European Polytechnics and Vocational Colleges

The heritage of institutions of higher education which offer programs in the liberal arts can be drawn directly from the Islamic and European universities of the Middle Ages. Polytechnic Institutions and technical colleges, however, originated from a different time and place in European history.

The focus on science, engineering and the applied sciences is only one of the differences between the polytechnic and the traditional university. From its inception, the polytechnic with its laboratories and workshops differentiated itself from the traditional institutions of higher education in its approaches to teaching and learning. In addition to lectures, the pedagogy of polytechnics always included the insistence that students engage in "hands on" approach to learning.

The emphasis on praxis was particularly essential in the early history of engineering as most engineers had to not only intellectually understand their subject material, but to be able to make their own instruments, tools and machines. In several cases, particularly where communities of skilled mechanics or technicians already existed, polytechnics became the means through which those already familiar with the practical side of engineering could formalize these skills in an institutional setting. This was particularly so in the case of the Liverpool Polytechnic, founded in 1823, which had begun as the Liverpool Mechanics and Apprentices Library.

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. 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.