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Learning from the Past: What can we learn from Polytechnics?

  • 25 January 2022
  • By Elena Wilson

This blog was contributed by Elena Wilson, Policy Manager at the Edge Foundation.

The lack of ‘policy memory’ amongst policy makers has become a key problem in English further (FE) and higher education (HE) policy making (Watson, 2011). The rapid churn in government, change in ministerial teams and the rotation of civil servants is often key to this policy amnesia, and as a result, we see a lack of long-term planning in addition to the high economic costs of abolishing and recreating organisations.

However, there is much to learn by understanding past policies. In this spirit, the Edge Foundation have started a ‘Learning from the Past’ series to review previous successful and less successful policies in order to learn from them.   

The polytechnic model, introduced in the late 1960s, blurred the lines between traditional academic and vocational study. With many thanks to Gareth Parry for his original ‘Polytechnics review’, we highlight here the key lessons we can take from the polytechnics model.   

A short history of Polytechnics 

Polytechnics operated between 1969-1992 with the purpose of meeting an ever-increasing demand for HE courses, preparing students for careers in industry, business and the professions.

Many of the initial polytechnics were created by institutional mergers, usually between two or three colleges; for example, a college of art, a college of commerce, a college of technology or a specialist institution. These institutions then became the responsibility of local government (Sharp, 1987). From these merged beginnings, the polytechnics grew into major institutions of HE. By 1991, there were approximately 380,000 students enrolled in English polytechnics.

Polytechnics were expected to concentrate largely on HE (‘advanced’) courses  at sub-degree, degree and postgraduate levels and offered in different modes (full-time, sandwich and part-time).

However, financial constraints from the mid-1970s saw greater central direction. In 1979, the funds for advanced further education were ‘capped’. In 1982, a national advisory body (NAB) was established for local authority higher education to act as an intermediary body between central government and the English polytechnics and colleges of higher education. Reform to legislation such as the Education Reform Act of 1988 removed the polytechnics and larger higher education colleges from local government control. But by this point, polytechnics had become large enough institutions with strong national roles, deemed ‘firmly established’ and ready to move to ‘virtual self-validation’ under the Council for National Academic Awards (DES, 1987).

Under the Act, polytechnics became independent statutory corporations able to employ their own staff and hold their own assets. The NAB was replaced by a funding council for the polytechnics and higher education colleges whose funds were provided by central government. This move introduced a new, competitive bidding system intended to drive down the unit of resource, which ultimately lead to a substantial increase in student numbers. Ministers praised polytechnics for their ‘efficient expansion’.

By the end of the 1980s, polytechnics had become universities in all but name.  They were deemed to have achieved ‘sufficient self-critical academic maturity’ to be offered the full range of degree awarding powers (DES, 1991). The Further and Higher Education Act of 1992 eliminated the divide between polytechnics and universities, and in 1992, polytechnics acquired the university title and the power to award their own degrees, thus joining pre-1992 universities in a unified system.

Our conclusion from Edge: What can we learn from polytechnics?

The creation of a non-university sector in England and Wales was among the first of its kind, and their 25-year existence viewed as ‘a major policy experiment’ (Pratt, 1997).

Certainly, there were some concerns with the polytechnic model. Critics raised concerns over polytechnics offering higher education ‘on the cheap’, and at the height of expansion, some were accused of over-extending themselves and facing issues over quality control.

However, there were many success too and the polytechnic model still haunts policymaking in England today:

A blurring of the boundaries – Polytechnics resulted in ‘convergence’ between vocational and academic courses, with polytechnics offering all of the major subjects taught in universities (except for medicine). Universities also moved towards the polytechnic model – professional and work-related study became increasingly adopted, and sandwich provision and part-time routes were expanded, to support a broader diversity of students.

Contribution to growth and student diversity – With their rapid expansion, polytechnics helped make the breakthrough to mass HE in England and Wales. By opening up access to a new range of students, they also broadened social participation and made more considered adjustments for diversity than the universities. 

Move towards central control Polytechnics served their local communities and offered more vocational-oriented qualifications accredited by professional bodies. However, the removal of local authority control of the polytechnics represented one moment that would see a series of decisive shifts away from local decision making (Morgan, 2020).

There is much to learn from the polytechnic model. European countries are now reforming, rather than removing their non-university sectors (Taylor et al., 2008). Indeed, calls have been made to recover polytechnic traditions and titles. Organisations such as the IPPR argue that this would once again carve out a distinctive place in our tertiary system for institutions that focus on providing higher-level vocational qualifications. This would also send a signal about the importance of vocational learning, declaring that university routes are not the only route to success.

It is time to look again at the polytechnic model. The importance of high-quality vocational learning, and the need for higher level skills has returned to public debate, and we must understand what came before in order to see ahead more clearly.


  1. Rob Cuthbert says:

    There is indeed much to be gained from better organisational memory in government – FE would benefit even more than HE from this. For the polytechnics, the key change was the 1988 Education Reform Act – that was the legislation that removed the polytechnics from local authority control. The 1992 Act rubberstamped it by allowing title changes. There was much that was wrong with local authority control, but it could have been reformed rather than removed, as the National Advisory Body for LAHE showed with its report ‘Management for a Purpose’. However the report came too late as government minds were already made up, thanks largely to a long-running campaign by polytechnic directors who wanted much greater institutional autonomy and thought removal from LEA control was the only possible route. This suited Whitehall’s ubiquitous preference for national control.

  2. Patrick Ainley says:

    I came across your article whilst searching for the name of the civil servant who introduced polytechnics under Anthony Crosland so as to attribute his apt question ‘Further than where? Higher than what?’. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it. However, as I have found your article, I can add the comment to it that to my mind there were two lines of contemporary opinion on the creation of the polytechnics: 1/ that they were a poor Labour compromise for fully expanding HE by providing a second-best option on the cheap and 2/ that, despite this, they succeeded in fulfilling Eric Robinson’s ideal for them of being ‘The People’s Universities’. In retrospect, I would endorse the second opinion, particularly in the case of, for example, what became the Polytechnic of East London which I found a source of great educational experiment and hope, though subsequently, along with the best of the innovations that had taken place in the original (Robbins’) ‘new universities’, they succumbed – after being allowed to call themselves (‘new new’) universities – to the hopeless attempt to become, just like the universities that preceded them in the unequal market for higher education that has since come into existence. For that we can blame Mrs. Thatcher and her successor, Tony Blair – along with so much else in education and elsewhere in the sorry state that society is now in.

  3. James Williams says:

    Sir Toby Weaver? Weaver remained committed to the Polytechnic ideal to the end. John Pratt’s book on the polytechnic experiment (1997) is an excellent read. I find it quite sad, however, that many ex-polytechnics, in their hunt for older pedigrees (which now seem to go back to the 1840s or even beyond), seem to be forgetting about, or at worst ignoring, their polytechnic heritage.

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