UTCs are a type of free school, and they were introduced as part of the Academies Programme. They are funded by the taxpayer, non-selective, free to attend and not controlled by a local authority. While this is also true of most academies and free schools, UTCs are collectively distinctive in a number of ways. UTCs all have a university as a lead sponsor. Further education colleges, charitable organisations and the private sector may co-sponsor a UTC, however they must also be led by a university. Like studio schools, University Technical Colleges are specifically designed to enroll students aged 14–19,whereas free schools and academies can choose the age range of their pupils. Existing schools cannot convert to become a UTC – all UTCs have to be newly founded schools with no direct transfer intake of pupils.
However, the most distinctive element of UTCs is that they have to offer technically oriented courses of study, combining National Curriculum requirements with technical and vocational elements. UTCs must specialise in subjects that require technical and modern equipment, but they also all teach business skills and the use of ICT. UTCs are also supposed to offer clear routes into higher education or further learning in work.