Q&A: Steve Hill: “You simply cannot build enough bricks and mortar universities to meet demand”

Author: PM editorial | Date: 3 Aug 2016

Open University’s director of external engagement talks about the ever-growing appetite for higher education

Steve HillSteve Hill got to know the Open University when he needed extra qualifications to advance his previous career in finance. When the opportunity to work for the OU presented itself, he jumped at it and is now its director of external engagement. He spoke to People Management about meeting the demand for higher education and why distance learning is beneficial to employers and employees
What’s the demand like for distance learning?
China has a young population and a growing need for higher education places. But it can’t meet the demand for the expansion of higher education through traditional universities. So what it’s doing now is looking at distance learning in a way it hadn’t before.
 
We’re beginning to see a real shift in China with both the government and employers being much more accepting of students who have studied through distance learning or a blended approach, as opposed to just those who have attended a top tier university.
 
In India, the government has said it’s looking to increase higher education enrolment to 30 per cent by 2020. That equates to a further 14 million places. Those 14 million places would require India to build another 800 universities and over 40,000 colleges. So if you look at that target over the next four years, you simply can’t build 800 universities. And that’s the same issue China faces – you simply cannot build enough bricks and mortar universities to meet demand. That’s why the Ministry of Education in China has taken the decision to move to an Open University network.
 
How is the OU increasing awareness of what it does?
Although we have a fantastic brand across Europe, the open universities in south east Asia are not quite there yet. The Asian open universities are still seen as a cheaper or lower quality offering than other universities in those territories.
 
We have knowledge exchange partnerships with a number of universities, for example the China Petroleum University in east China; Pudong, which is a branch of Shanghai Open University; and also the Open Universities of Hong Kong and Jiangsu. We’ve had a relationship with Hong Kong for 20 years now and it licenses material from us across a range of courses to deliver in a face-to-face environment.
 
And you studied with the OU before working for them?
I started studying with the OU in 1993 and I’ve studied with them for 20 of the last 23 years. Before this job, I worked in finance and to progress within that career I needed additional qualifications. So I studied at undergraduate and postgraduate with the OU to help me get on and then continued to study with the OU for my own lifelong learning.
 
How important is the concept of lifelong learning becoming?
It’s absolutely vital. Singapore faces many skills gaps issues, certainly in engineering and cyber security. Some statistics from 2012 suggested that less than one per cent of Singapore’s IT workers were IT security specialists. It’s one thing having the qualification to get you that initial job but you have to embrace lifelong learning, both as an employee and an employer. You need your employees to continually update their skills. If we look at the cyber security issues we all face today, they are completely different to the issues we faced five years ago. So there is a need to constantly keep your employees’ knowledge up-to-date.