The predecessor of the Open University of China (OUC) was China Central Radio and TV University (CCRTVU), which was officially established on the initiative and with the approval of Comrade Deng Xiaoping in 1978.

In July 2010, the National Outline for Medium and Long-term Educational Reform and Development (2010-2020) requested “effort be made in running open universities.” In October 2010, the State Council released the Circular on Implementing Pilot Projects for the Reform to the National Education System, making the radio and TV universities (RTVUs) of the municipalities of Beijing and Shanghai and the provinces of Jiangsu, Guangdong, and Yunnan CCRTVU pilots “to explore the construction model of open universities”, which marks the beginning of the strategic transformation of the RTVUs. In June 2012, the CCRTVU was renamed as the OUC. In August 2020, the Leading Party Group of the Ministry of Education deliberated and approved The OUC Comprehensive Reform Plan, which was issued in the name of the Ministry. Explicit requirements have been made to build the OUC into a major platform for lifelong education, a major platform for online education, a platform for flexible education, and a platform for international cooperation. This symbolises that the transformation and upgrading of the RTVUs and the high-quality development of open universities have entered a new stage.

The OUC is a new-style higher education university directly under the administration of the Ministry of Education of China (MOE). Based on a mission of promoting lifelong learning for all, it is committed to offering open education to the entire nation. It is supported by modern information technology and characterised by “Internet Plus.” Under the leadership of the MOE, the OUC coordinates the overall construction of the national open education system, gives professional guidance and support to the operation of open education in China, and focuses on the construction of a public service platform for lifelong learning. It offers lifelong education and services for all people and promotes the goal of “anyone can learn anytime and anywhere.” The MOE administers and guides the education and teaching affairs of the OUC in accordance with the regulations of higher education institutions.

The OUC is both an educational entity and an educational system covering all urban and rural areas in China. It consists of one headquarters, 45 provincial branches, and 3,735 study centres. It has founded 14 industry and corporate colleges in cooperation with relevant ministries and commissions and industries, including the School of Mechanical Industry, the School of Automotive Engineering, the School of Metal Casting, the Cyber Security School, the Software School, the School of Life and Health, the School of Petroleum and Chemical Engineering, the Textile School, the Postal School, the School of Coal, the School of Social Work, the School of Insurance, the School of Tourism, and the School of Property Services. In addition, there are also 11 specialised schools, including the Bayi School, the School for the Air Force, the Jundun School, the School for the Disabled, the Huaqiao College, the School of Mining Technology, the School of Marine Science and Technology, and the School for Auxiliary Police.

The OUC headquarters, consisting of four campuses in Wukesong, Fuxingmen, Weigongcun, and Daxing Weishanzhuang, covers an area of about 200 mu (about 13.33 hectares) with a floor area of 130,000 square meters. It includes 30 internal organisations, including 13 teaching and scientific research departments, seven teaching management and support departments, and 10 Party and administration departments. The headquarters is designated to be staffed by 600 people. Today, it has 571 regular faculty and staff, including seven university-level leaders and 69 division-level cadres. It has one asset management company and five university-owned enterprises with 660 staff members serving the publication of teaching materials, open education informatisation, learning resource development, and non-degree education.

Over the past 42 years, the university’s operation has developed five characteristics. The first is the overall enhancement of the Party’s leadership of lifelong education. The overall leadership of the Communist Party of China over the headquarters and its branches has been strengthened, practicing a joint conference system between the Party Committee secretary and presidents of the university. A Party Committee decision-making system has been established to ensure the leading position and dominance of the Party in the university lifelong education and learning. The responsibility of full and strict Party self-governance has been effectively assumed, the key role of the Party branches has been strengthened, and the exemplary and vanguard role of Party members has been highlighted. The second is the establishment of a new model of massive online ideological and political education. The OUC adheres to fostering virtue through education and bear in mind the significant mission of training new people for the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in the era. The OUC has explored the natural integration of “ideological and political courses” with “ideology and politics in courses,” and designed the “1+4+X” course system of ideological and political theories. A total of 6.259 million students have studied ideological and political courses online, forming a new model of massive online ideological and political education for on-the-job adults. The OUC pays attention to cultivating useful talent with both integrity and expertise for grassroots units. The third is thorough coverage of various kinds of learning groups. The OUC adheres to open education and the principle of “respect learning and make it universally beneficial, provide education for all people with no distinctions.” It is necessary to  keep in mind the aspiration and needs of people of different ages, from different fields, and from different occupations for further learning. By staying rooted in the vast land of China, the OUC has established an educational system that transcends universities, regions, industries, and enterprises, integrating all industries and trades and covering both urban and rural China. The OUC has blazed a new path uniting social forces to run the university and has integrated, shared, optimised, and allocated quality social education resources to run education in a fast and economical way. This has demonstrated the institutional advantage of socialism with Chinese characteristics, i.e., concentrating efforts on major initiatives. The fourth is commitment to being a new-style “Internet” university “without walls.” The OUC has firmly established its model and developed core competencies with information technology in education by keeping up with and applying advanced technologies. It has explored the profound integration of technology with education from radio to television to the Internet in order to promote and lead the informatisation development of higher, continuing, and vocational education, and education modernisation. The fifth is giving equal priority to degree education and non-degree education. The OUC offers new majors in line with economic and social needs, and has  optimised teaching contents and course structures and built a web-based learner development model. It has carried out the construction of a credit bank centred on the accreditation, accumulation, and transfer of various kinds of learning outcomes. It has energetically advanced community education and education for older adults, and strengthened the education and training of a new type of professional farmers and modern industrial workers. It has promoted targeted poverty alleviation and rural revitalisation through education through coordinating with the whole OUC system. The OUC has contributed a Chinese model of running higher education and offered low cost, efficient vocational education to on-the-job employees.

In 2017, the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) awarded the only global ICDE Institutional Prize of Excellence to the OUC for its outstanding achievements in promoting educational equity, improving teaching quality, reforming and innovating both its educational and learner development model, the in-depth integration of information technology into education, and the construction of a “credit bank” that realises the accreditation, accumulation, and transfer of learning outcomes. On 6 April 2021, the UNESCO headquarters in Paris announced that the OUC’s “One College Student Per Village” programme was awarded the 2020 UNESCO King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa Prize for the Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Education, the highest prize for information and communication technologies in education in the UN system.