Skip to main contentSkip to contextural navigationSkip to main navigationIf you are having problems using this page with a screen reader follow this link for a more compatible version
University of Plymouth home page
home |  Help |  contact us |  sitemap |  search  University Logo

History of Higher Education in Plymouth

Aerial view of Technical college - photo: D.P Fitzgerald 
 Aerial view of Technical College  

1820s - Seeds in popular adult education

The roots of higher education in Plymouth may be traced back 200 years. The early nineteenth century saw the first of a series of self-help adult educational movements sweep Britain, which led to the establishment of Mechanics Institutes in Plymouth and Devonport in 1825. Lecture programmes and classes in useful subjects, held mainly in the evenings, were their hallmarks, and also of later initiatives such as the Co-operative and University Extension movements. Classes aided by the Government's Department of Science and Art were first held in Plymouth in the 1850s (Art) and 1860s (Science), and it was these, with University Extension which eventually came together in the 1890s/1900s in Plymouth's first technical college buildings, later forming the Plymouth and Devonport Technical College out of which the University of Plymouth would emerge.

1850s - Plymouth's earliest undergraduates

University Extension students from the late 1880s were studying for the external examinations of the University of London, but for half a century from 1857, Plymouth was home to a handful of students at Western College recognised by the University of London for its BA and BD examinations and degrees.  Until the 1970s undergraduates at the technical college in Plymouth continued to take University of London degrees in Science and Engineering.  

1862 - Plymouth School of Navigation

The oldest direct predecessor of the University of Plymouth was the Plymouth School of Navigation established in 1862 under the Science and Art regime. This advanced the study of maritime subjects through research and publication and its students prepared for national competency qualifications for the command of merchant ships a century before their successors in the same School as part of the future Polytechnic would be taking the first nautical degree in Britain. The Fitzroy Building, named after the founder of the Meteorological Office, was built for the Navigation School in 1970.

1920s - Plymouth and the University College of the South West

During the 1920s Plymouth became involved in a scheme for a regional university college for which its engineering staff, students and premises would form the Faculty of Engineering. This was the Exeter-based University College of the South West of England (1922), whose students also took London external awards. In 1929, Plymouth opened its first undergraduate hall of residence in Devonport, enabled by a £10,000 donation from Lord and Lady Astor. This connection has been recognized in the Nancy Astor Building, which opened in 2008. The Exeter link was short-lived, however Plymouth continued with its science and engineering degree classes through the depression and World War II, as well as offering a wide range of lower level vocational courses until the 1960s. A decade earlier the Government had begun to invest in the tertiary education sector, and the College gradually developed many more full-time day courses.

University of Plymouth - key periods
Plymouth campus
Mechanics Institute  
School of Navigation 
Plymouth Polytechnic  
Polytechnic South West

University of Plymouth 
Plymouth Polytechnic - photo: UPPLY Marketing Dept 
 Plymouth Polytechnic

1970 - Plymouth Polytechnic 

From 1970 Plymouth's College of Technology, as it had been renamed in 1962, was granted polytechnic status, and shed most of its sub-degree work to the new College of Further Education. Plymouth Polytechnic began to develop numerous undergraduate and higher degree courses in parallel with an upsurge in the level of staff research activity. Under the Education Reform Act of 1988, came major changes which freed the Polytechnic from local authority control, and saw the granting of higher education corporation status to the Polytechnic. The real escalation in student numbers began in the 1980s, and additional numbers came with the merger of three small colleges at the end of that decade. 

1989 - Polytechnic South West

In 1988, Rolle College of Education (Exmouth) and Exeter College of Art and Design were amalgamated with Plymouth Polytechnic, with Seale-Hayne Agricultural College merging in 1989. Plymouth College of Art and Design remained independent but its Architecture courses transferred to Polytechnic South West, the short-lived name adopted to recognise the wider geographical spread.

1992 - University of Plymouth

As the University of Plymouth, Plymouth's polytechnic was one of 30 establishments of higher education elevated by the Government to university status in 1992. As well as the name change came the power to confer degrees in its own name, instead of that of the Council for National Academic Awards (CNAA), which had taken over from London in the late 1960s. In the 1990s the University built on its regional links with further education colleges to encompass all such colleges in the South West of England and the Channel Islands at which its courses and awards are now offered. Building initiatives included the impressive Cookworthy and Sherwell conversions (1994 and 1997) and the Robbins Conference Centre and hall of residence (1995).

Roland Levinsky Building 
 Roland Levinsky Building

New subjects and buildings

A major boost to the status of the University came in 2000 with the designation by the Government of the Peninsula Medical School managed jointly with the University of Exeter, to which has recently been added a School of Dentistry. In contrast to the focus on the Plymouth campus (noted below), the University's medical and health (including nursing) teaching is delivered at sites across the region. In 2003, the year that the Portland Square Building opened, the University decided to concentrate its teaching and research in Plymouth, and settled on a large refurbishment and new building programme. The Seale-Hayne Campus at Newton Abbot was closed in 2005; the Faculty of Arts moved from Exeter to the new Roland Levinsky Building in 2007; and the Faculty of Education relocated to the new Rolle Building in 2008. Other recent building developments include the refurbishment of the Mary Newman hall of residence and the student union complex, the University library extension and a new building for the Peninsula Medical School at the Derriford Hospital site in Plymouth.  

The University of Plymouth today

With the completion of the largest ever investment in buildings during the first decade of the twenty-first century the University of Plymouth is really well equipped with a suite of up-to-date buildings and facilities, on a unified campus. Almost all its students are now taught in Plymouth, and it offers a balanced portfolio of courses across the science, technology, social science, arts and humanities spectrum of knowledge. Yet the long historical background outlined here is treasured and key events in the history of the location are not forgotten.

In 2006 the remains of the World War II Portland Square air-raid shelter passages were rediscovered on the Plymouth campus. On the overnight air-raid of 22/23 April 1941, during the Blitz, a bomb fell here killing over 70 civilians. In 2006, an appeal was made to raise money for a public sculpture to honour those who lost their lives. This was completed in the shade of the Portland Square Building by the sculptress Frana Favata and unveiled in April 2009.
The University of Plymouth has been recognised for its educational provision on many occasions. Examples include the Queens Anniversary prize in 1994 for its exceptional work of the highest standards with its partner colleges, and in 2008 received the "Enterprising Britain" award. Also in 2008 it was selected by the Royal Statistical Society to home its Centre for Statistical Education. 


Related information:

About the University
The enterprise University
An information map of campus buildings