3. Key breakthrough should begin with prioritising the launch of the systematic and institutional reform of degree continuing education in regular universities

At present, the quality of degree continuing education in some regular universities has become an issue for the entirety of continuing education reform and the quality of online degree education at some pilot universities is a particular headache. A rational judgment should be made between quality and scale, and between economic returns and social benefits in order to promote continuing education reform in the new era; otherwise, it will be hard to advance reform. In order to implement the spirit of the 19th National Party Congress and adhere to the “quality development” principle, the main task for future reform is to abolish the dual track operation system of running schools, thus eradicating the system “same school with different qualities” and reshaping the quality of degree continuing education at regular universities. This paper puts forward the following six strategies for targeted implementation, targeted reform, and prioritised development by integrating the relevant system and institutional barriers and restrictions that have an impact on the quality of degree continuing education of regular universities as mentioned above.

The first is to reform the education system. Degree continuing education should be established as a part of talent development in regular universities in order to gather degree continuing education and full-time higher education under the “same major” as in regular universities within the same discipline (faculty and department). An education system for degree continuing education in regular universities “with the discipline as the main body” should be established for students of both continuing education and full-time higher education in the same major in order achieve “learning in the same school, taught by the same teachers, following the same standard, reaching the same quality, obtaining the same certificate, and getting the same degree”. Once such a reform is made, some regular universities will be able to continue to evaluate the necessity and feasibility of degree continuing education.

The second is to reform the internal and external management system. The development principle of “quality and benefit first with unified policy” should be upheld in order to gradually explore the establishment of standardised and perfect, scientific and rational, and unified and effective degree continuing education management system in regular universities, and to promote the realisation of a centralised management by specialised departments and guidance with respect to different classifications. An evaluation of the quality of degree continuing education in regular universities should be made as early as possible. In line with the spirit of streamlining administration, delegating powers, improving regulation, and strengthening services, the unified examination system of online education in pilot regular universities should be cancelled as soon as possible. We should rely on information technology approaches to strengthen the management of teaching behaviours in degree continuing education, as well as supervision during and after the process. A flexible and open learning and teaching management system should be established according to education law and the needs of the students. Regular universities should also be given more autonomy and power to make decisions.

The third is to innovate the public service system. The public service mechanism and service support platform should be constantly improved by building industrial organisations and expert think tanks serving degree continuing education in universities. We should also organise collaborative innovation research targeted at major issues. A development foundation and project should be set up for continuing education teachers and management staff in universities in order to support the improvement of their professional level and capacity. We should organise the evaluation of excellent achievements and the exchange of experience in degree continuing education in universities. We should set up a channel and mechanism for reporting problems and proposing suggestions. A special continuing education management agency should be established to strengthen policy coordination and public services.

The fourth is to reform the investment mechanism. It is necessary to create a rational fund investment standard for degree continuing education in regular universities by making a scientific calculation of the total costs and expenses needed for talent development with reference to the existing regulations on continuing education fund investment for full-time students of higher education from the MOE and investment for professional technicians from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. A diversified fund input guarantee system should be established in order to unify factors such as national-level finance input, self-financing, social sponsorship and donations, and tuition fees paid by students. The realisation of the “zero breakthrough” of fund input for degree continuing education students in regular universities will alleviate the problem of unbalanced, inadequate, and unfair expense input among different types of students.

The fifth is tuition reform. Concepts such as public welfare, dynamic adjustment, evidence-based fees, value for money, mutual voluntary basis, and consideration of fairness are used to establish a tuition system for degree continuing education in regular universities. It is up to the university to design its own tuition system and the fees and policies can’t go into effect until they are recorded by the department in charge of tuition fees. The scientific establishment of rational fees is not only necessary to cover school running costs and meet minimum quality requirements; it also reduces the burden on students. Students of continuing education and full-time higher education from the same major in the same year can be charged different fees in accordance with the actual situation. In principle, tuition fees for continuing education students may be higher than that of full-time students.

The sixth is to improve the incentive system. A more effective learning incentive system directly oriented towards individuals receiving education should be explored. A system of allowing paid learning leave could be practiced for staff members of enterprises and government institutions who take an active part in degree continuing education. Incentives to reduce individual income tax or give direct subsidies should be made. Policies for tax exemption and reduction or direct subsidy are given to employers whose employees take part in continuing education. A “learning coupon” system for citizens to receive continuing education should be explored and can be used to pay for or offset some of the tuition fees for degree continuing education. The advantages of the credit bank system should be brought into play in order to realise credit recognition and transfer between degree and non-degree continuing education and among different degree continuing education institutions so as to shorten the duration of learning and reduce repetition. Finally, customised, targeted incentive measures correlated to the immediate interests of learners should be created. For example, the results of degree continuing education can be pegged to the appraisal of professional titles or act as points towards household registration for migrant workers.

IV. The prerequisite of implementing reform is emphasising the improvement of matching guarantee measures by gaining supply-side strength

In terms of “one point deployment and nine point implementation” the key is to begin implementation only after the blueprint for reform has been drawn. No matter how good reform logic is and no matter how realistic the strategy is, they are merely ideas as if not put in place effectively. With this in mind, the implementation of reform is more important. However, without matching guarantee measures it is difficult for even the best designs to be advanced for practical effect. Therefore, seen from the perspective of supply-side reform, whether or not guarantee measures can be put in place is a prerequisite for effectively implementing a reform strategy for continuing education. These guarantee measures refer to work expenses, project focus, organisational leadership, and progress.

1. Ensure that work funds for reform itself are put in place first.

It is necessary to increase funding for the reform of continuing education, in particular, an average student funding system. It is also necessary to reach a consensus on legislation, leadership, and financial expenditure, which will take time. However, in the early planning period, things like relevant top level design, system construction, and project launch all require funds. If there are no clear funding channels or guarantee of funds, it will be difficult to achieve the expected results. Therefore, putting in place launch funds is a prerequisites for planning and implementing reform.

2. Continuing education shall have its own “double first-class” project.

At present, the “double first-class” (“world-class universities and world-class disciplines”) project is being implemented with the coordination of the state in the field of higher education. This major strategic decision is of great significance in improving the overall strength, international competitiveness, and quality of higher education in China. In order to speed up the advancement of continuing education reform, the launch of a “double first-class” project in the domain of continuing education is just as important. With reference to practice and experience, it is up to the central and local governments to coordinate the financial arrangements and select the universities that are expected to become world-class continuing education universities for key construction. If the “double first-class” project of continuing education can be implemented, it will improve the conditions of lifelong learning for all, providing better quality education resources, higher level education services, and fairer learning opportunities. At the same time, continuing education reform will be highlighted in order to facilitate the creation of a reform blueprint.

3. Strengthen the organisational leadership of continuing education reform

The coordinated advancement of continuing education reform is a complicated new project. The reform ideas put forward in this paper deal with multiple underlying problems. Since is involves many different sectors, the success of reform requires powerful organisational leadership. Therefore, it is recommended to establish a leading group for continuing education reform at the national level under the leadership and guidance of the leading group for national education system reform. This group will be mainly responsible for coordinating the leadership, decision-making, design, organisation, implementation, coordination and evaluation, of continuing education reform. An office will be set up under the Ministry of Education under the jurisdiction of the leading group. Day-to-day tasks will be undertaken by relevant existing departments (offices) of the Ministry of Education. If, in future, specialised institutions for continuing education can be set up, then the relevant work will be undertaken by this special agency.

4. Define a timetable and roadmap for reform

A necessary condition of the success of reform is to coordinate and plan the timetable and roadmap for reform. The year 2018 is the 40th anniversary of reform and opening up, and it is expected that this will be a key year for the launch of major reform measures. This year will boast a richer reform atmosphere and people’s acceptance of reform will be upgraded, so it is a favourable year to initiate major reforms. Therefore, we should lose no time in planning continuing education reform, prioritising the launch and implementation of a batch of key reform projects and measures in an effort to promulgate the overall scheme of continuing education reform in 2018. The focus should be on launching the “double first-class” project for continuing education, issuing a list of the first batch of universities for project construction, and promoting the direction of reform. In 2019, the implementation of relevant reform projects and measures will be comprehensively launched in line with the reform scheme, in order to advance institutional setup, function adjustment, and staffing. In this way, we can steadily press ahead with the “double first-class” construction of continuing education and lay out the underlying system and institution reform of continuing education.

By 2020, a new national continuing education system will have taken shape, the quality ecosystem of continuing education in universities will have been improved, reform breakthroughs will have been made, and the development of continuing education in China will be favourable. Continuing education, school education (referring specifically to higher education), and vocational education will become like the three legs of a tripod. The positioning and concept of continuing education as a separate type of education will become deeply rooted in people’s minds. In terms of degree continuing education, a number of universities with distinct Chinese characteristics will emerge to enter the ranks of the world’s first-class continuing education universities. In non-degree continuing education, new modes and new methods of continuing education continue to emerge. Remarkable progress has been made in meeting the need for diverse, individualised life-long learning.

V. Conclusion

This paper explores and discusses the logic and strategy of continuing education reform in the new era, based on the author’s years of observations as a frontline worker and researcher of continuing education. The information obtained shows that reform has become a top priority for continuing education and a major government concern. Many of the ideas and thoughts presented in this paper only represent the ideas of the author but they are a good starting point. During the course of study, the author gained insight and guidance from relevant leaders, experts and colleagues. In the future, issues pertaining to continuing education reform will remain a hot topic and continue to present problems. The construction of a national system for continuing education, the improvement of degree continuing education in universities, and the other issues discussed in this paper require further exploration, in-depth discussion, and practical test. The issue of the quality of continuing education has become a much-discussed topic in the media and in society as a whole. The writer predicts that more and more people will be interested in the development of continuing education reform and be willing to contribute more wisdom and strength to improve continuing education and together create a better future for continuing education.

(The original title: On Logics and Strategies of Continuing Education Reform in the New Era the 2nd Issue of 2018 Lifelong Education Research)

About the author:

Wang Yongfeng is a deputy director and associate research fellow at the Department of Business Development of the Open University of China. He is a doctor of education and a part-time research fellow at the Education Science Research Institute of Jiangsu Open University, where he is mainly engaged in research into continuing education policies and educational strategy plans.

Foundation project:

The 2017 key project “Research on National System Construction for Continuing Education” (2017-133Z) under the planned adult education research project of the Thirteenth Five-Year Plan of the China Adult Education Association.