On 20th July, 2016, one piece of news in particular caught the attention of the public: the Open University of China (OUC) and McDonald’s (China) signed a cooperation agreement stating that the OUC would provide more than 120,000 workers from more than 2,200 branches of McDonald’s with integrated non-degree and degree education services.

This is a symbolic event for the OUC in vigorously carrying out non-degree education and exploring the “Internet Plus” model of continuing education with the characteristics of “integration of industry and education and cooperation between the university and enterprises.” It is also a good opportunity for the OUC to thoroughly implement the “Action Plan for Realising the University Dreams of McDonald’s Employees” jointly launched by the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. Mr Ma Ruolong, director of the Department of External Education and Professional Training of the OUC, told the journalist from E-Learning that the OUC’s non-degree education has achieved positive progress after five years of exploration, and he hoped that non-degree education could become an important supportive force for the strategic transformation and upgrading of the OUC.

The OUC should hold the policy bottom line for the country

Many people are concerned about the issue of why and how the OUC should develop non-degree. Ma Ruolong said that the functions of education and open education have changed against the backdrop of great economic and social changes and that the era of value reevaluation has come. Against such a situation, education and open education need to be reoriented and the development direction readjusted.

He said that China’s early distance education and open education have evolved due to a specific historical period and specific policies. Along with streamlined administration and the decentralisation of authority by the government, the thriving of “Internet + Education,” and the investment boom in online education, and in the face of fierce market competition, it has become imperative for the OUC to find a direction for its non-degree education.

Ma Ruolong believes that open education has entered a new normal. Said new normal aims to bring together a range of education resources dislocated by means of power under the traditional economic system. For the OUC, these dislocations were reflected distinctly in the incorrect positioning of the school-running entity and the managerial institutions, the state public welfare establishments and the profit-making organisations, a unified national quality specification and mobilisation of local school management, and the uniqueness of open education and a development tendency towards common colleges and universities.

He pointed out that this has caused a range of problems, including quality issues, which the OUC met in its transformation and development. In order to reverse these problems and steer the OUC towards its original standard — lifelong learning for all — the OUC needs to reconstruct an entire set of new school-running systems or policies that can ensure that vulnerable groups in society have the opportunity to access higher education, so that it can prop up the country’s higher education and maintain a systematic bottom line for the equity of higher education for the nation.

“Therefore, the OUC needs to make up for these short shortcomings by vigorously developing non-degree education and paying equal attention to both degree and non-degree education. Non-degree education is not a supplement to degree education; it is an entrance to it. In a sense, developing non-degree education is a kind of strategic investment for the OUC,” said Ma Ruolong.

Today, the “Internet + Education” market is facing the impact of capital waves and the market, and is being watched by a number of predators. What the OUC’s advantages are and what the direction of non-degree education is have become the primary considerations for the OUC. Ma Ruolong believes that the university system formed since the Radio and Television Universities, which is characterised by close cooperation with an appropriate division of labour and orderly operations, and which covers the country’s urban and rural areas, is not only a unique feature, but also a rare advantage. It has received a great deal of admiration within the university system. “Our real rivals are from outside the OUC system. We should further build a development consensus, clearly define our development concepts, give full play to the advantages of our system, and work together to create a new ecological system using “Internet + Education,” and cultivate a level of core competitiveness that can match market demand, so that non-degree education will overtake degree education in its development.”

The exploration of non-degree education produces preliminary results

In July 2014, the OUC formally established the Department of External Education and Professional Training. The department’s main responsibilities are to study, plan, coordinate, and guide non-degree education development at the OUC and to vigorously promote and develop non-degree education. The basic idea is to develop non-degree education into an important entry point for degree education, a launch pad for the OUC to grow in a way that is different from ordinary colleges and universities, and a starting point for system construction.

Since the founding of the Department of External Education and Professional Training, it has deeply analysed the requirements for the development of non-degree education under the new normal situation, complied with the development trend of “Internet + Education”, and comprehensively promoted the development of non-degree education.

Firstly, top-level design was strengthened and a working force was formed. The Guiding Opinions for Vigorously Promoting Non-Degree Education issued by the OUC further clarified the development ideas, rationalised the institutional mechanism, created a development model, and designed an incentive mechanism to guide the transformation and development of the OUC’s non-degree education. Effort has been made to integrate relevant personnel and projects, share information resources, focus on solving problems, and establish an operating mechanism of orderly and collaborative work in the OUC headquarters’ non-degree education departments. A working conference for the nationwide school-running system has been held and the headquarters has given full play to its advantages and carried out all kinds of cooperation relating to social education and vocational and technical education with the state ministries, commissions, industries, enterprises, and education institutions. Efforts have been to promote the mutual construction and sharing of projects and resources in the school-running system nationwide, in order to make up for its shortcomings, add “increment,” and promote cooperation within the system.

Secondly, the department has been active in pioneering and innovative work, and exploring new businesses. It has studied and judged non-degree development trends and explored the construction of a new business mode for non-degree education. Firstly, the positioning of the new business model for non-degree education was defined. Targeting ministries, commissions, and industries, it has comprehensively planned policies and projects, and done a profound and careful job in continuing education for the state ministries, commissions and industries, which belong to the vertical market segment. It has integrated excellent resources to promote the development of non-degree education in the OUC’s school-running system. It has actively opened up the market and brought in external forces to better promote the landing and implementation of the policies and projects facing society. Secondly, it has clearly defined the meaning of the new business model of non-academic education. It has fully exerted the OUC’s advantages in terms of school-running system, education informatisation, and credit bank, focused on providing an integrated comprehensive solution for the state ministries, commissions, and industries, actively explored a new business model based on “Six-Network Integration”, integrating offline and online education, non-degree and degree education, vocational and continuing education, industries and education, cooperation between the university and companies, work and learning, and the education with the public welfare nature and marketisation mechanism. Thirdly, a unified online platform was built up. This has provided a comprehensive whole-chain solution that integrates the five factors of “platform, projects, content, channels, and services,” and established an integrated, one-stop, extensible, and comprehensive service platform system for non-degree education connected with degree education through the OUC’s credit bank so that it would develop together with degree education. Fourth, the department has carried out cooperation with multilateral parties in order to integrate outstanding social project resources. We have held negotiations with relevant industries and enterprises such as Baidu and Aliyun and a brand new cooperative and co-build mechanism that features “open technology, projects, content, and services” has gradually been formed. Fifth, a coordination mechanism for non-degree education which relies on the school-running organisation system has been explored for the construction of a new non-degree operation model. Trial work has been carried out in 10 cities of two provinces, including Beijing, Shenyang, Ningbo, Hubei, Wuhan, Guangdong, and Guangzhou. A unified online learning platform has been deployed and an offline learning experience centre has been built. The platform and projects were used to secure business resources, the services helped to realise a business ecosystem, and the standardised deployment and operation of the new business model has been realised by means of the channel and offline learning experience centres covering the entire urban and rural areas. A new work, operating, and profit mechanism that can adapt to the development of non-degree education has been established.

Third, preliminary results have started to appear and a foundation has been laid for future development. In recent years, rapid progress and practical working results have been made in the field of non-degree education, primarily in nine key projects: “Action Plan for Realising Dreams of Further Education”, the national public service platform for the professional development of teachers, the state-level continuing education base for professional and technical personnel, the state-level demonstration and communication platform for rural vocational education and adult education model counties, the information tracking system for poor students in the “MOE’s Accurate Poverty Alleviation programme”, the examination and approval and public information service platform for MOE higher degree continuing education majors, the state public service platform for supporting the aged through elderly education, the comprehensive information service platform for community education research and training, and “A Wonderful Life: A Lifelong Learning Plan for Women.” All these projects are of a public welfare nature but also take a new, market-oriented route. Among them, a number of programmes, such as the national teachers’ training programme and the programme for continuing education for professional and technical personnel, have begun to produce real economic benefits.

On this basis, project reserve work in cooperation with the national ministries, commissions, and industrial enterprises is also in progress. The State Council Leading Group Office for Poverty Alleviation and Development, the Ministry of Commerce, the China National Tourism Administration, Price Waterhouse Coopers, and the China Academy of Discipline Inspection and Supervision have stated their intent to cooperate with the OUC and carry out continuing education for specific groups. The OUC is also holding discussions with large chain enterprises such as McDonald’s, FOXCONN, and Wal-Mart, and large state-owned and central enterprises such as China Petroleum and CRRC about a school-running cooperation mode. Of these, the cooperation with McDonald’s is in full swing.

“At present, according to the requirements of the university, we are carrying out a wide range of cooperation for all kinds of social education and vocational skills projects with national ministries and commissions, industries, enterprises, and education institutions, in order to create an ecological chain covering the platform, projects, channels, and the learning experience centres through the reconstruction of the business model, organisation system, service process, and value-added model. We hope to create a non-degree education ecosystem by adopting a brand new win-win mechanism of joint discussion, construction and management, and sharing,” Ma Ruolong said.

By Liu Zenghui, E-Learning