Building a learning society is critical to meeting current development demands. It is also an important component of realising the Two Centenary Goals and the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. Based on the requirements of “improving open universities” and a pilot “exploring the building mode of open universities,” both part of the National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020), the Open University of China (OUC) has made positive explorations into the Chinese mode of open universities, and fruitful achievements, rendering powerful assistance to the building of a learning society in China.

I. The relationship between open universities and the building of a learning society

(I) Analysing the meaning of the theory of a learning society

The famous American scholar Robert M. Hutchins was the first to raise the notion of “the learning society” in his book The Learning Society, published in 1968. He argued that society provided adult men and women at different stages of their life development with adult education they could participate in in their spare time, and that the transformation of social value itself could be promoted through learning, self-fulfillment, the perfection of human nature, and other such objectives with help all social sectors. After that, a host of scholars discussed on “what a learning society is,” “what role a learning society plays,” “whether a learning society can come true,” and other issues, all of which further developed the theory. Some of them include Donald Schon, IlvanIllich, Boshier. R, Torsten Husén, Ranson, S, Peter Jarvis, and Van der Zee. These scholars expect to build a learning society to meet the diverse learning needs of all learners and advance lifelong education. This will contribute to sustainable development for individuals, education, and all of society. The theory of a learning society even became the force behind educational reform and social progress across the world in the 1980s and 1990s, and was promoted by the UNESCO, EU, and other international organisations.

A learning society is like a “learning community,” a concept dominated by lifelong learning theory, which emphasises offering all members of society learning opportunities throughout their life which help them fulfill their individual potential. The following are the basic principles of a learning society:

1. Lifelong learning stresses that learning covers the entire life of a person, and needs to fit in with the individual’s and society’s development.
2. It’s necessary to include the participation of all the stakeholders, including not only the learners, but also the providers of learning.
3. The natural integration of all kinds of lifelong learning resources favourable to advancing lifelong learning in cities, including natural and social resources
4. Coordinated development and overall social improvements through study and character development on the one hand, and, on the other hand, providing individuals with a better quality of life by enhancing their social environment through learning.

(II) Interpreting the concept of open universities

The philosophy of a university is at the core of its foundation, and where its spirit and soul lie; open universities’ core concept is “openness.” Lord Geoffrey Crowther, the first honourary principal of Open University UK, expressed it specifically as the openness of people, the openness of places, the openness of methods, and the openness of ideas. “Openness” in these four respects is the most essential educational philosophy for all open universities in the world to follow. Open universities in different countries may have even richer interpretations of this central philosophy, depending on their development background and needs.

As far as China is concerned, open universities based on the former radio and TV system have come into being in response the trending construction and development of the world’s open universities. The Opinions of the Ministry of Education on Improving Open Universities makes clear that open universities shall establish an open, flexible, quality, and easy educational philosophy led by the theory of lifelong education. Modern information technologies are fully leveraged to innovate school operations and organisation in an effort to build open universities into a new type of universities that supports lifelong learning for all. Thus, the open university is both a lifelong learning university built for high level academic research development, pursuing the same values as other “regular” universities, as well as possessing more “open” missions through its commitment to positively popularise educational philosophy, promote equal access to education, adhere to ideological thoughts regarding holistic education and education for all, and meet the needs of the people’s lifelong comprehensive development and society’s sustainable development. The Open University of China, as an example, has proposed five core philosophies of openness, responsibility, quality, diversification, and internationalisation in the Development Plan of the Open University of China, which was approved by the Leading Party Group of the Ministry of Education. “Openness” is a programmatic idea and a rational understanding of what a university should be. “Responsibility” is a guiding idea and a rational pursuit of what a university should do. “Quality,” “diversification,” and “internationalisation” are ideas that have something to do with the development of universities, and are the guiding principles for running schools. Of them, “quality” is the core and the lifeline, while “diversification” and “internationalization” are the foundation.

(III) Sorting out the relationship between open universities and the building of a learning society

The strategic goal proposed in the National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) is that “education will be modernised, and a learning society will be shaped to facilitate China joining the ranks of countries rich in human resources by 2020.” That has been highlighted as part of continuing education which “energetically develops modern distance education,” “puts up a ‘bridge’ for lifelong learning to meet diverse individuals’ needs for learning and development, and improves open universities.” Comrade Liu Yandong said at the unveiling ceremony of the OUC, OU Beijing, and OU Shanghai that, “Open universities are major breakthroughs for education to serve national development, improve national competencies, build a lifelong education system, shape a learning society, forge a path toward meeting people’s diverse learning needs, and promote education equality.” The historical position and important role of open universities have been clarified as promoting learning for all, realising equal access to education, and promoting the construction of a learning society. Based on the above analysis of the meaning of the theory of a learning society, and the concepts of open universities, it is found that they are mutually dependent and beneficial. They have the same vision of “learning for all, anywhere, all the time,” and always adhere to the notion of lifelong learning for all. As the main pillar, carrier, means, and path for building a learning society, open universities energetically promote the formation and development of a learning society; the concept of building a learning society is leading the development of open universities to enable them to fulfill their missions more effectively.