Chengdu Radio and Television University (Chengdu RTVU) is perhaps one of the smallest universities in China, its main campus covering an area of only 5 mu, equivalent to 3,333 square metres, and with only two six-storey buildings.

From a national point of view, "small" is a common feature of the RTVUs. Many provincial level RTVUs cover an area of no more than 100 mu. For example, Liaoning RTVU has an area of 31 mu, Gansu RTVU 21 mu, and Qinghai RTVU 17 mu. Many people in the education field say, "RTVUs are smaller than primary schools, primary schools are larger than RTVUs."

However, as an important part of higher education in China, especially life-long education, the scale and teaching coverage of the RTVUs extend much further than many regular colleges and universities. For example, the former China Central Radio and Television University and the present Open University of China(OUC) set up 44 branches nationwide, relying on provincial level RTVUs and local open universities, and has a total of 3,510,000 registered students.

Within China's complex and chaotic educational system, it once seemed that RTVUs kept such a low profile as to be almost forgotten. What many don’t know is that this "small" but "big" university is now undergoing the most difficult transformation in its history.

Once the RTVUs had finished their task of providing degree education for working people at a lower cost of entry the educational qualification payback period came to an end and the positioning of distance education started to be questioned.

Zhao Gang has been working at Chengdu RTVU for the past nine years. He believes that this will be the last unit that he ever works at. However, when he first joined he was rather unhappy.
In 2009, when Zhao Gang had been the vice president at Chengdu University for three years, he learnt that he was going to be transferred to president of Chengdu RTVU, so he applied to his superior to postpone his transfer. At the time, he insisted that he could achieve more only if he stayed at a regular university. His superior was surprised by this and replied: "There are people who don’t want to be promoted?"

Some people may not know that the RTVUs once had a brilliant past. Shortly after the end of the “Cultural Revolution”, many things needed to be done in higher education. The shortage of talented workers had given rise to a string pursuit of knowledge and educational qualifications. After studying distance education in the United Kingdom, Deng Xiaoping decided to set up a Radio and Television University in China in order to fill the gaps in higher education with distance education.

A former senior president of one of the RTVU can still recall the state of learning scene at RTVUs in the 1980s: There was no teacher standing by the blackboard with chalk in hand. Instead, there was only a black and white TV set, which broadcast lectures by famous lecturers from Peking University, Tsinghua University, and other top universities, while dozens of students stared at the square black box, taking notes in their notebooks.

However, this learning style did not last long. With the growing popularity of the Internet, TV sets and radios have been replaced by computers. Thanks to the explosion in the availability of information brought about by the internet and the popularisation of higher education, the period when it was necessary to compensate for the lack of degree education ended and the positioning of distance education in RTVUs was increasingly brought into question.

“In the past, the orientation of distance education was very clear i.e. compensational education. However, after fulfilling the task of providing compensational education to the public, the new positioning of distance education was not clear." In an interview with Online Learning magazine, Chen Geng, deputy secretary general of the Modern Distance Education Collaboration Team of National Colleges and Universities, said that a different orientation will result in different training standards: “Therefore, there is an urgent need for us to define an orientation and establish corresponding quality standards."
When he received the transfer notice, Zhao Gang, who had been engaged in the field of education for decades, said that "I really did not know what an RTVU was". He had to force himself to search for information about RTVUs. At a meeting before taking his new office, Zhao Gang’s superior asked him to talk about his views towards RTVUs. He lacked confidence and tentatively suggested that, "we may have to reform". His superior solemnly nodded his head when he heard Zhao Gang’s words.

In fact, from degree education to non-degree education, from distance education to community education, the germ of reform has been deeply implanted in the RTVU system.

The establishment of a learning society represented by community education is the future development direction of the education model.

Six months after Yang Ziyan became president of Qinghai RTVU, he found that he was not “at leisure” at the RTVU as his friends or family thought he was.

With the improvement of the socialist market economy, the separation of the labor market meant that Qinghai RTVU no longer had a stable source of students. In a personal statement, Yang Ziyan said that he was presented with a whole raft of new challenges: unstable student resources, differentiation and restructuring of the educational network, and the risk of investment in high tech equipment. However, the peculiarities of the internal management, operation mechanism and external school operational model of the RTVU system mean that the work of an RTVU is complicated and trivial. It is hard for a layman to understand it or for a professional to explain it clearly.

However, thanks to state-level documentation released last year, the direction of RTVU reform has gradually become clear.

In July 2016, nine ministries and departments including the Ministry of Education (MOE), Ministry of Civil Affairs, Ministry of Science and Technology, Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, Ministry of Culture, General Administration of Sport of China, the Communist Youth League, and the China Science and Technology Association jointly issued Opinions on Further Promoting the Development of Community Education (hereinafter referred to as Opinions). This document can be seen as a milestone in the advancement of community education. The last time community education was deployed on a national level can be dated back to 2004 when the MOE issued Several Opinions on Promoting Community Education.

"Community education is by no means elite education. Rather, it is a kind of inclusive education for all residents," Chen Nailin, honorary chairman of the Special Committee on National Community Education, stated. This is in line with the strategic task of the construction of a learning society put forward by the eighteenth CPC national congress. As an opportunity to promote universal education, community education is also an important breakthrough in the transformation of RTVUs.

Since the establishment of the community college in 2009, Zhao Gang was able to experience the whole process of the transformation of Chengdu RTVU into a community education college. In his opinion, the establishment of a learning society represented by community education is also the future development direction of the education model. Zhao Gang told the reporter from China Youth Online that, according to the latest statistics from the United Nations, the average life expectancy in China is 76.3 years. If we only pay attention to school-based education, then people only spend 22 years of their life learning. “That leaves a whole 54 years with no access to education," Zhao Gang said. "Education is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. If we only sprint for the first few hundred meters, can we win the race?"

Zhou Yanjun, deputy director of the MOE Community Education Research and Training Centre, believes that the development of a community educational mode that relies on RTVUs will become a trend.

In October 2010, the MOE Human Resources Division approved the establishment of the MOE Community Education Research and Training Centre, which shares the office of the OUC’s Community Education Research Centre. According to statistics, guidance and service centres, or community colleges, for community education have been set up in 17 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities in local RTVUs around China with the responsibility of providing guidance, services and coordination for community education, as well as offering vertical management and guidance for community education within its jurisdiction. A complete system of community education based on RTVUs has also been created in the eastern part of the country and some western cities, as represented by Chengdu.

In 2016, Chengdu community college system opened a total of 2,462 public classes and issued two learning maps called "Typical Chengdu, Public Classroom.” The courses include photography, baking, travel, and tea culture, and serve more than three million people annually.

Zhao Gang now feels lucky to work for the RTVU. "If I stayed in an institutional university, I would have never understood the importance of lifelong learning and community education.”

RTVU students cover every corner of the country.

"Our souls might keep moving forward but our bodies can’t keep up.” This is a joke that Zhao Gang often tells his colleagues. Behind the rich and colourful 2,462 public welfare classes, weak financial support is still a problem. Vice president of Chengdu RTVU, Diao Yuanyuan, said that the annual financial allowance is increasing year on year. However if the financial funds allocated by the municipal government were split to all citizens within the jurisdiction, each one would be allocated no more than one yuan.

Zhou Yanjun pointed out that financial support and the construction of laws and regulations are the two main bottlenecks facing community education and they need to be addressed. Breakthroughs should be made on these two issues in order to usher in the healthy development of community education. In the third section of Opinions, "Safeguard Measures", a 300-word paragraph elaborated the issue of "effective market intervention" and “broadening funding channels.”

In his opinion, the community education market should be gradually opened up under the overall coordination of the government. Measures such as government purchasing services, project outsourcing, entrusted management, and expenses and subsidies should be taken to encourage the development of different types of schools at all levels, and allow social education and training institutions, social organizations and social capital to actively enter the field, and create a transparent, open and fair competitive environment. At the same time, in the process of market operation, an independent third party organisation should be introduced and a monitoring mechanism must be established to conduct auditing and verification of the funds and projects, as well as post-project assessment.

Zhuang Jian believes that the key problem is the boundary and extent of public services provided by the government. "If the boundary is clear, then services that fall beyond the boundary can be handed over to the market," he said. “Therefore, the exploration of a community education investment mechanism in which the cost of learning is reasonably shared by government investment, social donation and the learners themselves is an important next step, and is also a manifestation of the professional development of community education."

A Community College in Qingyang district, Chengdu, launched a table tennis class in cooperation with a professional fitness organisation and a parent and child games class in cooperation with a professional custody agency. Learners will be charged an appropriate fee for the advanced stages of the course. Throughout Chengdu, a public welfare class teaching the elderly to use mobile phones that was developed by Chengdu Community College in cooperation with China Telecom has been ongoing for nearly three months. The classes are located in China Telecom’s network centres, which are spread throughout the city. The tutors are staff who work at China Telecom stores. The senior citizens can attend the classes any time. Chengdu Community College and China Telecom mutually agreed that the elderly should be exempt from the fees.

Currently, the main objects of community education are the very young and the very old, with a relatively weaker demand from the young and middle-aged population. Zhao Gang believes that this is natural: "In the early stages of the development of community education, there is not much pressure to create balance between different groups.” However, courses tailored for white-collar groups are quietly being developed.

In Zhao Gang’s opinion, the more pressing issue is national-level legislation on community education. Chengdu Community Education Promotion Regulations recently received the approval of the provincial level people's congress and was formally implemented on February 1, 2017.

"At the national level, the long-planned Lifelong Education Law should be introduced as soon as possible,” Zhou Yanjun said. "Laws and regulations represent the will of a country and the local government. The only true means of eliminating the bottlenecks restricting the development of community education is legislation and strict enforcement of the law."

Now, the unpleasant emotions Zhao Gang once had when he went to work for the RTVU have gone for good. He is proud to tell others that the objects of the education he engaged in are not like those in the institutional universities. They are not confined within walls. They come from every corner of the city and country.

By Xuan Zengxing,