I decided to write a provisional version of this book review for the blog, because I’m hoping to ask a colleague to read the book too and help me to write a better grounded review.
Wei, Runfang. China’s Radio and TV Universities and the British Open University: a comparative study. Nanjing, Yilin Press, 2008. 394pp.
Anyone who wants to read an English-language account of why and how China’s radio and television universities (RTVUs) came into being and prospered should turn to this book. Wei has been associated with the Jiangsu (Province) RTVU, one of the major partners in the system of RTVUs, more or less since it was first established in the late 1970s. She wrote this comparative study following research over several years, though with access to only a fairly small range of English-language documents about the Open University.
Wei explains how, after the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the disastrous wrecking of China’s institutions of higher education, the RTVUs were created to educate very large numbers of students to college level in the shortest possible time. She describes the system, which initially used TV and radio broadcasts via national and provincial transmitters covering most main population centres, as well as rural areas in the eastern half of China. The programmes reached hundreds of thousands of students in classes set up at workplaces, community halls and other ‘borrowed’ premises, where relatively under-qualified teachers supervised the students’ progress.
My own acquaintance with the RTVUs began in 1982, but ended in 1990 when my work there was finished. I led an international panel established by the Ministry of Education in Beijing to monitor the impact of a $100 million World Bank loan, most of which was for the RTVUs. I therefore read Wei’s book with great interest, not least because she portrays events and policy changes in the system since I was last there.
Wei faced a gargantuan task, however, in grappling with two very large systems (the RTVUs and the OU), both included by John Daniel in his book on ‘megauniversities’. I cannot be certain that she grasped all the many aspects of the RTVUs as they evolved, but I do know that she under-estimated the pace of change at the OU which today is somewhat different from her description. I would prefer a Chinese scholar to give an opinion on what she has written about the RTVUs. Meantime, Wei’s book stands as the most accessible English-language account of them. She aimed it at students of distance education: they will gain from reading it.