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Polytechnics were tertiary education teaching institutions in Englandmarker, Walesmarker and Northern Irelandmarker. The comparable institutions in Scotlandmarker were collectively referred to as Central Institutions. Like other polytechnics, their aim was to teach both academic and vocational subjects. Their focus was applied education for work and their roots concentrated on engineering and applied science, though soon after being founded they also created departments concerned with the humanities. After the passage of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 they became universities.

The designation "polytechnic" was also, less commonly, used by further education colleges such as Kilburn Polytechnic (later renamed as Kilburn College). The division between universities and polytechnics was known as the Binary Divide.


While most polytechnics were formed in the expansion of higher education in the 1960s, some can trace their history back much further than this. For instance the London Polytechnicmarker (now the University of Westminstermarker), emerged from the Royal Polytechnic Institution which was founded at Regent Street London in 1838. The first UK Institution to use the name "Polytechnic" was the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society, which it still retains, together with the affectionate nick-name "The Poly".

Academic degrees in polytechnics were validated by the 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 recognised as equivalent to a university degree and the courses were under strict scrutiny by assessors external to the polytechnics.

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, due to their lack of degree-awarding powers, the fact that they concentrated on applied education for work, had less research than the universities, and because the qualifications necessary to gain a place in one were 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 and Masters degree to PhD research degrees. 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 often superior to many university degrees, due to the external independent validation process employed by the CNAA, and innovations such as sandwich degrees. Such innovations made a Polytechnic education more relevant for professional work.

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 BTEC qualifications have been phased out of the polytechnic 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, 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 Universitymarker and Leeds Metropolitan Universitymarker. These titles are often shortened to "Met" (Man Met, Leeds 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 Universitymarker ("Hallam" refers to the area of South Yorkshire in which 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 offputting to potential students, and the university became known as Anglia Ruskin Universitymarker from 2005.


  1. Silver, Harold: "Higher Education in the UK: A critical examination of the Role of the CNAA", Higher Education Journal, Springer Netherlands, 1991
  2. Brosan, "The Development of Polytechnics in the UK", Paedagogica Europaea, Vol 7, 1972

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