus, and the other at Seri Ampangan, Nibong Tebal in Penang, known as the Engineering campus. The Kubang Kerian houses the School of Medical Sciences, the School of Health Sciences and the School of Dental Sciences, while the campus at Seri Ampangan houses the six engineering schools.

USM is one of five universities in Malaysia that have been identified as research-intensive universities, with the other being University of Malaya, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

Research areas at USM include brain and neuroscience, environmental science, aquaculture, biomedical and pharmaceutical studies, natural language processing and computer aided translation, information technology, food technology, polymer science and technology, biotechnology, distance education, geographical information system, structure analysis, materials science, engineering, surface chemistry, and robotic vision. Penang has research facilities for collaborative search, particularly in coastal pollution, mangrove ecosystem and marine aquaculture.

The university is ranked 143rd in the world, and 35th among Asian universities in the 2023 rankings of the Quacquarelli Symonds (QS). On the Edurank site, the school is ranked 3rd in Asia for Biochemical Engineering and 12th in the world for Radiochemistry.

According to Wikipedia and