The English term polytechnic appeared in the early 19th century, from the French École Polytechnique, an engineering school founded in 1794 in Paris. The French term comes from the Greek πολύ (polú or polý) meaning "many" and τεχνικός (tekhnikós) meaning "arts".
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 engineering and 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 (now Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia), 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 Braunschweig University of Technology, 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.
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 a binary system of higher education emerged consisting of universities (research orientation) and polytechnics (engineering and applied science and professional practice orientation). Polytechnics offered university equivalent degrees mainly in STEM subjects 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 the 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 other Institutes of Technology have delegated authority from HETAC to make awards to and including master's degree level — Level 9 of the Republic of Ireland's 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 elite technological universities concentrating on applied science and engineering and may also be 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 any institution 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 argue 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, and they posit several questions for the debate.