I spent 12 hours on a plane on Wednesday this week going to the degree ceremony of the long-standing Open University partner UNISIM in Singapore. It was a Singapore airlines flight, using an airbus, which was a wonderfully quiet and smooth machine to whisk you 10000 kilometres. More of that in a moment. Towards the end of the flight I was engaged in conversation by one of the stewardesses about her need to upgrade in order to develop her career. She had a tough and tiring job, she said, doing 2 Singapore-London returns each week, and very occasionally 3. That sounded a tough schedule to me too. A number of her colleagues in the crew were studying with UNISIM, which is a private university specialising in opportunities for adult students, using a combination of distance teaching materials supported by high degrees of evening face to face classes. She however did not have the energy (she said). ‘What would I recommend?’ ‘What are you really interested in’, I asked, suggesting that this would be the best motivator if she could identify it. ‘German’, she answered. ‘ I would really like to learn German, as I so enjoyed my time there when I was on the Frankfurt-Singapore route, and it is such a beautiful language’. ‘But ‘ she added, ‘I could never live there, or in Europe, as it is just too slow for us Singaporeans!’

As this was the week of the global great banking crisis, I was somewhat given over to lugubrious reflection on the future of Europe in the world, and this did not reassure me. I was reminded of the fact that Air Singapore was the first airline to fly the Airbus, which made an impression on me as a plane that made a more than 12 hour journey nearly bearable. But just to level up any comparison, I watched one of the best films I have seen for a long time on the plane , ‘Je t’ai longtemps aimé’, starring Elizabeth Scott-Thomas. French film of course.

The degree ceremony was as usual a wonderful occasion, and reminded me very much of those of my own institution. The students were a good variety of ages, though mostly in their 20s and 30s, but with some as late as in their 60s. A nice cameo was of a father and son together at the ceremony, but it was the father getting his degree. The ethnic variety of the graduates is something we could learn from in our societies in Europe, as they really seemed to represent a variety of cultures, mirroring the variety that makes up Singapore: Chinese, and a variety of Indian cultures, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu, along with those of Arabic and other Asian backgrounds. The predominance in the number of women students was striking.

21st century skylineSingapore itself is a society that would seem too guided and directed for most European tastes, but has succeeded in delivering standards of living and a level of organisation that would seem attractive to many. A small island state, it sits on the Straits of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia, with a truly 21st century skyline.

Gajaraj Dhanarajan

I went from Singapore to Penang in Malaysia, to visit Wawasan Open University, and an old friend Professor Gajaraj ‘Raj’ Dhanarajan, who is its Vice Chancellor. This is the third institution that Professor Dhanarajan has headed and built from ground up, following the Commonwealth Of Learning, and the Open University of Hong Kong. Wawasan Open University – the name Wawasan means ‘Vision’ in Malay, is a private not-for-profit University. Private universities are a phenomenon that is much more prevalent in Asia than in Europe, and approximately half of Malaysia’s students are in the private sector. The issue of the national language is very political in Malaysia, and the fact that the private Universities mostly teach in English is seen as very attractive. Wawasan is alone amongst the private universities in being a not-for-profit, being founded for a mixture of philanthropic and political motives, with the aim of offering access for working adults. It carries the strap-line of ‘The Peoples’ University’. The building of capacity for higher education through private for profit and not-for-profit universities is one which we need in Europe at least need to note, interrogate and reflect on. What makes the phenomenon attractive both to the private sector and to students in Asia and elsewhere? Is this a trend that will come more strongly to Europe, so that it becomes mainstreamed rather than marginal, or is our context so different that it is irrelevant? I would be interested to know what readers of this blog think.

And so to return to the UK, with a tight connection from Penang in Singapore for the London flight, and once more on the magnificent Airbus. The upcoming EDEN Research Workshop in Paris on researching access through distance and e learning seems all more relevant in the light of what I have learned in Malaysia. I hope to see colleagues there.

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