Strategies and Logic for Continuing Education Reform in the New Era

Wang Yongfeng, OUC

The year 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up in China. Great changes have taken place in the education field in China over the past 40 years and Chinese education has now entered the middle and upper echelons of education around the world. Great progress has also been made in continuing education. However, we must also acknowledge that problems still exist in continuing education and that its position as the weak link of education remains unchanged. In a recent special interview with a journalist from People’s Daily, minister of the Ministry of Education (MOE) Chen Baosheng underlined that “Preschool education, special education, online education, and lifelong education are still weak links, and there are still gaps in education between rural and urban areas and between regions, schools, and groups.” Minister Chen’s statement is a reflection of the status quo and problems in the continuing education field. Throughout the history of the 40 years of reform and opening up, reform has been the power behind the development of, and a consistent topic for the practice of, continuing education in China. As far as degree continuing education is concerned, the reform of continuing education has always been a work in progress, from the establishment of the Radio and TV University and the system of “self-taught examination” to the implementation of “modern distance education project” and the establishment of the Open University.

Today, continuing education is at a new historical starting point where it is faced with a new situation, requirements, opportunities, and challenges. This paper makes fundamental propositions for continuing education reform in the new era in order to explore the relevant logical starting point, core path, and preconditions for reform by focusing on the logic and strategic issues of continuing education reform for the new era. It aims to establish “the proper access” to advance reform and explore a new path for continuing education reform. It also aims to share and learn from peers in academic circles, as well as act as a reference point for relevant decision-makers, researchers, and practitioners.

I. “Developing high quality continuing education that people are satisfied with” is the fundamental proposition for continuing education reform in the new era

Reform is the key to solving all problems in continuing education and implementing the decision of “improving continuing education” raised in the report of the 19th National Party Congress. Reform is necessary in order to develop high quality continuing education that people are satisfied with as part of the pursuit of “people-centric” value. Only reform can help continuing education to realise quality development.

1. “Improving continuing education” is a requirement and logical principle for the reform and development of continuing education

The report of the 19th National Party Congress stated that, “We will improve continuing education, step up efforts to build a learning society, and promote the well-rounded development of all our people.” This is the first time that the word “improvement” has been included in the Party’s top documents concerning continuing education; previously, the wording was a variant of “develop continuing education” or “step up efforts to develop continuing education.” The proposal of “improving continuing education” indicates the Party and the state’s new understanding of and requirements for continuing education. It is the logical principle and strategic direction to promote continuing education reform in the years ahead, and also marks that continuing education in China has since entered a new development period. The core feature of this development period is achieving the transformation from multiple and large scale development to high quality and intensive development.

A review of the history shows that 1978 was the start of the first “new era” for the development of continuing education in China. A radio and TV university system covering urban and rural areas all over China came into being after 1978 and plays an important role in continuing education in China to this day. The new decision made about continuing education at the 19th National Party Congress in 2017 has initiated the second “new era” for continuing education in China. “The second new era” of continuing education presents both opportunities and challenges. It kicks off against a background in which China has become the world’s second largest economy, when China is moving closer to the world’s central stage, when China is stepping up its efforts to transform itself from a large country to one with powerful human resources, and when mass higher education has become universal. Whether in terms of meeting the need for lifelong learning for all in order to promote balanced development in education, and improve human capital and the overall performance of the nation or in terms of the strategy of building a powerful education market in response to the people’s desire for a better life and to serve the Chinese dream of realising the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people, continuing education has embraced the new situation and requirements. It is faced with new missions and tasks.

2. Realising “high quality development” is the key to making rational choices and a scientific plan for the strategy of continuing education reform

In order to answer questions such as how to advance continuing education reform in an effective way, how to make a plan, what to start with, where the problems lies and what the difficulties may be, it is necessary to touch upon the design, choices, and implementation of the strategy of continuing education reform. The plan for and choices surrounding the reform strategy are a strategic issue in and of themselves. The strategy is closely related to the success and failure of the reform in terms of its results. A realistic reform strategy can achieve the expected results, whereas an unrealistic reform strategy may affect the results and progress of reform and even cause losses. Therefore, the issue of reform strategy needs to be taken into consideration from the perspective of strategy.

The most important factor in the scientific design and rational choice of the reform strategy is to choose the right focus, foothold, and starting point. “Quality” is the core “key word” for all the topics of today’s reform and also “the strong note of the era” and strategic base point for the development of continuing education reform. We should adhere to the principle of “high quality development”, establish the idea that “only high quality is really good”, and enhance the collective sense that “continuing education should be high quality education.” This is the fundamental standard by which we should judge and choose specific reform measures, and it is also the way for us to write effective article of continuing education reform. The realisation of high quality development should be the core objective of advancing continuing education reform. We must insist on quality first and make it a core part of our evaluation. The outstanding problems and systematic obstacles that restrict the quality development of continuing education must be accurately identified and solved. This is a shortcut for evaluating and making decisions about the reform strategy of continuing education.

II. The logical starting point of reform is to understand continuing education as “a separate type of education”

The advancement of continuing education reform should begin with establishing a logical starting point. The first is to understand and grasp the concept and meaning of continuing education, in order to clearly understand its positioning and boundaries. In the past, reforms swung without positioning and they were left as they were without much progress. This may be related to the failure to grasp the inherent characteristics of the object of reform from the very beginning or the failure to establish the boundaries of reform.

1. Continuing education as an independent “education type” has been defined from a legal perspective

Article 17 of the Education Law of the People’s Republic of China states that “China practices an education system comprised of preschool, primary, secondary and higher education.” Article 20 states that “China practices Vocational and continuing education and the development of various forms of continuing education is encouraged by the country in order to give citizens the chance to receive proper education in politics, economics, culture, science, and business, to promote the recognition of different kinds of learning results, and to promote lifelong learning for all.” In line with these relevant articles, further analysis shows that continuing education is a different kind of education in juxtaposition with school education and vocational education. Continuing education as an independent “education type” has been confirmed and solidified. Although they all fall into the category of “education”, school, vocational, and continuing education are clearly defined in terms of labour division and obviously differentiated in terms of functional positioning, training target, training objective, education form, education contents, and institutional system. For example, continuing education serves all citizens, which is what makes it fundamentally different from school education mainly oriented towards the school-age population.

Based on the above analysis, this paper defines “continuing education” as a separate kind of education within China’s education system. The term “continuing education” as used in this paper, if not specifically noted, is automatically recognised as including degree and non-degree continuing education. The relevant polices and measures raised in the research, and the relevant viewpoints and conclusions made, if not specifically noted, are also automatically recognised as being applicable to both degree and non-degree continuing education. This perspective is a cognitive prerequisite for this paper to study and explore issues pertinent to continuing education reform.

In order to advance continuing education reform and plan a reform strategy, it is necessary to further explore the differences and connections between continuing education and other kinds of education based on the well-defined concepts and connotations of continuing education. The first is to analyse and understand the differences between continuing education and school and vocational education by viewing them as different education types and to establish that they are in fact not subordinate to each other or intersecting with each other but equal to each other. The focus should be on understanding the different education systems that they practice. The second is to grasp the connection between them by keeping in mind that they are all just different “types” of education. They operate within the same education system, just with different functions and division of labour. There is no great gulf between them and students from each type of education can, in theory, be mutually recognised, interconnected, and transferred through credit, school registration, and degree i by following certain rules or agreements.

2. It is necessary to establish what continuing education is and is not

According to the related articles of Education Law, there should no longer be any doubt as to “what continuing education is” and “what continuing education is not” once we have a deep understanding of the position of continuing education as a “separate kind of education”. However, it may be necessary to take specific conditions into consideration. For example, can higher degree continuing education at the undergraduate and junior college level be included in higher education? Open universities fall into the category of continuing education but can they fall into the category of higher education? It is not always easy to find the answers to these questions.

The National Outline for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development (2010-2020) indicates that “Continuing education is an educational activity oriented towards all members of society after their school education, particularly adults, and is an important part of the lifelong learning system.” This is the latest definition of continuing education made in national documents. This definition is linked to the connotation of continuing education described in the Education Law, just from a different perspective. In order to have a good understanding of this definition, we need to clearly define what school education is in the first place. Does school education refer to “education provided by the school,” “education run by school” or something else? This paper will need to answer these questions.
In fact, such an understanding of school education will not suffice. For instance, there is almost no argument on the positioning of open universities in continuing education. However, this also means that open universities are no longer considered “school education” in line with our understanding of the Education Law. Nevertheless, the open university is indeed a university, and it provides and runs education. Therefore, an appropriate understanding of “school education” should be “when a person receives full-time education in various types of schools (campuses) at all levels as a formally registered full-time student.” Only when “school education” is defined in this way can we have a better understanding and grasp of the definition of continuing education put forward in the national education outline, and understand that the positioning of open universities as continuing education is indeed true to facts.

In response to the above questions, this paper hereby proposes a simpler definition. “Continuing education” means “individuals who continue to receive education.” The word “individual” underlines that the majority of learners are part-time registered students or on-the-job students; the word “continuing” emphasises the latest time calculated for one’s completion of receiving full-time education in school (campus) as a formally registered full-time student; the word “education” covers all kinds of new knowledge, new skills, key capacities, and overall performance, mainly referring to all kinds of high quality part-time education for the purposes of promoting individual professional capability, satisfying their own hobbies, and upgrading their degree to get diplomas and degrees (note: part-time education as mentioned here doesn’t exclude full-time learning or represent quality standard different from that of due full-time education).

Based on the simple definition of continuing education, not all of the “school education” currently included in higher education is continuing education. Likewise, higher degree continuing education at the undergraduate and junior college level is not (or does not belong to) “higher education” or “vocational education; conversely, higher education and vocational education don’t include higher degree continuing education. In particular, we should highlight that a “self-taught” examination system exists only as a kind of examination system instead of a form of education. Therefore, self-taught examinations and continuing education are not “on the same level.” These definitions and conclusions are of great importance in understanding this paper’s upcoming discussions and logic.

3. Considering the internal classification of continuing education from different perspectives

It is necessary to grasp the internal classification of continuing education from the following perspectives in order to advance its reform.

(1) From the perspective of learning contents and results, continuing education can be divided into two categories: certificate and non-certificate continuing education. Certificate continuing education can be subdivided into different categories according to the certificates the learners get. Broadly, it can be divided into two categories: degree and non-degree continuing education. More specific divisions lead to many specific categories (see table 1).

It is necessary to point out that some degree continuing education programmes are not necessarily allowed to apply for or grant degrees based on the consideration of this kind of classification. On the contrary, relevant courses from some non-degree continuing education programmes can also be granted credits and they are not necessarily all “non-credit courses.” It is up to institutions (universities) to decide whether degrees are granted without academic degrees or credits granted without degrees.

(2) From the perspective of different learning approaches, continuing education can be divided into distance (network, online, correspondence) continuing education, face-to-face (centralised learning in communities, auditing in the classrooms, and night classes) continuing education, and blended continuing education.

(3) From the perspective of different types of learners, continuing education can be divided into continuing education for on-the-job personnel, continuing education for the unemployed (retired), continuing education for professionals and technicians, and continuing education for other groups, such as continuing education for civil servants, workers, farmers, and military personnel.

(4) From the perspective of school operation, continuing education can be divided into continuing education run by schools and continuing education run by non-schools (social continuing education and training institutions or industries and enterprises). The schools can be subdivided into full-time schools engaged in continuing education, such as open universities (RTVUs), adult universities, and universities engaged in part-time continuing education, such as regular universities (including regular undergraduate universities and tertiary vocational universities). Regular universities offer continuing education and serve the social public mainly by setting up relevant continuing education schools or conducting continuing education training projects or give courses inside their relevant departments.

(5) From the perspective of talent development, continuing education can be divided into professional (occupational) capacity oriented continuing education, technical skills oriented continuing education, academic (innovative research) oriented continuing education, and continuing education oriented towards the improvement of citizen performance. Of these, professional (occupational) capacity is an advantage and characteristic of continuing education, technical skills is the weak link, the academic orientation is somewhat neglected, and the citizen performance improvement orientation is an area of growth.