III. The core route of reform is to practice problem-oriented “combined boxing” integrating top-level designs and key breakthroughs

The core of a scientific reform strategy for continuing education is to answer the question of what we should do. This paper asserts that the core path should be based on outstanding problems and difficult system and institution problems. It should adhere to the integration of top-level designs and overall planning with key breakthroughs and part priorities and practice a kind of “combined boxing” aimed at fixed strategic targets in response to the current state of continuing education.

1. A review of the existing problems in general and in part

Great progress and achievements have indeed been made in continuing education in China. However, an in-depth analysis reveals that some achievements can also be regarded as problems. Enrolment scale is one such example. 2.2961 million students enrolled in online degree education at the undergraduate and junior college levels in the 67 pilot regular universities in 2016. Such large enrolment has put pressure on the universities and made it hard to ensure the quality of talent development. Therefore, an analysis of existing problems in continuing education has to be made from the perspective of both grasping the outstanding and fundamental problems and further understanding hot issues that are drawing attention from leaders, social public, experts, and students.

First, there are quite a few problems, contradictions, and challenges in continuing education. These problems include unbalanced and inadequate development at the top level, uncoordinated and asynchronous development of degree and non-degree continuing education at the middle level, and inaccurate positioning, low quality, bad reputation, poor quality, unclear characteristics, insufficient vitality, and weak teaching team at the bottom level. This reform aims to solve these problems and remove these obstacles. To this end, more attention should be paid to finding out “the problems behind the problems”, discovering the complicated relations and connections between different problems, phenomena, and causes, and identifying the systematic and institutional causes of these problems. Overall, this will allow us to find a “one stop” solution to a range of problems.

The overall existing problems are mainly caused by a lack of unified top level design and a lack of systematic coordination at the national level. This is a fundamental problem restricting the reform of continuing education and also the root of a number of problems, such as incomplete laws and regulations in the field of continuing education, the imperfect leadership system, backward guiding ideology in school operation, and insufficient funds. Compared with other types of education, such as higher education and vocational education, continuing education is seriously lagging behind. Although continuing education has a long history and has a solid foundation and rich experience in system building in terms of practical exploration and innovation of its models, progress on the construction of a unified system with long-term guiding significance at the national level is basically at zero. To date, no special continuing education laws have been promulgated at the national level and no relevant special department regulations, development plans or daily management regulations have been issued to coordinate the overall development of continuing education (including degree and non-degree continuing education) at the MOE level. There is a lack of common understanding and effective system support for coordination between the MOE and other relevant commissions, industries, and local authorities with regards to the business and management of continuing education. The lack of special law and regulation systems leads to insufficient support for the reform and development of continuing education. This weak coordination has restricted long-term development.

Second, the scale of degree continuing education at some regular universities is too big to be brought under control. The past few years have seen an excessively rapid increase in the scale of online education enrolment at a number of individual pilot regular universities with low value diplomas, a low number of academic degrees, and low student success rate. Problems such as redirection of funds, the transfer of rights to school operation, and difficulty in effective supervision of teaching behaviours are becoming increasingly apparent and have drawn attention from the public and the media. These have become hot issues and focused problems in the domain of continuing education. It is difficult to try to settle the problems facing degree continuing education in regular universities using traditional thought and usual practice. In terms of implementation strategy, after the issuance of the nation’s top level designs on continuing educationm the reform of continuing education in universities can no longer wait. Instead, it should be planned and deployed simultaneously with the overall top level design for continuing education. Temporary measures may also be acceptable in some cases. Any of this will work only if the starting point is to solve practical problems.

The problem of low quality degree continuing education in some regular universities that has recently become apparent is mainly caused by a “dual track” operating system. Incomplete and imperfect systems and institutions that can ensure and upgrade quality are also a direct cause of these problems. These issues mainly present themselves in the following six respects. The first is that the existing school running system and the requirement of “quality first” have nothing in common, which is favourable to the expansion of enrolment but unfavourable to the improvement of talent development. Many people in society and the media are concerned about this. The second is that a scientific, reasonable, unified, and effective management system for quality and supervision has not yet been established. The relevant quality standards and regulatory systems are imperfect and the policies and regulations are divided. This is embodied especially by the “examination free entrance” admission system. The third is that government public service mechanisms and platform construction need to be strengthened, and there is no available normalised and standardised long-term innovative mechanism. The fourth is that the clearly incomplete and unbalanced fund input system. In face of a sharp increase in funds for the average student in full-time regular higher education, students of degree continuing education have never had such average student expenditure. The fifth is that the tuition system is not rationally or scientifically designed. Tuition fees remain long unchanged and the low fees cannot satisfy the need to upgrade talent development or to cover the cost of school running. The sixth is that there is no simple, easy, direct and effective incentive mechanism available. Although some incentives are written in policies, few have been implemented.

2. The purpose of top level design lies in stepping up efforts to formulate a new national system of continuing education

The construction of a “national system of continuing education” is not a new issue. “Advancing the construction of a national system of continuing education” was proposed early on in the 2011 Work Outline of the Ministry of Education. To this end, this paper asserts that the core objective of top level design for continuing education reform is to construct a new national system of continuing education from the perspective of exploring its reform strategy. This is a fundamental system innovation aimed at ensuring the future long-term development of continuing education. It is necessary to first clarify issues at two levels with regard to the construction of a national system of continuing education. The first is to clarify the construction strategy of national system of continuing education. The second is to clarify the framework and essential factors of national system of continuing education. This paper discusses these issues based on thorough learning and full implementation of the MOE’s work in combination with the new requirements for, and strategies of, continuing education reform in the new era.

The first is to clarify the construction strategy for a national system of continuing education. Although the issue of a national system of continuing education was put on the official agenda as early as in 2011, the MOE has not given further details on the specific meaning, advancement strategy, and construction path of this system. Today, continuing education faces a new theme and environment and the construction of a national system of continuing education should naturally keep pace with the times and make positive innovations. With regard to the construction strategy for this system, we can first set out to organise the research and design of the framework and essential factors of the national system of continuing education, and then organise tools to advance the specific construction and implementation of the system. In the long run, the goal is to establish the content of the national system of continuing education and solidify it through national continuing education law. If there is legislative difficulty in the short term, we can also act according to our ability seek the implementation of a national system of continuing education by way of decree of the State Council or regulation of the MOE. We will do what we can do first, make positive explorations, and advance in a steady way in order to accumulate experience and promote legislation at the national level when conditions are mature.

In addition, we will promote research, resource integration, and talent discovery in the field of continuing education in order to boost cross-functional communication and coordination, the arrangement and summary of local experience, and international cooperation and exchanges. The ultimate goal is to drive the consistent modernisation of the governance system and governance capacity of continuing education through the construction of its new national system. This will provide systematic and institutional guarantees and support for the development of continuing education with Chinese characteristics at the national level, lay a foundation for realising a new continuing education management system with complete systems, school-running standards and forceful supervision, and shape a new continuing education development pattern with reasonable scale and structure and optimised layout.

The second is to clarify the framework and essential factors of a national system of continuing education. This paper hereby presents a framework overview of the national system of continuing education (see figure 1).

The following are discussions on the ten essential factors affecting a national system of continuing education at both the school running level and supervision level.

First, essential factors at the school running level, which include:

(1) Establish a new national school running system for continuing education and promote the integrated development of different forms of continuing education in order to find their respective positions and demonstrate their respective advantages. In order to position continuing education as a separate type of education, we should cancel the existing “adult higher education” system and its corresponding institutional system and establish a new school running system of degree and non-degree continuing education under the new lifelong learning concept. A rational division of labour and positioning between regular universities, adult universities, and open universities (RTVUs) in order to offer degree continuing education, gradually promote regular universities and bring into play their teaching advantages in different disciplines, and provide high quality non-degree continuing education oriented towards all members of society.

(2) Establish a unified national “examination-free entrance” system for continuing education and enact “autonomous enrolment, admission according to ability, tolerant entrance, and strict graduation”. Continuing education is open education oriented to all citizens; the option to receive continuing education is both a need and a right. To this end, it is necessary for continuing education to practice a learner-centric examination-free entrance system. On one hand, educational institutions should scientifically and appropriately admit students according to their actual abilities; on the other hand, from the perspective of “quality first”, the government should set a maximum enrolment scale for educational institutions.

(3) Establish a national system for the evaluation of degree continuing education graduates and promote the transfer of focus from “degree” to “capacity”. This system not only directly tests the students themselves but also indirectly reflects the talent development capacity educational institutions. In practice, this system can be implemented by a qualified third party social institution approved by the Ministry of Education under its leadership and management. The evaluation results will be one the most important references for evaluating the quality of educational institutions, and should be pegged to specific policy levers such as funding, resource allocation, entry and exit, and awards and appraisals.

(4) Establish a new national teacher management system for continuing education and foster high quality teaching resources. We will pay attention to the laws and characteristics of continuing education in light of the spirit of the “Opinions of the Central Party Committee and the State Council on Comprehensively Deepening the Reform of Teacher Team Building in the New Era” and establish a new dynamic and open continuing education teacher management system oriented towards society. Practical ability and actual contributions will be upheld as the first principle in post assignment, professional title evaluation, award evaluation, and professional development. The focus should be on creating a high-level full-time and part-time teacher rank that can be developed and implemented during the course of deepening reform, overcoming difficulties, and imparting knowledge.

(5) Establish and improve the national policy guarantee system for continuing education to make up for the supply-side weaknesses of continuing education reform. Continuing education, which is positioned as a separate type of education and is oriented towards serving and meeting the lifelong learning needs of all the citizens, should not merely be taken as a kind of theoretical discussion. It should become the basis for real legislation deployment, policy supply, resource allocation, fund input, project arrangement, organisation leadership, and organisation structuring. Positive efforts should be made to establish a special leading body and budgetary fund account for continuing education in order to ensure the position, benefits, and expectations of continuing education within major reforms, important policies, and key projects on the future of national education.

Second, essential factors at the supervision level, which include:

(1) Establish a national quality standard for continuing education. Firstly, standards are needed to uphold and realise the high quality development of continuing education. The construction of standards should integrate international experience and build upon it according to China’s national conditions. It is also necessary to coordinate degree and non-degree continuing education and reciprocally support unified standard and highlighted features. This standard will help in unifying the concept, enhancing common understanding, drawing a clear distinction of the base line, and encouraging innovation to create a fair environment. As a result, it will be possible to set an industrial model and drive the initiative in learning from each other, catching up to the most advanced level, and helping the less advanced through comparison. The construction of national quality standards should cover all the factors affecting the quality of continuing education, including specifications and index descriptions on all the aspects of education and teaching, all the links of talent development, and all levels of human, financial, and material resources.

(2) Establish a national evaluation system for continuing education. Following the establishment of a national quality standard of continuing education, the establishment of a matching national quality evaluation system will help to realise the unification of quality requirements, implementation, and evaluation. The MOE can take the lead in organisation or delegate power to relevant evaluation agencies to enable the regulation of quality evaluation of continuing education institutions all over China, and to publicise the evaluation results. Evaluation is an important measure for the educational administrative departments to advance reforms to streamline administration, delegate powers, improve regulation, and strengthen services. It is conducive to promoting self-discipline in the industry and to realising the entry and exit of the industry. Any continuing education institutions evaluated as unqualified should be rectificated or suspended. A third social party should be actively introduced to participate in the evaluation and factors such as learners’ learning satisfaction, students’ performance after graduation, and employer evaluation should be included in the evaluation results.

(3) Create an overall qualification certification system for continuing education. People who have passed all of the specific certification items can receive an overall qualification certification and be given certificates. These specific certifications include a number of items, such as operation conditions and facilities, level of information technology, disciplines, specialties (projects), courses, credits, certificates, degrees, and teachers of continuing education institutions. In view of certification, the voluntary acceptation principle should be practiced (although, in principle, all state-run continuing education institutions must be involved). Certification results should be publicised as a mechanism by which people can evaluate and choose continuing education institutions. Specific certification implementation can be undertaken by a qualified third party with the approval of the Ministry of Education. In addition, certification shall be given to courses and credits at continuing education institutions, which will also help to lay the foundation for the construction of a national credit bank.

(4) Establish a unified and complete certification system for national continuing education. Continuing education, as a separate type of education, should have a special, unified national certificate system, which mainly deals with unified national continuing education credit certificates (requirements: completing the fixed courses for degree or non-degree continuing education and meeting the credit requirements); course completion certificate for non-degree continuing education (requirements: completing fixed single continuing education courses) and project completion certificates (requirements: completing a set of fixed continuing education courses); special completion certificates, graduation certificates, and partial completion of degree continuing education certificates; and degree certificates (only given to people who reach a certain academic level or professional technical level). Of these, the most difficult to innovate is degree certificates for continuing education, although this could also become a highlight of continuing education reform, for example by leading the innovative exploration of an associate bachelor degree system for continuing education and a professional technical degree system for continuing education.

(5) Establish a national information management platform for continuing education. Due to its large service group, numerous management departments, various forms of education, flexible learning methods, and multiple school-running subjects, continuing education has made no breakthroughs in building a unified continuing education management platform and corresponding information system at the national level for years. Nevertheless, this task is indispensable in order to push forward continuing education reform. It is also a major link in the national system of continuing education. With this in mind, it is necessary to make full use of modern information technology, positively apply the emerging technological achievements of internet, big data, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and block chain, and accelerate the establishment of a unified national information management platform. The information statistics system built on this platform will provide data analysis services for scientific decisions in the domain of continuing education with the aim of bringing modernisation, informatisation, convenience, and intelligence to the field of continuing education.