The University was founded as the Portsmouth and Gosport School of Science and the Arts in 1869. Because of the dependence on shipping and trade to the city, the main function of the college was to train the engineers and skilled workmen who went on to work in the city docks, as well as at the large Royal Navy dockyard situated in Portsmouth. However, due to a decline in shipping and population since World War II, when large swathes of the city were destroyed by German bombing, the college was forced to diversify its syllabus and teaching in order to attract new students.
In the expansion of British Higher Education in the 1960s, the college was renamed Portsmouth Polytechnic and given the power to award degrees accredited and validated by the CNAA. The expansion of the polytechnic continued and in the late 1980s, it was one of the largest polytechnics in the UK.