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The politics of open learning

Jack Foks
Victorian TAFE Off Campus Network

A changing environment

Socio economic

It is with no great claim to originality that I state that Australia is undergoing dramatic socio economic change. The industrial revolution is being replaced by an information revolution. There is increasing competition in our traditional markets in raw materials and we have a long way to go to become competitive in the international markets for manufactured goods and information technologies. Careers, jobs and vocations are changing and some will disappear altogether.

Community groupings with special needs (which are often the result of the changes mentioned in the preceding paragraph) are being identified. Many are seen as experiencing disadvantage which must be overcome if they are not to become permanently separated from the mainstream.

There are two main themes in the federal government's response to changing internal and external conditions. The first is micro economic reform. This is aimed at creating frameworks within which industry, business and public services[1] become more efficient, productive and, consequently, more competitive. Part of micro economic reform is industry restructuring, which is the second response.

Industry restructuring involves significant changes to the way industries and individual enterprises organise themselves. If it is successful, it will affect decision making[2], work practices[3], sharing of returns, industrial relations generally and union arrangements specifically[4]. Award restructuring is a subset of industry restructuring[5]. Award restructuring seeks to provide career paths, and associated rewards, which reflect

Government expectations

The relationship between government and education has changed. In particular, governments view distance education and other alternative learning strategies and systems with much greater interest.

At one time governments in most countries displayed only lukewarm interest in distance education, if they displayed any at all. Interestingly enough, governments in third world countries were the first to look to distance education as a means of achieving their social, economic and political objectives, probably because the need was more urgent.

Governments in developed countries have now also seen the possibilities of alternatives to face to face teaching to develop, in their populations, the knowledge, attitudes and skills to which they attach high priority. This is a reflection of a change in governments' attitudes to education as a whole, from general support because it was a good thing, to quite specific demands that education support the implementation of government priorities.

As economic situations in all countries become less favourable, these demands increase and education is required to play its part in training workforces better able to contribute to economic improvement. If public education appears unable or unwilling to do so, various levels of encouragement are provided. Such encouragement is often linked to funding. This may be in the form of grants earmarked for special projects, the withdrawal of funds if government expectations are not met, directing government funds to educational activities conducted by organisations other than the traditional public educational institutions, and greater government encouragement for the community and the employment sector to contribute to meeting the cost of education and training.

Governments have begun to concentrate on distance education and other non traditional learning strategies as the appropriate means of meeting the educational needs of specifically identified groups. In a chapter prepared for Distance education and the mainstream (Foks, 1982) I described the Victorian government's attitude to open learning.

The Victorian government's social justice policy seeks to overcome disadvantage within the community and has two broad implications for education. It means that members of the community must be helped to overcome educational disadvantage and that education must be used to help them overcome social and/or vocational disadvantage. ... If those students are persons for whom traditional learning methods are inappropriate, then alternative methods will need to be provided. Adults with social and work commitments, geographically isolated persons, house bound women, physically or mentally disabled persons, Aborigines and the young unemployed are some groups for whom regular attendance at [educational institutions] at set times may well not be appropriate.

... governments look to [technical and further education] to contribute to their economic and labour market policies ... [technical and further education] is being asked to do more for less ... there are further efficiencies inherent in ... an ... approach which is not dependent upon ... the use of capital intensive buildings ... the provision of expensive and quickly out dated facilities .... having to cover the cost of travel and accommodation necessary for students to attend campus based classes [looking back on this extract, I would want to add the additional economy of providing statewide, even nation wide, resources at one go, without the need for local educational institutions to set up their own courses, staff structures and processes for developing learning resources].

... both state and federal governments are concerned with Australia's internal and international trading situation. The [learning] packages ... are considered to be marketable commodities.

... open learning is expected to be a significant way of providing flexible and relevant training to support the ... governments' manpower planning programmes, which range from training unemployed youth ... through to retraining adults, already in the workforce, whose skills have become outdated (Foks, 1987, p.86-88).

Privatisation of education

Privatisation of education is a world wide trend, paradoxically often under governments concerned to exercise greater control over education and its outcomes. It manifests itself in at least three ways.

The first is increased industry based training. Often this is initiated by enterprises which have become impatient and dissatisfied with public education and training. There will also be added encouragement for employers to consider this option as they look for ways to spend the levy imposed on them by the training guarantee scheme[6].

The second is the emergence of private colleges and universities. Although Australia has a strong tradition of private primary and secondary education, post compulsory education has till now been dominated by public institutions. Whilst it may not be considered to be an overwhelming success[7], Bond University could be a sign of things to come.

Finally public education institutions and systems are being encouraged and, in some cases, directed to be more entrepreneurial. They will need to

They are well placed to do this provided that their approach is flexible and adventurous. They already have capital and human infrastructures and, especially in the case of distance education institutions, learning resources developed earlier and the skills to develop more. Distance education learning modules can be combined with each other and with other resources and activities to suit the needs and requirements of different students and other clients.

Australia's traditional response

Far be it from me to caricature Australia's typical response to challenge and the need for change. However, it is important to examine certain tendencies.

Goodies and baddies

When problems arise, the usual response is to identify the heroes and the villains. It follows from this that the resolution of problems is seen in terms, not of solutions, but of winners and losers. This most unfortunate approach is reinforced by journalists from all media, but especially radio and television. Many employ interviewing techniques which aim to trick their subjects into acknowledgements that conflict exists (often based on spurious interpretations of slips of the tongue), confessions that they have been soundly defeated (or, at the very least, forced to back down), or crowing over apparent victories.


The conflict based approach to problem solving is reinforced, or caused, by imperialism. Whenever change threatens, the immediate reaction is to defend or expand one's empire. Readers may be surprised to learn that education is not exempt from empire building. But one does not need to look hard to discover the empires of individual teachers, heads of departments, directors and vice chancellors, directors general of education and state ministers of education.

Fanfares and slogans

It is necessary to add to these features the propensity to deal with challenge by public announcements of labels and slogans[8] which will solve all problems. Because the announcements are so public and dramatic and the slogans and labels so open to interpretation, there is immediate fear and uncertainty in the hearts and minds of those who might be affected.

It therefore becomes essential to establish boards of review, standing committees, working parties and task forces who will spend the first few years of their existence working on suitable definitions of their allotted slogans and labels, and the following few years on what structures, reporting lines, committee representation, and generally what balances of power, will gratify the people who have the most influence.

This means that a lot of highly paid and often talented people spend a lot of time on activities at the end of which there is very little to show in the way of the social, economic, industrial and educational objectives which were announced with so much fanfare at the start. Would it have worked better if changes had been introduced gently and gradually, without the use of slogans, with an emphasis on process rather than structure, and with announcements only made some time after the changes had been shown to have worked[9]?

Structure versus process

Australian organisations are very good at identifying problems and their causes[10]. It is the nature of the solutions they select which is interesting. Typically they respond to problems by changing their structures. So there are shifts of management elites, changes in reporting lines, new departments created and others abolished and even takeovers and amalgamations. There is no doubt that sometimes such changes are necessary. But they are often a substitute for the changes which are really needed.

This is because they ignore informal networks which will operate in spite of formal structures. Even more importantly, they do not take account of process. All the changes to reporting lines, all the amalgamations in the world, will not improve things if processes are fundamentally flawed.

But changing processes is not easy. It is not much fun. Nor does it obviously demonstrate the extent of one's empire. So why bother, when playing around with organisation charts is easy, lots of fun and certainly all about empires?

Need for an open and flexible response

If education and training institutions and systems are to respond meaningfully to all of these challenges, change is essential. Fundamental to this is a move from programmes, systems and procedures which are designed for the convenience of the organisations, to those which are based on the needs of their individual and corporate clients[11]. They must bring into the mainstream of their activities an open learning approach. The openness of education and training depends on the extent to which This in turn depends on a wide range of content, strategies, resources and support systems being available, accessible and flexible. And this means that we must be prepared to give commitments to open and flexible learning principles, to meaningful collaboration and to long term investments in the development of comprehensive and flexible infrastructures which underlie There is much already happening which reflects this approach. Often, it must be said, it is not happening because of a conversion to the new religion of open learning, but simply because it makes good educational sense. However it is not necessarily seen as being basic to education and training. Instead it is usually associated with one off, specially funded, peripheral activities.

If educational initiatives and responses are to be relevant, an open and flexible approach must be fundamental to mainstream activity. This does not mean that traditional methods will not be used. But it does mean that they should not be presupposed to be the natural or best way of doing things, but just some of the available options. Indeed, an open approach will combine traditional and nontraditional content, strategies, resources and support systems most appropriate to the learners' needs.

Politics of open learning

In the section above, I proposed that open learning requires commitments to open and flexible learning principles; meaningful collaboration; and long term investments in the development of comprehensive and flexible infrastructures. There is, however, a need to reconcile this with various political considerations. The next four sections address some of the related issues.


Fans of Yes Minister gain an impression of a strong head of the public service manipulating a vague and weak minister[12]. This is no longer an accurate picture of the relationship between Australian bureaucrats and their political masters. Regardless of their political persuasion, ministers of the Crown are increasingly assuming the roles of chief executive officers of their ministries, involving themselves in levels of operational detail which would horrify Sir Humphrey. The PCES (Politicians' Chief Executive Syndrome) is accompanied by This shift of power is not in itself a bad thing. Ministers should interest themselves in planning and operations as well as broad policy. Public servants should carry out government policies and be held accountable if they do not do so.

There is just one catch. Politicians present themselves to their electorates every three or four years[13]. This necessarily imposes a short term perspective on the way they view the world, a perspective which

There is therefore a need to achieve an acceptable balance between the often gentle and long term aspects of an open learning approach, and the short term requirements of our politicians[16].

Interstate, inter sectoral and inter institutional politics

I proposed above that empires exist at all levels. I also suggested that collaboration was necessary for the meaningful implementation of open learning. This has all the makings of a tense situation. In order to consider this tension, I will examine some of the reasons given for collaboration and some aspects of empires.

There are two main reasons given for collaboration. These are especially relevant for distance education and other resource based learning.

The new technologies offer considerable scope for sharing. Indeed the very high level of sophistication and resources required to develop technology based solutions makes it essential if programmes of any usefulness are to be developed.

Collaboration can take many forms. It can be formal or informal, imposed or voluntary, based on tough business agreements or on altruistic principles of unconditional sharing. One thing is certain, however. The pressure on educational institutions and systems to manage with less and to generate income is increasing. As it does, so too will the need to go into collaborative arrangements with a clear understanding of the contributions each party will make, the benefits each party will receive and the conditions under which the collaboration will cease.

Weighed against this there is the reality of educational imperialism. It manifests itself in a number of ways which I have already touched upon earlier. Let me mention one more. The not developed here syndrome reflects a reluctance to use resources or ideas simply because they have been developed elsewhere. Our federal system, with its state based educational empires certainly reinforces this[17]; so too does the division of education into sectors[18]; and so does the competition which exists, and is in fact encouraged between institutions.

Industrial relations

Teachers' roles

Opening up learning has two major implications for industrial relations. To begin with, educators' roles will change, in some cases significantly, as there is greater emphasis on learning design and learning management. It is probably true to say that the change will be more dramatic for campus based teachers than for distance educators who have traditionally been obliged to consider how to design and manage programmes for students in a variety of situations. However, even distance educators will be expected to display increased flexibility and to combine strategies in ways for which traditional distance education practice has not prepared them.

Terms and conditions

This will have significant implications for the terms and conditions negotiated by educators' industrial organisations. In the past they have been content to negotiate on the basis of hours spent in front of classes of established sizes. In the future they will need to obtain recognition for such activities as


The second impact on industrial relations will be in the area of demarcation. This is not a happy thought for countries like Australia and England where unions are craft rather than industry based. This approach is also reflected in the education industry where, in industrial terms, teachers are distinguished from non teachers, technicians from non technicians, electricians from carpenters, and so on.

However, students engaged in individualised learning programmes will interact with a number of reference points other than persons occupying formally identified teaching positions. They may perform practical work under the supervision of a laboratory technician; they may seek the advice of a librarian when selecting learning resources; they may participate in factory based projects overseen by senior factory staff.

As they do so, there will often be very fine lines to draw between the support given by these people and that which is given by teachers; and there will therefore be corresponding difficulties in determining their industrial status.

The politics of management and administration


Managers and administrators have also worked hard to establish and maintain empires. One of the most important premises on which the empires have been built is that their structures, systems and procedures should be designed for the convenience of the organisations. As admission to the organisations' educational programmes constitutes favoured, possibly even privileged, treatment, clients have traditionally been expected to meet the requirements of administrative empires without complaint.

This is at odds with the principles of open learning, the changing needs of the community, and demands of government and industry. If educational and training institutions are to be relevant, and to receive support from funding authorities and other clients, they must change to more flexible, client oriented arrangements.

Structure and process

Educational managers and administrators are not exempt from the tendency to play around with structures, rather than grapple with process. After all, as I indicated earlier, the best way of demonstrating the extent of one's empire is to point to the number of people reporting to one.

Open learning, however, requires dynamic, flexible and responsive organisation. So whilst I would not argue that organisation charts should not exist, they should be combined with processes which allow staff to move in and out of various project oriented team arrangements.

Course approval and accreditation

Accreditation and course approval procedures will need to recognise client specific programmes. In order to do so it will be necessary to move away from approval or accreditation of long, formal courses with prescribed number, content and sequence of units. Instead, approval or accreditation should be given for either or both of the following. Accreditation and approval procedures must be streamlined, so that programmes are available when they are needed, not when it suits a multitude of self indulgent boards, committees and working parties.

Delivery design

Whatever the approach, accreditation procedures should only concern themselves with broad educational objectives and not with detailed implementation strategies. Decisions on delivery design are distinct from those on course approval, and should be determined by the educators and clients who are concerned with programme implementation.

Learning resource development

In the past, learning resources have been developed with the hypothetical average student in mind. This will have reflected the developer's image of a typical distance education student, or a typical campus based student, or a typical mixed mode student. Quite apart from the fact that a cohort of, say, distance education students, may not have included any who matched this notion of the average, an open approach to learning requires learning resources which have the flexibility to be used in a variety of ways with a variety of students.

One possible way of doing this is to develop texts (or their nonprint equivalents) for use by all students studying particular topics, and to develop a range of separate study guides (or their nonprint equivalents) which will vary according to the learning needs of the students. So the same texts will be used by students who spend little or no time on campus and whose major method of assessment is the submission of assignments, by students whose method of study is based on supervised project work performed at their place of employment, and by students who attend face to face classes in an educational institution. In each case the students will use different study guides and interact in different ways with educators and other persons providing support.

It is also necessary to recognise the complexities of learning resource development. In particular, it is necessary to take account of the various types of expertise that need to be brought together, the time that it will take to develop anything which is worthwhile, and the associated costs. I will refer to this again when I consider the questions of funding. Credit

Granting of credit too often reflects a time serving approach to education and a belief that the only worthwhile time served is at one's own institution in one's own course of study. An open approach will grant credit for learning units if students can demonstrate that they already possess the knowledge, skills and attitudes which those units aim to develop.

This means that we would give credit as appropriate for studies in other programmes, for studies in other institutions and for life and work experience. Evidence on which to base the granting of credit will include institutional certification, declarations from employers and successful completion of challenge assessment tasks.


Funding, and the financial planning on which it is based, have always been problematic areas for distance educators, particularly when they have found themselves involved in financial negotiations with funding authorities who assumed that resources for distance education students could be allocated according to formulae which assume a certain number of contact hours per student. Now moves towards more flexible learning and delivery strategies for all students require that campus based educators must also convince administrators that

Shifting resources and political courage

Quite apart from the need for more sophisticated costing and resource allocation methods, there is a fundamental resources policy issue involved with bringing open learning into the mainstream.

In the past open learning was seen as a peripheral activity, based on special projects which were specially funded. If open learning becomes the basis for all education and training, this can no longer be the case. Instead, resources will be allocated on the basis of the principles listed above.

We are now talking about very difficult political decisions. It will be necessary to move funds and other resources away from some existing activities and into other, more client oriented ones. This will mean reducing or removing the funding base for activities associated with the empires, status symbols and comforts of academics, managers, unions and politicians.

Performance measures

A question related to funding is that of performance measures. Educational institutions are being called upon to perform better and in ways which reflect client demand. However, I have argued that this very demand leads to a much more complex provision of education based on individualised learning programmes which, apart from using a variety of strategies and resources, will have a variety of starting and finishing points.

The effect of this is that measurement of success becomes more complicated than has previously been thought. It is no longer appropriate (if it ever was) to talk only of enrolment numbers, student contact hours, assignment return rates and course completion rates as the appropriate measures. It is also necessary to account for

In other words, instead of using simple measures which make life easy for administrators, we must use those which reflect the stated objectives of general and individualised programmes. This will not be easy[19].

Academic administration

Procedures designed for institutional convenience put clients into neat categories. An approach based on the convenience of the client makes it necessary to change such limiting concepts as an academic year which starts and ends on prescribed dates, the long, formal course as the basic unit of enrolment and the categorising of students as either distance education or campus based.

Is there hope?

There certainly is hope (in spite of the somewhat gloomy picture I have painted). However, it needs a concerted national effort which is based on acceptance of, and commitment to, broad national and corporate goals. The basis for this already exists in the general acceptance of the need for micro economic reform generally and industry restructuring specifically. There is also acknowledgement that flexible, client oriented education and training have a major part to play in these processes.

Now it is necessary to build on the points of agreement and on the many positive aspects of education and training which are already there. This must be accompanied by a realistic acceptance of the numerous political obstacles which have to be addressed in the process, and addressed in ways which maximise the capacity for all parties to emerge as winners.

We must recognise when pooling of resources and expertise is necessary to ensure high quality education and training which is relevant and timely. To do so, we should be prepared to enter into various collaborative arrangements with public and private organisations and to do so on the basis of sound business principles.

And finally, we must all be prepared to forego short term gratification in order to obtain long term benefits. This may be at odds with the natural tendencies of the hedonists and politicians amongst us. On the other hand, supporters of the human race claim that its ability to plan ahead and to make immediate sacrifices for a better future, are among its distinguishing and better features.


  1. One part of the debate is whether public services and utilities can be made more efficient in themselves; another is whether they need to be privatised in part or completely in order to improve their performance or reduce the drain on the public purse.

  2. The Scandinavian and Japanese models, on which Australia's approach is based, involve decision making on policy, planning and strategies, to which both management and workers contribute. Specific day to day operational decisions are taken as close to the action as possible, often by project teams.

  3. In some industries, such as the metals and stevedoring industries, there have already been significant changes, in theory at least, away from unproductive and counter productive work practices which some employers and unions negotiated in more prosperous times. Equally importantly, there is a commitment by most employers and unions to the multiskilling of workers and the removal of redundant demarcation lines between trades and crafts identified many years ago.

  4. There is general agreement that, along with broadbanding of workers' skills and jobs, there should be a reduction in the number of unions representing them.

  5. One could be forgiven for thinking that it is in fact the same as industry restructuring. Most public statements from government and unions concentrate almost entirely on the rewards to be received once certain hoops have been jumped through.

  6. From 1 July 1990 the Federal Government will require employers who spend $200,000 or more on salaries to spend at least 1% of their payroll on approved training. This will rise to 1.5% on 1 July 1991. The training may be either on or off the job.

  7. Partly due to having played all the traditional institutional games of which Bond University's founders have been so critical.

  8. Recent educational favourites include "access", "equity", "devolution", "traineeships", "decentralisation", "accountability", "amalgamation", "entrepreneurialism" and "open learning".

  9. As is the practice of many major Japanese companies.

  10. Once they have occurred, that is. They are not so good at predicting them.

  11. Individual clients consist of students, learners and trainees. Corporate clients include government, community groups, industries, enterprises, and other educational institutions and sectors.

  12. Although it must be said that in a number of gratifying episodes the political worm does turn.

  13. Or less, if there are special political circumstances, or opportunities arise.

  14. Such as new buildings, facilities, slogans, committees and reports.

  15. For example, there is quite a logical leap between the installation of a TV studio in an educational institution and the goal of a better skilled workforce.

  16. Barry Jones tells of the occasion when the then Labor shadow cabinet met to discuss its tactics for the next day of Parliament. He proposed that the important issue of conservation in the Antarctic be raised. Bob Hawke agreed that it was important, but that the Antarctic would always be there, whereas the immediate scandal of coalition ministers bringing colour television sets home from overseas would not last and must be seized upon at once. The shadow cabinet decided to raise the colour television issue immediately and come back to the Antarctic at a later date.

  17. TAFE curriculum authorities have made an art form of developing different curricula for supposedly the same vocational qualifications.

  18. "Articulation" is another slogan which, sadly, is not reflected in the recognition given by universities to TAFE programmes.

  19. I'll say it won't. How will we measure whether a programme has improved the skills base of the Australian workforce? Certainly not by the number of enrolments in, or even the number of graduates from a course of study.


Foks, Jack (1987). Towards open learning. In Peter Smith & Mavis Kelly (Eds.), Distance education and the mainstream. London: Croom Helm.

Foks, Jack (1988). Open learning in the Victorian State Training System. A report prepared for the General Managers of the State Training Board and Portfolio Resources Coordination Division. Melbourne: Ministry of Education.

Author: Mr Jack Guido Hermann Foks, BA (Melb.) TSTC (Hawthorn), is the Head of the Victorian TAFE Off-Campus Network (VTOCN), 143 Franklin Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3000, Australia. The VTOCN is responsible for the development and delivery of TAFE (technical and further education) distance education in the state of Victoria.

Please cite as: Foks, J. (1990). The politics of open learning. In R. Atkinson and C. McBeath (Eds.), Open Learning and New Technology: Conference proceedings, 28-42. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology WA Chapter.

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