Teaching and Learning Forum 95 [ Contents ]

Open Learning Australia: Melbourne (Cup) winner or Trojan horse?

Allan Herrmann
Teaching Learning Group
Curtin University


Since its inception, Open Learning Australia (trading name of the Monash owned company Open Learning Agency of Australia) has been the subject of considerable debate. Most of this has focused on its structure, activity and some of the implications for universities particularly in regard to the level of financial return for service provision. This paper will overview OLA, not as an organisation, but as a policy tool of the Australian Commonwealth government as it attempts to influence the agenda for higher education and accelerate cultural change.

As a term, open learning seems to have provided the education community with an open season. for example, most recently Jakupec and Nicoll (1994) argue, somewhat semantically, that open learning in higher education is a contradiction of terms. More importantly they reinforce the need for educators to regain the initiative in the current debate.

The current Senate Employment, Education and Training Reference Committee, in its "Inquiry into the Development of Open Learning in Australia", supports the view that the vast range of interpretations of this term, at least in part, has been responsible for the confusion surrounding its development. While acknowledging that the ideal has not yet been achieved in institutional practice, it endeavoured to standardise a definition by referencing Professor Richard Johnson's description:

Open learning is an approach rather than a system or technique; it is based on the needs of individual learners, not the interests of the teacher or the institution; it gives students as much control as possible over what and where and how they learn; it commonly uses the delivery methods of distance education and the facilities of educational technology; it changes the role of teacher from source of knowledge to a manager of learning and a facilitator.

The context

Distance education, open learning and government policy

Whilst overall, distance education may have "received a reasonable amount of attention from government committees and university review committees" (Campion and Kelly 1988: 175), enthusiastic Commonwealth government interest and action, for any reasons other than providing limited access to non-metropolitan Australians or providing much-needed students for small and/or regional Colleges of Advanced education, has been relatively recent. Apart from Open tertiary education in Australia. Final report of the Committee on Open University to the Universities Commission (Karmel: 1974), such non-traditional forms of higher education delivery were viewed as peripheral in reports on university education in Australia (Murray, Martin, Williams) until the mid-1980s.

Then, in 1988 Livingston identified nine major reports or evaluations dealing with distance education issues being published by the Commonwealth Tertiary Education Commission (CTEC), between September 1986 and September 1987 and a further 11 in-progress or in-press. Whilst abolishing CTEC, the then Minister, John Dawkins also acted on its advice to reduce the number of higher education institutions funded to provide distance education (a decision since reversed). Since then a number of other reports relating to distance education and open learning have appeared, a National Open Learning Policy Unit has been established within DEET to advise on the development of open learning in Australia and the National Distance Education Conference (NDEC) (now expanded to NCODE) has been established as a forum for providers to develop advice to NBEET and the Minister.

Open Learning Australia

Since 1992 the Australian higher education open learning agenda has been (if not hijacked) at least influenced by Open Learning Australia. Whether or not this was the intention of the Federal Government and the Department of Employment Education and Training (DEET) is the source of some speculation, however the influence cannot be denied.

Controversial from the beginning (see Latchem 1994); whether or not it was conceived in a taxi travelling between the Lakeside Hotel and the airport in Canberra, it has hardly ever been far from the news and the focus of political activity. OLA could be analysed with respect to a range of political, economic, sociological and even educational frameworks. However appropriate each may be, I believe that given the pragmatic, (economically rationalist) nature of the Federal Government and DEET, it is opportune to use the OLA as a indicator in analysing their intentions for Australian higher education.

The Government plan for higher education

Then Minister for Higher Education and Employment Services, Hon. Peter Baldwin MP, in his policy statement Higher Education: Quality and Diversity in the 1990s (October 1991), claims the realisation of "growth with equity" (p.v) through White Paper initiatives and sets the direction of further development in higher education in Australia based on "quality in diversity".

The new "direction" evidences itself in a number of measures in the OLAA contract with the Government and thence in OLAA/ provider contracts. An analysis of the relationship between the directions, measures and the objectives for the establishment and development of OLA provides some interesting parallels. While it would not be unreasonable to expect that a government funded project such as the OLI would be in keeping with government policy, it is the degree of this alignment which is of interest and therefore it goes beyond a simple economics/labour market relationship such as that described by Jakupec and Nicoll (1994). It is in this unambiguous agenda for change that use of OLA as a tool for policy and cultural change in Australian higher education becomes most evident.

The primary sources of information for analysing this relationship are the Ministerial statement and the Agreement between the Commonwealth and OLAA in relation to an Open Learning Initiative.

Policy and contractual requirements

The clear relationship between Commonwealth policy and the contractual requirements of OLA is shown in figure 1. While there may be some disagreement over specific relationships because of the policy overlap, it evidences the 'carrot and stick' approach so often used by Canberra.

Measures in the Ministerial statement OLA contractual requirements

credible quality assurance mechanisms - quantitative quality assurance indicators
- clear definition of service provision requirements
- benchmarks for cost effectiveness
- accountability and responsiveness to 'stakeholders'
- increased requirement of evaluation especially evaluation of outcomes

changing pattern of participation and the relationship between universities and other education and training sectors - credit transfer and recognition of prior learning
- collaboration between universities in materials development and teaching
- development of a national system through open tendering for provision
- TAFE/higher education articulation
- increasing uniformity of procedures across the system

potential for new technologies and alternative modes of delivery to improve access to a wider range of students and facilitate some cost effective growth - uses of technology to improve learning
- access and equity for target groups
- flexibility of delivery
- reinforcing the move to mass higher education
- specific contractual arrangements for intellectual property

Figure 1

Specific examples are:

Fees for Australian undergraduate study

The final issue which I will raise relates to full-fee paying undergraduate Australian students. The antipathy to this concept is entrenched in the ALP platform. While there are a number of modest examples of fee-paying through credit recognition, the provision of a range of university study through OLA at a price unable to be cost effectively matched provides a commercial barrier to the legitimate introduction of undergraduate fees within the UNS which reinforces the ideological barrier.


With nine consortium members and 18 'providing' universities, OLA policies and procedures can impact about half the Unified National System thereby reinforcing government policy implemented through the UNS.

Indeed it is clearly a strategy for expediting cultural change within higher education rather than an idiosyncratic response to unmet demand. Those looking to understand the direction of higher education policy in Australia would be advised to understand the OLI not merely as a distance education delivery mechanism, but rather as a test bed/alternative implementation pathway of government policy.


__________ (1993). Agreement between the Commonwealth and OLAA in relation to an Open Learning Initiative. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

__________ (1994). Inquiry into the Development of Open Learning in Australia. Senate Employment, Education and Training Reference Committee, Canberra: Senate Printing Unit.

Baldwin, P. (1991). Higher Education: Quality and Diversity in the 1990s. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Campion, M. and Kelly, M. (1988). Integration of external studies and campus-based education in Australian higher education: The myth and the promise. Distance Education, 9(2), 171-201.

Jakupec, V. and Nicoll, K (1994). Open Learning: Politics or pedagogy? Distance Education, 15(2), 217-233.

Karmel, P. (1974). Open Tertiary Education In Australia. Report of the Committee on Open University to the Australian University Commission, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service.

Latchem, C. and Pritchard, A. (1994). Open Learning: The unique Australian option. Open Learning, 9(3), 18-26.

Livingston, K. (1988). Recent commissioned reports on tertiary distance education in Australia: Context and critique. Distance Education, 9(1), 48-70.

Please cite as: Herrmann, A. (1995). Open Learning Australia: Melbourne (Cup) winner or Trojan horse? In Summers, L. (Ed), A Focus on Learning, p126-129. Proceedings of the 4th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Edith Cowan University, February 1995. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1995/herrmann.html

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