From analyzing the scale, age profile, occupational composition, regional distribution and post level of the learners in the Open University of China (OUC), it can be seen that the OUC is a mega-university with millions of learners, a university targeting the general population and embedded in society. The mission of the OUC is great, as well as formidable, for it bears on its shoulders the significant social responsibility of improving the quality of a wide range of workers, boosting the mass higher education and fairness in education and promoting the construction of a lifelong learning society for all people, and it is in this that lies the important difference between the OUC and the regular institutions of higher education, which focus on elite education.

Such numerous learners come from varied and complex backgrounds, bringing multifarious learning motivations and needs, which require the OUC to urgently transform, reconstruct and upgrade on the basis of its experience of running a radio and TV university for more than 30 years.

1. Suggestions for the government

Different from the regular institutions of higher education, the OUC is an innovative university that undertakes an unprecedented mission and tasks, needing the government to pay more attention and give guidance and provide great support in policy and finance. But, at the moment, the policy and regulation set by the government in this field is vague, and the financial investment is not enough, thus heavily influencing the effective functioning of the OUC. In view of this, suggestions are specifically made as follows:

(1) To set up a clear and definite policy and fix the orientation of the OUC’s functions

According to the spirit of the speech by State Councillor Councilor Liu Yandong in the Inaugural Meeting of the Open Universities on 31 July 2012, the OUC is “an important approach to meet the multifarious learning needs of the masses, promote fairness in education, overcome the disadvantages of exam-oriented education and implement quality-oriented education, an important support towards constructing a lifelong education system and building a learning society, an important measure for education to serve the development of our country and improve the quality of the whole nation”, therefore, it needs the government to further provide specific support and construction by setting up a clear and definite policy. In that way, the country should take charge of the whole plan of the construction of the lifelong education system and a learning society, work out comprehensive planning and resource allocation, carry out the implementation of the regulations and laws, organizational structure, service system, learning resource, online platform and varied access to a lifelong learning society for the whole people, and make the OUC principal agent to become a new carrier and new entry point under the new trend “to benefit the people, promote justice and enhance national strength”.

(2) To increase the financial investment and improve the educational and teaching quality of the OUC 

According to the data from 35 provincial Radio and TV Universities’ (RTVUs) financial investigations and surveys and China Educational Finance Statistical Yearbook, and comparing the proportion of national financial investment in education in provincial RTVUs and regular institutions of higher education, it can be found that, from 2009 to 2011, the growth of the proportion in regular institutions of higher education was bigger than that in provincial RTVUs, and in 2011, the proportion in regular institutions of higher education was almost 10 percentage points higher than that in provincial RTVUs, and that the tuition fees account for more than 50% of the income in provincial RTVUs, over 20 percentage points higher than the proportion in regular institutions of higher education. Such a financial investment structure explains that the income from tuition fees plays an important role in supporting the operation of the OUC, and relevantly, it also reflects that the institutional development of the open universities needs urgently an increase in national financial investment under the realistic condition that the tuition fees charged by RTVUs are increased for the learning needs of common workers.

Additionally, if we want to satisfy the individual and multifarious needs of the numerous and widespread learners, we should stay focused on constructing an information environment and take advantage of information technology to deliver the resources to them, enabling all the members of society to share the resources; we should improve the learner support according to their needs, take advantage of information technology to make up for the many educational and teaching problems brought about by distances in time and space, reinforce the tutorial during the learning process of all the members of society to improve their learning quality and develop their individual capacity, as the total costs spent on developing learners by the OUC is far more than that in regular education.

Therefore, we suggest our government should set up special funds, establishing the regulation of an equal appropriation for the students in continuing education, consider continuing education as equal to regular higher education and higher vocational education and eliminate the phenomenon of marginalization, to better promote  educational equality in society and realize the equalization of opportunity, resource and service in education.

2. Suggestions for the university

The OUC is a cross-regional and cross-industrial university with its school system covering urban and rural areas throughout the country, and mainly consists of headquarters, branches, schools and learning centres, and all the components should reconsider our learners. According to the analysis of survey results, the learners of the OUC are more complex whether from the perspective of essential features, such as age spectrum, geographical distribution, occupational distribution and others, or from the perspective of learning features, such as learning motivation, learning needs and so on. Especially in view of the unceasing advance of the transformation of industry in our country and the progress of urbanization, as well as the changing needs required by the development of the national economy and the learning society in the basic qualities and capability that the personnel should have, we need to further recognize the needs of the learners so as to further study how to carry out the reform in education to meet  their needs. In this context, suggestions are specifically made as follows:

(1) To change ideas and concepts, and further improve understanding

To change ideas and concepts means to truly focus on the learners. To start from knowing those who receive our education means to know the learners’ age spectrum, geographical distribution and occupational and job situations, to be clear about the difference between those we educate and the students in regular institutions of higher education, and to redefine the objective of learner  cultivation. The adjustment and reform of the objective of learner cultivation are logical starting points, as well as the destination of the reform in education and teaching of our university.

To further deepen understanding. On one hand, the university should meet the unceasing developing demand for the development and change of China’s economic society; on the other hand, the university should keep up with the pace of the development and widespread use of modern information and technology. Having realized that the function of adult higher education has been shifted from the mass higher education to the construction of all the people’s lifelong learning system, our university should still further reinforce the transformation in the direction of vocational education and lifelong education and their upgrading and rebuilding.

(2) To readjust the direction of major developments and comb through the curriculum system

According to the analysis of survey results, the setting principle of knowledge structure, ability structure and curriculum system for the OUC’s cultivating learners should aim at meeting the needs of practical work and social life, and avoid overemphasising technicality and the systematizing of majors. According to the actual requirement of society and combined with the property and characteristic of the open university, the OUC should readjust the structure of majors and the direction of their development on the basis of relocating the objectives of learner cultivation.

Focusing on the actual learning needs of learners, the OUC should concentrate efforts on the enhancement of learners’ ability and improvement of learners’ skills so as to reflect the direction of the development of majors. “The university should update and reform the curriculum content, deliver the most valuable knowledge to the learners, or in other words, enable the learners to acquire the knowledge most valuable to them”, so as to meet the needs of vocational development, professional skills of personal development and ability to adapt to life.

(3) Exploration and formation of a web-based learner cultivation model

From the practical evidence of pilot schemes carried out by the OUC, much reform work has already been in hard times and deep waters, a lot of problems and contradictions are underlying, correlative and complex. The reform of the learner cultivation model is one of them. The OUC should reform the current model of teaching and learning from a perspective of strategy development. Based on a mixed teaching model, a model of learner-centred education should be established, in which the learners study with their initiative, and the distance supporting system and face to face teaching are connected. At the same time, there should be a focus on a tendency towards an all-online teaching model. “Online education teams should be built up based on a programme for every course to provide online guidance on learning, online assistant learning, online learning promotion, and online teaching activities. The online learning space, which is adapted to self-directed learning needs and can cover the whole learning process, should be established based on students’ online learning. With the aim of encouraging students to study with their initiative and willingly, and enhancing their ability and interests in study, a testing model should be reformed to develop formative assessment which is web-based”. The examination model, combining formative assessment with summative assessment, should be formed. Reform and innovation of a web-based learner cultivation model against the background of a Internet age should be explored.

This article is taken from the journal “Distance Education in China”, 2014, 9

The report authors: Wang Ying, Zhao Tingting, Zhu Yu, Wang Li, Wei Shunping, Qi Kun, and Zhang Fenglong, “Research and Practice of Teaching Quality Assurance System of the OUC” research group