The institutes of technology and polytechnics have been in existence since at least the 18th century, but became popular after World War II with the expansion of applied science education, associated with the new needs created by industrialization. The world’s first institution of technology, the Berg-Schola (today its legal successor is the University of Miskolc) was founded by the Court Chamber of Vienna in Selmecbánya, Kingdom of Hungary in 1735 in order to train specialists of precious metal and copper mining according to the requirements of the industrial revolution in Hungary. The oldest German Institute of Technology is the University of Braunschweig (founded in 1745 as “Collegium Carolinum”). Another exception is the École Polytechnique, which has educated French élites since its foundation in 1794. In some cases, polytechnics or institutes of technology are engineering schools or technical colleges. However this early “Technology schools” were not parts of the Higher Education in the beginnings. The so-called BME University of Hungary (Founded as: “Institutum Geometrico-Hydrotechnicum” in 1782) is considered the oldest institution of technology in the world, which has university rank and structure. Sometimes, also institutes of technology are engineering and science research intense universities when they meet conditions necessary to be formally considered a university: autonomy to offer master’s and doctoral degrees and independence as research institutions.
In several countries, like Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Turkey, institutes of technology and polytechnics are institutions of higher education, and have been accredited to award academic degrees and doctorates. Famous examples are the Istanbul Technical University, ETH Zurich, İYTE, Delft University of Technology and RWTH Aachen, all considered universities.
In countries like Iran, Finland, Malaysia, Portugal, Singapore or the United Kingdom, there is often a significant and confused distinction between polytechnics and universities. In the UK Polytechnics offered university equivalent degrees from bachelor’s, master’s and PhD that were validated and governed at the national level by the independent UK Council for National Academic Awards. In 1992 UK Polytechnics were designated as universities which meant they could award their own degrees. The CNAA was disbanded. The UK’s first polytechnic, the Royal Polytechnic Institution (now the University of Westminster) was founded in 1838 in Regent Street, London. In Ireland the term institute of technology is more favored synonym of a regional technical college though the latter is the legally correct term; however, Dublin Institute of Technology is a university in all but name as it can confer degrees in accordance with law, Cork Institute of Technology and another of other Institutes of Technology have delegated authority from HETAC to make awards to and including Master’s degree level—Level 9 of the National Framework for Qualifications (NFQ)—for all areas of study and Doctorate level in a number of others.
In a number of countries, although being today generally considered similar institutions of higher learning across many countries, polytechnics and institutes of technology used to have a quite different statute among each other, its teaching competences and organizational history. In many cases polytechnic were a former designation for a vocational institution, before it has been granted the exclusive right to award academic degrees and can be truly called an institute of technology. A number of polytechnics providing higher education is simply a result of a formal upgrading from their original and historical role as intermediate technical education schools. In some situations, former polytechnics or other non-university institutions have emerged solely through an administrative change of statutes, which often included a name change with the introduction of new designations like institute of technology, polytechnic university, university of applied sciences, or university of technology for marketing purposes. Such emergence of so many upgraded polytechnics, former vocational education and technical schools converted into more university-like institutions has caused concern where the lack of specialized intermediate technical professionals lead to industrial skill shortages in some fields, being also associated to an increase of the graduate unemployment rate. This is mostly the case in those countries, where the education system is not controlled by the state and everybody can grant degrees. Evidence have also shown a decline in the general quality of teaching and graduate’s preparation for the workplace, due to the fast-paced conversion of that technical institutions to more advanced higher level institutions. Mentz, Kotze and Van der Merwe (2008) argues that all the tools are in place to promote the debate on the place of technology in higher education in general and in Universities of Technology specifically. The aspects of this debate can follow the following lines: • To what degree is technology defined as a concept? • What is the scope of technology discourse? • What is the place and relation of science with technology? • How useful is the Mitcham framework in thinking about technology in South Africa? • Can a measure of cooperation as opposed to competition be achieved amongst higher education institutions? • Who ultimately is responsible for vocational training and what is the role of technology in this?