Polytechnic (United Kingdom)

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A polytechnic (Welsh: coleg polytechnig[1]) was a tertiary education teaching institution in England, Wales and Northern Ireland offering higher diplomas, undergraduate degree and post graduate education (masters and PhDs) that was governed and administered at the national level by the Council for National Academic Awards. At the outset, the focus of polytechnics was on STEM subjects with a special emphasis on engineering. After the passage of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 they became independent universities which meant they could award their own degrees. The comparable institutions in Scotland were collectively referred to as Central Institutions.

Like polytechnics or technological universities (institute of technology) in other countries, their aim was to teach both purely academic and professional vocational degrees (engineering, computer science, law, architecture, management, business, accounting, journalism, town planning, etc.). Their original focus was applied education for professional work and their original roots concentrated on advanced engineering and applied science (STEM subjects), though soon after being founded they also created departments concerned with the humanities. The polytechnic legacy was to advance and excel in undergraduate and post graduate degrees in engineering and technology (STEM) education that now form a core faculty at most universities in the UK. While many former polytechnics have advanced their research focus many have stayed true to their original ethos by focusing on teaching for professional practice.

The division between universities and polytechnics was known as the Binary Divide in UK higher education.


19th century[edit]

Some polytechnics trace their history back to the early 19th century. The London Polytechnic (now the University of Westminster) emerged from the Royal Polytechnic Institution which was founded at Regent Street, London in 1838. The establishment of the polytechnic was a reaction to the rise of industrial power and technical education in France, Germany and the USA.[2] Degrees at the London Polytechnic were validated by the University of London.

Woolwich Polytechnic (later Thames Polytechnic, now The University of Greenwich) in south-east London, emerged in the 1890s and is considered the second-oldest polytechnic in the UK.

The first British institution to use the name "polytechnic" was the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, which it still retains, together with the affectionate nickname "The Poly".


Most polytechnics were formed in the expansion of higher education in the 1960s, Academic degrees in polytechnics were validated by the UK Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA) from 1965 to 1992. The CNAA was chartered by the British government to validate and award degrees and maintain national quality assurance standards. The CNAA subject boards from their inception were from the universities. A CNAA degree was formally recognised as equivalent to a university degree and the courses were under strict scrutiny by assessors external to the polytechnics.[3]

Sub-degree courses at these institutions were validated by the Business & Technology Education Council (BTEC).

Some polytechnics were often seen as ranking below universities in the provision of higher education because they lacked degree-awarding powers, concentrated on applied science and engineering education and produced less research than the universities, and because the qualifications necessary to gain a place in one were sometimes lower than for a university (the failure rate in the first year of undergraduate courses was high due to a rigorous filtering process). However, in terms of an undergraduate education this was a misconception since many polytechnics offered academic degrees validated by the CNAA from bachelor's and master's degree to PhD research degrees.[4] Also professional degrees in, for instance, engineering, town planning, law, and architecture were rigorously validated by various professional institutions. Many polytechnics argued that a CNAA degree was superior to many university degrees especially in engineering, due to the external independent validation process employed by the CNAA, the oversight of the engineering institutions, and innovations such as sandwich degrees.[5] Such innovations made a polytechnic education more relevant for professional work in applying science and advanced technology in industry.[6][7]

In UK culture an engineering, applied science and technological education tended to be looked down upon socially. Industries and activities such as "manufacturing" and "engineering" were perceived to be things of the past, boring and "dirty". This connection to polytechnics did not help their cause in terms of achieving status in the public eye. This attitude and influence led to an expansion of the more popular subjects in the "creative" industries such as fashion, arts and design, media studies, journalism, film studies, and sports management. This social influence caused many polytechnics to change their faculty of "Engineering" to faculty of "Design and Technology"

For many years a central admissions system for polytechnics was not seen as necessary. However, a large increase in applications resulted from funding cuts to universities in the early 1980s. The Polytechnics Central Admissions System was introduced and handled the years of entry from 1986 to 1992.


Under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 they became fully fledged universities. After 1992, the former polytechnics ("new universities") awarded their own degrees. Most sub-degree BTEC qualifications have been phased out of the new universities and transferred to colleges of further education.

The polytechnics changed their names when they gained university status. Some simply dropped "polytechnic" and added "university" to their titles. For example, the Huddersfield Polytechnic became the University of Huddersfield. However, this was often not possible as there was another university with the name. One alternative title was "Metropolitan University", because the institution was situated in a city or other large metropolitan area. Examples are Manchester Metropolitan University and London Metropolitan University. These titles are often shortened to "Met" (Man Met, London Met) or an acronym (MMU, LMU). Others adopted a name which reflects the local area, such as Nottingham Trent University (named after the River Trent which flows through Nottingham) and Sheffield Hallam University ("Hallam" refers to the area of South Yorkshire in which much of Sheffield is situated). Ulster Polytechnic remains the only polytechnic to unite with a university; this occurred in 1984.

The last degree-awarding institution to hold on to the name "polytechnic" after 1992 was Anglia Polytechnic University (which had only attained polytechnic status the previous year). The word was soon identified as being off-putting to potential students, and the university became known as Anglia Ruskin University from 2005. The name "polytechnic" (École Polytechnique) in continental Europe and the USA (MIT, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Virginia Tech) are viewed and styled as globally elite universities specializing in STEM education where science, engineering and engineers are premier forward looking strategic professions. This is in stark contrast to the culture and social identity of engineers in the UK.

List of former polytechnics[edit]

At their peak there were over thirty polytechnics in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the English ones being primarily located in urban areas large enough to support industry or commerce, from which they usually took the city name. These are now universities.

In England, there are:

In addition, Wales has

and Northern Ireland has:

In Scotland there were comparable Higher Education institutions called Central Institutions but these very rarely used the designation "Polytechnic" in their titles; these also converted into universities.

  • One institution that did briefly use the designation "Polytechnic" was Edinburgh Napier University. Between 1988 and 1992 the institution was known as Napier Polytechnic.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ http://m.cy.caimeiprinter.com/info/polytechnic-museum-of-printing-621616.html
  2. ^ Brosan, "The Development of Polytechnics in the UK", Paedagogica Europaea, Vol 7, 1972
  3. ^ Davis, Martin C. (1979). "The council for national academic awards 1964-74: a study of a validating agency" (PDF). Loughborough University. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. ^ Silver, Harold: "Higher Education in the UK: A critical examination of the Role of the CNAA", Higher Education Journal, Springer Netherlands, 1991
  5. ^ "Design's angel of the North". the Guardian. 2004-04-03. Retrieved 2018-04-28.
  6. ^ Brosan, "The Development of Polytechnics in the UK", Paedagogica Europaea, Vol 7, 1972
  7. ^ "About". technicaleducationmatters.org. Retrieved 2018-04-28.
  8. ^ Edinburgh Napier University. "About Edinburgh Napier University". Archived from the original on 28 July 2011. Retrieved 3 December 2011. Cite uses deprecated parameter |dead-url= (help)