On 21 June 2019, the Open University of China (OUC), the largest modern distance education system in the world founded with the support of Comrade Deng Xiaoping, celebrated its 40th birthday.

Many people don't understand how a university can be called an education system. How big is the campus? How many students are there?

“Our campus is infinitely broad and it exists wherever it is needed. Our alumni are all over the country,” the faculty and staff of the OUC system say with pride.

For the past 40 years, this university has been deeply rooted in China, offering learners who cannot access higher education for whatever reason the opportunity to learn. The accumulative number of students enrolled by the OUC has reached 19 million over the past 40 years, cultivating more than 14.4 million undergraduate students and junior college graduates. Among them, more than 70% are from the grassroots and 55% are from the central and western regions of China.

Since the founding of the OUC, this university that possesses the technology gene has been following the progress of the country closely and beating with the pulse of the times. The name of the university has changed from the Central China Radio and TV University (CCRTVU) to the Open University of China (OUC), the main classroom has moved from radio and television to computers and even mobile devices, and the educational technology has been upgraded from radio-television dominated to online-technology dominated. Party secretary and president of the OUC, Yang Zhijian, says that the OUC has been adhering to “making use of technical means to provide education opportunities for all members of society and promoting educational equality.”

Civilian characteristics are considered to be the biggest feature of the OUC. A veteran OUC concluded that, “We are a grassroots university that is close to the people. We are the last line of defence for educational equality. If the OUC does not provide higher education opportunities, then there really is no chance of attending university for some people."

First attempt at continuing education

In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping approved the founding of the CCRTVU, Sun Meichun, a graduate of the Department of Mathematics at Peking University, had been working at the university for more than four years, serving as the Party branch secretary of the Mathematics Department.

As one of the first batch of intellectual youths who went to the countryside, Sun was fortunate to have the opportunity to pursue further studies and become one of Peking University’s first batch of worker-peasant-soldier students. Although Sun didn’t know about the radio and television university, the information that she learned from the other RTVU teachers made her feel like "the RTVU will provide higher education to thousands of young people who have no chance to pursue higher education, including intellectual youths who returned to the city from ‘the countryside’."

In November 1978, Sun persuaded Peking University to transfer her to the in-preparation CCRTVU.

On 6 February 1979, CCRTVU and 28 RTVUs at the provincial, autonomous region, and municipal levels held a grand opening ceremony in Beijing, which was broadcast to the whole country by China Central Television (CCTV).

This “university without walls” is affectionately known as the RTVU. The term continuing education was introduced to China at the same time as the founding of the RTVU. As the pioneer of continuing education in China, the starting point of the CCRTVU is high and difficult to surpass. Just two days after the opening ceremony, on the morning of 8 February 1979, the courses of the CCRTVU were officially broadcast nationwide. The lecturer of the first class was famous mathematician Hua Luogeng.

In order to ensure the quality of teaching, according to the requirements of the Ministry of Education the CCRTVU’s lecturers are first-rate professors selected from universities. Famous experts in various fields, such as Wang Li and Chen Lin, became on-screen tutors for thousands of students.

Even Nobel Prize winner Yang Zhenning accepted the CCRTVU’s invitation to give lectures for the course University Physics: Contemporary Physics Frontiers in 1995, giving a seminar on two themes: “Symmetry and Modern Topics” and “Retrospect and Prospects of Bringing Modern Science to China”.

According to statistics, the number of RTVU students has increased the proportion of on-campus students in China higher education from 0.7% in 1975 to 4% in 1987. The enrolment rate for high school graduates admitted to the university increased from 2% in 1975 to 20% in 1987.

The goal of RTVUs is to cultivate the applied talents that are badly needed by the country. Former Party secretary and first vice president of CCRTVU, Zhang Qunyu, has said that a vivid metaphor to describe the characteristics of RTVUs is "building an RTVU that is oriented towards the demands of enterprises for talented professionals."

Since China had just entered a period of reform and opening up, all kinds of talented professionals were badly needed, especially professionals familiar with economic affairs. In 1983, CCRTVU announced that it was setting up an economics major. Hearing the news, the ministries such as the Ministry of Commerce, the Ministry of Materials, the State Economic Commission, the National Bureau of Statistics, and the People’s Bank of China were supportive of the idea, all expressing their willingness to help if the university met any difficulties.

According to statistics, in 1983, the national RTVUs launched eight majors in the economics category for higher education junior college programmes, enrolling more than 230,000 full-subject students and 187,000 single-subject students (including double-subject students), equivalent to 1.7 times the total number of students enrolled in similar majors at regular higher education colleges and universities since the founding of New China.

The rapid expansion of the scale of the university has brought about quality and management issues. Then vice president of CCRTVU Zhang Da recalled that after a consensus was reached, everyone unanimously agreed that quality should be put first. The measures adopted included stopping enrolling self-taught audio-visual students and strengthening work on examinations, teaching materials, and management.

CCRTVU addressed this issue with three large-scale surveys on graduate tracking. The national favourable policy for RTVU graduates also proves the quality of the training.
For 40 years, the university has been oriented towards the grassroots, the industries, the countryside, and remote and ethnic regions.

This perseverance has benefited RTVUs. “The true needs of society can be sensed from the grassroots and only be understanding that can RTVUs take the initiative to cater to those demands and make changes to keep up with the times,” Li Linshu, vice president of the OUC, said.

The shift to distance education

The founding of the RTVU was a temporary measure offering a chance at a good education for students who failed to receive higher education during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1990s, with the development of society, local RTVUs were also thinking about their future development. With the continuous development of information technology, distance education was undoubtedly an important carrier of future education and local RTVUs were wondering how to build an open network and a lifelong learning system.

The hardware of the distance education system is divided into two parts. One is the "China Education and Research Network (CERNET)” and the other is "Skynet", that is, satellite signals.

From 1994 to 2001, Wei Yu, then vice minister of the Ministry of Education (MOE), who also served as president of CCRTVU, completed the construction of the two hardware facilities, laying a solid foundation for the future of distance education and also opening the door to modern distance education in China.

In 1996, the former TV Education Office of the State Education Commission and CCRTVU held a meeting in Huangshan. At the meeting, they proposed the construction of a modern distance and open university. In 1998, the MOE was also discussing an education revitalisation action plan for the 21st century. They proposed implementing the "Modern Distance Education Project", forming an open education network and building a lifelong learning system. For the second half of the year, the CCRTVU prepared and drafted an application report on the "Open Education Pilot Project".

In January 1999, the CCRTVU submitted a long-prepared and repeatedly verified application report to the MOE. In April, the MOE approved and agreed this application and remarked that its purpose was to "train a large number of high-quality, high-level, applied professionals who can cater to demands for economic construction and social development in China at the local and grassroots level."

Since then, the development of CCRTVU has been accelerating. The number of on-campus students increased from over 30,000 in 1999 to 2.766 million in 2008.
CCRTVU had once again grasped the pulse of education reform.

In April 2007, the MOE organised an expert panel headed by Zhou Yuanqing, former deputy minister of the MOE, to conduct a summary assessment of the CCRTVU Learner Development Model Reform and Open Education Pilot Project. The assessment concluded, “The eight-year pilot project is an example of successful education reform and the pilot project has given us a series of ideas for how to successfully operate open education, laying a solid foundation for establishing a lifelong education system and a learning society in China.”

Pioneer of lifelong learning

After entering the 21st century, China’s economy, society, and science and technology have undergone rapid development. Building a learning society in which "anyone can learn anywhere and anytime" is a major issue faced by China and the world.

By 2010, three quarters of the Chinese labour force had received a junior high school education and below. Only 10.1% of the labour force had received higher education. In the same period, the same proportion in cities such as Tokyo, New York, and Paris had reached 48% to 50%.

The lack of high-level talents in China is obvious. We cannot merely rely on regular colleges and universities to address this issue.

With this in mind, CCRTVU once again embarked on a series of national education reform. How to use modern science and technology to break through time and space constraints and promote a learning society where anyone can learn anytime and anywhere was an early entry on the agenda of the RTVU system.

In July 2010, the State Council promulgated the National Outline for Medium and Long-Term Educational Reform and Development (2010-2020) (hereinafter referred to as the Outline). In view of the reform and development situation of open universities and RTVUs, it was clearly stated that "we should successfully run and operate open universities.”

In October 2010, the State Council set up the sub-programme "Exploring an Open University Construction Model" within the "National Education System Reform Pilot" programme, listing CCRTVU as a pilot unit. After nearly two years of pilot exploration, the MOE approved the founding of the OUC based on the CCRTVU in June 2012.

Over the past seven years, the OUC has focused on the “1314 project", with the improvement the quality of learner development as its core, the school organisational system, educational informatisation, and the university basic institutional framework as its pillars, the credit bank as its bond, and non-degree continuing education, discipline construction, the teaching team, and scientific research development as its focus. In 2017, the International Council for Open and Distance Education (ICDE) awards the OUC with the ICDE Institutional Prize of Excellence for its outstanding achievements in promoting educational equality, improving teaching quality, reforming and innovating its educational and learner development model, and creating a unique Chinese path for the development of open universities.

Someone once asked whether RTVUs will still exist when higher education becomes popularised.

Today, the OUC has answered this question with real numbers. Currently, the number of registered undergraduates and junior college students at the OUC has reached more than 4 million, accounting for about 10% of the total number of students enrolled in higher education in the country. "We are an important link in the process of building an education power and lifelong learning system. We cannot be replaced by any university,” Cao Guoyong, executive deputy secretary of the OUC, said.

By He Jing and Yuan Chunlin, China Youth Daily