Publication Information: Jing Degang. 2020. New Mission for Open Universities Based on a Vision of Lifelong Education. Distance Education in China (3): 1-4.

Abstract: Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, online education has been brought into sharp focus. What historical mission should open universities that use online education take on? This essay is a brief review of the operational history and experiences of open universities from the perspectives of history and reality.

In line with the new demands of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and the fourth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, seven major historical missions have been put forward as part of a vision for shaping an educational system serving lifelong learning for all. This article also makes recommendations for how to seize this historical opportunity and strengthen areas of weakness for development. Only in this way can we fulfil the new mission, promote new development, and realise leapfrog development.

Key Words: Lifelong Education; Open Universities; Historical Mission; China Education Modernisation 2035; Education Power; Internet Plus Education; Internet Plus University; Learning Society

The fourth plenary session of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China clearly indicated that it is necessary “to build an education system of lifelong education for all,” “to leverage the advantages of online education and artificial intelligence, to innovate education and learning methods, to accelerate the development of a more open and flexible education system that is suitable for everyone, and to build a learning society” (19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, 2019, p.26). These are the new demands for education and the new mission of open universities in the new era.

On 15 January 2020, Sun Chunlan, a member of the Standing Committee of the 19th CPC Central Committee Political Bureau and vice premier of the State Council, recognised the Open University of China’s (OUC) 40 years of educational effort rooted in the vast land of China and spoke highly of the construction of a national credit bank for vocational education during her survey of the university. She put forward a slew of explicit requirements for the university’s future reform and development and for teaching quality, evaluation and assessment, education for special groups, universities for older adults, the credit bank, and the teaching of political and ideological courses. Vice Premier Sun Chunlan underlined the need to “highlight types and features, focus on improving quality, and promote the effective implementation of reform tasks for vocational education” (China Education Daily, 2020). Vice Premier Sun Chunlan’s survey and inspection of the OUC embodied the attention that the Party Central Committee and the State Council pays to building an education system to support lifelong learning for all and their concern for the OUC. Over 4 million teachers and students of open universities have been greatly inspired and encouraged. Vice Premier Sun Chunlan’s inspection has mobilised the construction of an education system that supports lifelong learning for all in China, and is a significant milestone in the OUC’s reform and development.

I. Precious experiences of the OUC in its 40 years of operation

The predecessor of open universities were the radio and TV universities founded with the approval of Comrade Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of reform and opening up in China. During his meeting with then UK Prime Minister Edward Heath in October 1977, Deng Xiaoping learned that the UK Open University had cultivated many talented professionals via radio and TV. He immediately said that we should also speed up the development of education in China by means of radio and TV. In March 1978, the Ministry of Education and the Central Bureau of Broadcasting Administration submitted the Report on Preparation for and the Establishment of TV Universities to vice premiers Fang Yi and Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping reviewed the report and gave his approval. With his approval, radio and TV universities in China came into being. On 6 February 1979, a grand opening ceremony for China Central Radio and TV University and open universities in 28 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the Central Government (except Tibet and Taiwan) was held in Beijing. The opening ceremony was broadcast throughout China by China Central Television Station. Vice Premier Wang Renzhong from the State Council, Minister of Education Jiang Nanxiang, and a great number of departments and commissions of the Central Government attended the grand event. The curtain was thus lifted on 40 years of trials and hardships and enthusiastic efforts by radio and TV universities (aka open universities) in China (Yang Zhijian, 2019). Since the beginning of the 21st century, China’s economy and society have been developing at a rapid pace, and the internet has taken the place of radios and TVs. In order to adapt to the new situation in the new era, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council promulgated the National Outline for Medium and Long-term Educational Reform and Development (2010-2020) in July 2010, in which it clearly stated that it was necessary to “create an improved learning system with tolerant entry requirements but strict exit requirements and to successfully operate open universities.” In June 2012, the Ministry of Education published Approval for the Establishment of the Open University of China, founded through China Central Radio & TV University, and on 31 July, the Open University of China was solemnly unveiled at the Great Hall of the People as a major educational project of the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China.

Over the last 40 years, open universities (radio and TV universities) have kept growing, forged a path forward, and pursued transformational development. A total of 20.5 million students have been admitted over the past 40 years and 15.12 million of them graduated. The scope of enrolment and the number of graduates and active students account for more than 10 percent of the corresponding numbers in higher education in China. Many majors have been added and improved. The 238 majors and special orientations currently offered cover 10 different disciplines , including science, engineering, agriculture, medicine, literature, management, economics, and law. The universities are run in a more flexible way that integrates both online and offline approaches. They provide degree education and non-degree education for the young, the middle-aged, and the old. Their services are popular from workshops and fields to the western borders and military camps. We have no end of classrooms to cover the vast territory of our motherland, and have made running universities rooted in the vast land of China a reality.

Over the last 40 years, open universities (radio and TV universities) have made great and innovative efforts. We found solutions to the problem of degree redemption for the two generations born in the 1950s and 1960s and a successful path based on “advanced communication method + master teachers with outstanding teaching.” We have established the fine tradition of “respecting learning to benefit all and providing education to all people without discrimination,” developed the human resources needed for reform and opening-up, accumulated experience for higher education in China at a low cost and with high efficiency, and explored a lifelong education model that can provide widespread education in poorer countries. As then premier of the State Council Li Peng said, “Don’t look down on radio and TV universities. They play a role you regular institutions of higher education can’t play” (Compiled Education Chronicle of Events of China Central Radio and TV University, 2019, p.219).

Looking back over the 40 years of history of open universities, we have accumulated some very precious experiences.

Firstly, the Party’s leadership is key. The university can achieve glorious results by making earnest efforts to strengthen Party leadership, to thoroughly implement the Party’s education policies, and to follow the educational orientation of socialism with Chinese characteristics. All of our achievements can be attributed to the leadership, concern, and support of the Party Central Committee and the Leading Party Group of the Ministry of Education, as well as the solidarity and concerted efforts of all Party member officials and teachers and students. Without the Party’s leadership, there would be no open universities.

Secondly, fostering virtue through education is fundamental responsibility. Schools are where people are cultivated. In order to find solutions to the fundamental problems of what kind of people to cultivate, how to cultivate them, and who to cultivate them for, the key is to foster virtue through education. This is both a requirement from the Party and the state and an expectation of the people. Over the past 40 years, we have performed the fundamental task of fostering virtue through education in the practice and governance of the university and nurtured a new generation of capable young people who are well-prepared to join the socialist cause. This is essential experience for successfully operating open universities.

Thirdly, maintaining established superiorities and innovations is the prerequisite. Over the past 40 years, the OUC’s distinctive advantages of “advanced communication methods + master teachers with outstanding teaching” and the fine tradition of “respecting learning to benefit all and providing education for all people without discrimination” have been established. This is an important base for successfully running open universities in the new era. We must never rest on our laurels and stop advancing forward. We must continue to make reforms and innovations, which are the inexhaustible driving force behind the transformational development of open universities. Only by sticking to established strengths and innovations can we successfully run open universities in the new era.

Fourthly, our educational system is our advantage. Over the past 40 years, open universities have overcome various difficulties and challenges by depending on the advantages of the system, which is able to synergise central and local initiatives and gather quality educational resources nationwide. This is a centralised embodiment of the obvious advantages of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is a fundamental principle for us to uphold in further motivating the vitality and vigour of the education system.

Fifthly, teachers and students are the foundation that we depend on. They are the source of strength for the university’s development. By relying closely on teachers and students and based on the standards of good teachers with ideals and convictions, moral sentiment, solid knowledge, and benevolence (the four qualities proposed by General Secretary Xi Jinping), we have strengthened the construction of teaching teams and fostered a large number of excellent teachers. We have deepened student-centric education and teaching reform and continued to optimise the learning environment for students in order to create a stronger sense of belonging to the university. We depend on teachers and students for the operation and governance of the university, which is a major foundation for us to successfully run open universities.