What’s a polytechnic, college, and university? Similarities and differences explained

With so many post-secondary options to choose from, it can be difficult for learners to decide what’s right for them. How does one institute differ from the other and what form of education will help you achieve your career goals? In this article, we’ll answer those questions and more, so you can determine what path is right for you.

What is a polytechnic?

We often get asked if a polytechnic is a college or university. The answer is—it’s neither. While there are similarities, the thing that most sets polytechnics, like BCIT, apart from traditional institutes can be summed up in two words: applied learning. Also known as experiential or “hands-on” learning, a polytechnic combines the in-depth study found at universities with practical skills training. 

This form of education is a unique characteristic of polytechnics—it’s intense and highly technical, but also incredibly rewarding. Even student organizations and clubs at polytechnics are similar to those you’d find at a university, enriched further by the industry connections and real-world opportunities that the school and its faculty provide.

How are colleges and universities different from polytechnics?

Most colleges don’t award postgraduate degrees, such as a master’s or PhD, they do offer a wide variety of certificate, diploma, and bachelor’s degree programs. Many students choose to begin their post-secondary journeys at colleges because of lower admission requirements, smaller class sizes, and cheaper tuition, before transferring to a polytechnic or university to finish their full degrees. Before transferring, students should check the transferability of courses between institutions.

How are universities similar to polytechnics?

BCIT, and many polytechnics, offer the same credentials as a university including master’s and bachelor’s degrees in addition to targeted, job-specific diplomas, certificates, and microcredentials.

Now that you know how these post-secondary differ, let’s take a closer look at how you can benefit from a polytechnic education.

What sets polytechnics apart from universities and colleges?

Flexible learning pathways

While universities offer courses on academic and theoretical topics like math, English, and history, polytechnics focus solely on applied skills training—they offer accredited degrees in everything from health sciences and trades to business and computing. In addition to both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, polytechnics also give students the opportunity to earn a range of other credentials, including certificates, diplomas, apprenticeships, Red Seal trades, and microcredentials.  

These types of programs may seem intense, but polytechnic education can be flexible. Many of the BCIT engineering programs, for example, share the same foundational curriculum, which gives students the option to pursue either a diploma or polytechnic degree after completing their first year of education. 

Part-time study options, online learning, and evening and weekend courses provide even more freedom for students to upgrade their skills, without sacrificing their careers or personal lives.

Real work experience

It’s not uncommon for universities to offer co-op programs, but polytechnics go one step further, introducing students to real-world experiences both inside and outside of the classroom. The majority of Canadian polytechnics (60–70%) incorporate work-integrated learning into their degree, diploma, and graduate certificate programs. 

This encompasses co-op terms, internships, field experience, and professional practice. 

Computer Systems Technology students at BCIT, for instance, get to partake in industry-sponsored projects that let them experiment with artificial intelligence, app development, and augmented reality

With this experience—learning by doing—polytechnic students are ready to hit the ground running. They’ve gained valuable insight about their industry of choice and leave school with a competitive advantage.

Soft skills development

At BCIT, full-time students can expect to take anywhere from six to nine classes at a time—but this, of course, varies from program to program and from institute to institute. The upside to this intensity is that students learn how to manage their time, a soft skill sought after by many employers. 

Another unique quality of polytechnic programs is that students get to learn and work with the same group of peers (or “cohort”) throughout an entire two- or four-year program. This small-group model mirrors typical workplace teams and helps students learn how to closely collaborate with peers, instructors, and industry experts.

SEE MORE: 7 signs a polytechnic is the right fit for you

Expert faculty

University instructors are well educated—many have master’s degrees and PhDs—and the same can be said about the faculty at polytechnics. Plus, many instructors come to the classroom with industry experience under their belts.  Take BCIT Prosthetics and Orthotics Program Head, Jason Goodnough, for example. In addition to being a faculty member, he has an active clinical practice, and—along with a team from BCIT—invented a revolutionary 3D-printed baby helmet. This means polytechnic students are gaining valuable knowledge from working professionals, not just reading textbooks.

Applied research

Polytechnic institutes work hard to develop meaningful partnerships with industry leaders and stakeholders, and as a result, research projects are designed to solve real-world problems. Comparatively, research conducted by universities tends to be based more on theory- and knowledge-sharing.

At BCIT, research is always applied—and it’s always exciting. Case in point: ahead of cannabis legalization in Canada, Dr. Paula Brown worked with a group of students to identify the unique compounds that make up various marijuana samples, valuable information that can be used to develop industry-standard tools for governments, producers, and scientists.

Industry insights

Programs offered by polytechnic institutes are developed in partnership with employers, alumni, and other working professionals. BCIT, for example, has more than 700 business leaders sitting on its Program Advisory Committees. These committees provide strategic advice and feedback on industry trends, which can impact the curriculum for programs and courses. It’s part of the reason why polytechnic students have such a high employment rate—they have access to the most up-to-date knowledge that industry leaders and employers are looking for.

At BCIT, you’ll find specialized programs developed by industry leaders, work-learn opportunities, applied research, and flexible education pathways. And it all leads to one thing: success in the real world. In fact, 98%* of our degree graduates are employed. To find out if a polytechnic institute is right for you, explore our programs or register for an info session.

*Source: BC Student Outcomes, prepared by BC Stats, 2022

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(Note: This article was last updated in August 2023)

10 thoughts on “What’s a polytechnic, college, and university? Similarities and differences explained”

  1. These are all excellent points. However, BCIT needs to do more to ensure that more of its core course work is university transfer equivalent and recognized as such, ideally throughout the country to allow students to pursue further studies elsewhere.

  2. BCIT from what I have seen in comparison to the other polytechnics and universities is amazing. Your school (BCIT overall) has a hybrid offering in that your able to offer University Baccalaureate degrees, yet also offer Diploma Programs. Your diploma programs in business and engineering technologies are REALLY GOOD in terms of transferring credits to continue a University Program or starting from scratch (amazing grounding in academics and skills received in the diploma programs).

    Please don’t change to become a University. Why ? University is not for everybody, however the training and grounding received in Diploma programs (which cannot be offered if granted University Status) really prepare people for jobs and the real world, with pragmatic and real-world application skills.

    Your Bachelor in Engineering Programs are amazing. Loves your programs, because it is an actual University degree, however where BCIT is not a University, the professors, and TA’s (teaching assistants) are not tied down being “slave to their research” and have lots more time to provide classroom instruction, really giving an excellent grounding and foundation to BCIT Engineering Grads. For all intents and purposes, please stay a primarily undergraduate institution, as the most important degree is your Undergrad and where your skills and grounding is received.

    Believe me, total BCIT wannabe for Business and or Engineering, but I think my English skills say otherwise.
    Keep doing what your all doing, you all seriously have it down, and don’t fix what isn’t broken.

  3. At BCIT, full-time students can expect to take anywhere from six to nine classes at a time—but this, of course, varies from program to program and from institution to institution. The upside to this intensity is that students learn how to manage their time, a soft skill sought after by many employers.

  4. In Indian scenario poly technics offer only diploma certificates after course completion .These are not considered equivalent to graduate quifications.
    At the same time poly technics ad.it the students who clear the 10th class or secondary education i. e after 10 th grade and the course duration of course is 3 years.
    But one should complete 10+2 years of study before seeking admission into a degree or graduate program offered by universities or colleges.

  5. Great article, Amy! Polytechnics, colleges, and universities each have unique focuses. Polytechnics emphasize practical training, colleges offer a mix of vocational and academic programs, and universities provide comprehensive academic education. Choosing the right institution depends on individual goals and interests.


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