What is Polytechnic Education?

The noun Polytechnic, according to Merriam-Webster, applies to a college or university that provides training in technical and practical sciences, while the etymology derives from the French “Polytechnique,” which that has its origin in the Greek “Polytechnos” (meaning ‘skilled in many arts’). In educational terms, the designation found its way into common usage in the early nineteenth century in Europe.

From an historical perspective, the primary incarnation of “polytechnic education” occurred in France through the creation of the first polytechnic system following the French Revolution in 1794, when a committee known as “Comité de salut public”—led by Carnot and Monge—founded the first center of learning for the new engineers of the republic. This resulted in the transformation of the “L’école central des traveaux public” into the “L’école Polytechnique” which counts among its graduates distinguished members of the scientific community at that time, including Fourrier, Poisson, and Bijot, and remains a leading Polytechnic institution (University of Saint Andrews, 2013). Other European nations, such as Switzerland, followed the polytechnic model; notably, the Zurich Polytechnic Institute, where Albert Einstein studied, exemplifies the Polytechnic system of higher education established in France. Again, the French polytechnic model remains influential, including in the United States. There, renowned institutions of higher learning such as the Michigan Institute of Technology, the Massashusttes Institute of Technology,  California Institute of Technology, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, are among the best in the world (Time Higher Education University Rankings, 2013).

The Former Soviet Union and countries of the former ‘Communist Block’ developed a divergent model of Polytechnic education, rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology and designed to prepare the labor force by combining teaching and learning about the economic production with practical work experience (Beck, 1990). Hence, a combination of academic studies, Marxist interpretations of vocational guidance, and the preparation of the students for skilled labor, mark the major characteristics of the Soviet Polytechnic Model. This model except its Marxist ideology—objectively approximates the vocational approach to education developed in Canada and the United States in the twentieth century.

Both French and Soviet Polytechnic models are related to the functional conception of higher education. The French model focuses more closely on applied technology and research as a central component of the model, while the Soviet School prioritizes production over research and development, with a keener focus on learning (rather than research). It is important to acknowledge that, in light of research-oriented components such as universities and martial institutions, Polytechnic education was not the only component of the Former Soviet Union’s higher education system.

As appendices to the preceding definitions, a variety of Polytechnic models and corresponding definitions have developed the world over. In the UK and Finland, for example, two different experiential models are worthy of mention. In 1965, a Polytechnic system was established to complement the autonomous university sector. In 1992, all so-called polytechnics were granted university status. Conversely, in Finland, in 1996, a network of vocational colleges formed the Finnish Polytechnic system that continues to play the same complementary role of the now-defunct Polytechnic system in the UK (Doern, 2008; Weingarten and Deller, 2013; OECD, 2003). Interestingly, according to Sorensen (2013, P.1), “Polytechnic are comprehensive universities offering professional, career focused programs in the arts, social and related behavioral sciences, engineering, education, and natural sciences and technology that engage students in active, applied learning, theory and research essential to the future of society, business and industry.”

In terms of the further redefinition of the Polytechnic higher education system, three institutions, in particular, are also noteworthy: Wisconsin Polytechnic University, Hong Kong Polytechnic University, and Polytechnic Canada. Specifically, Hong Kong Polytechnic University acquired a measure of inspiration from the Chinese cultural credo, “learn every truth and use the knowledge learned to accomplish every task,” along with, “to learn; to serve.”  Based on these tenets, Hong Kong Polytechnic University defines its vision as consolidating applied research and partnerships for the betterment of “Hong Kong, China, and the world” in a ‘university’ context dedicated to professional education (PolyU, 2013).

Yet another definition of polytechnic education has been established by Polytechnic Canada, which posits “polytechnic education is career-focused applied education that spans trades through advanced degrees, delivered in an environment where students receive hands-on training that enables them to more readily apply their skills.” (Doern, 2008).

Based on the literature review we are proposing the following definition:

Polytechnic education is a multidisciplinary higher education model that engages students and industry in active, applied, lifelong learning and research, and which aims to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in order to influence economically sustainable development on the local, provincial, and national levels. It offers learners a range of credentials and workplace-ready knowledge and training that integrates theory and practice.

Bickman and Rog (2009) argue that although the difference between applied and basic research contexts may be perceived as overlapping, they differ in purpose, context, and methodology. Regarding applied research, this study adopts a truncated version of the definition advanced by Bickman and Rog (2009):

An applied research approach uses scientific methodologies to develop solutions to immediate, and often persistent, social problems.

This Article is part of Youssef and Hunter (2014), a scholarly unpublished research about polytechnic education.