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Unique Strategies Foster Lifelong Learning

YBhg. Professor Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil
YBhg. Professor Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil

Over the course of 14 years, more than 60,000 learners have graduated from OUM. The impressive success has been made possible through the wisdom, experience and foresight of the university’s leadership uniquely mixed with the dedication, commitment, and innovativeness of its teaching and administrative staff. OIC TODAY had the pleasure to interview YBhg. Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Anuwar Ali whose 12-year tenure as the President and Vice-Chancellor of OUM ended recently, and taking over the reins of leadership is YBhg. Professor Dato’ Dr Mansor Fadzil who has witnessed the development of OUM since the beginning.

Unique establishment

It was a remarkable move by the Malaysian Minister of Education in 1999, YBhg. Tan Sri Dato’ Seri (Dr.) Musa Mohamad, to call for the setting up of an open university in the country. A consortium of 11 public universities responded to this call and the Open University Malaysia (OUM) was established. In 2001, the first batch of students enrolled in OUM to witness a unique learning experience which opens the door wide to enhanced opportunities and career development. OIC TODAY has the pleasure to interview YBhg. Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Anuwar Ali, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University for the past 12 years, to talk about the success story of OUM.

Highlighting OUM’s history, Tan Sri Anuwar mentioned that the foundation of the university by itself was unique in the sense that it was owned by public universities while operating totally as a private HLI. The uniqueness of this foundation has two dimensions as explained by Tan Sri Anuwar. First, OUM received strong financial and logistic support by the founding universities and the government of Malaysia in the initial stage – a thing that enables the university to move forward. Second and directly linked to the first dimension, the university was expected to start generating its own revenues to sustain its operations in the following years.

University for all

Since the inception, OUM announced its motto to be the “University for All”, which according to Tan Sri Anuwar has two main dimensions. First, it reflects the resilience of the programmes and enrollment procedures to suit everyone in the society. “We believe in the democratisation of education to give everyone a chance at self-actualisation and fulfilling their potential”, said Tan Sri Anuwar. No matter what profession they are in, students are welcome to apply for the programmes that match their needs and interests. Among the students of OUM are teachers, police officers, engineers, doctors and housewives. Second, the significance of the motto appears in the availability of OUM’s programmes all over Malaysia. Tan Sri Anuwar proudly said: “We have created opportunities for learners to receive education by establishing 35 learning centres nationwide, including the states of Sabah and Sarawak.”

OUM’s programmes cover a wide range of disciplines and are all accredited by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA). Many of these programmes are offered to international students through OUM’s partnership with foreign partners in the respective countries.

YBhg. Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Anuwar Ali
YBhg. Professor Emeritus Tan Sri Anuwar Ali

As a “University for All”, OUM’s programmes are also offered internationally through its partnership with institutions in 10 countries. “For example, our programmes are being taught in Ghana, Somalia, Zambia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Hungary and Vietnam,” Tan Sri Anuwar explained. Currently, OUM has over 6,000 students overseas who mainly are pursuing their master degree studies. The quality of the programmes offered by OUM which are being taught by highly qualified lecturers is what mostly attract locals as well as international students. All the programmes offered by OUM are approved by the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA) and the Ministry of Education, said Tan Sri Anuwar.

COMPELLING STRATEGIES

As the conversation continued with Tan Sri Anuwar, he emphasised that OUM is a learnercentred HLI. The needs of students should be clearly understood and met accordingly. “We strive to give the best to our students by giving them academic support and advice, so that they turn out to be good citizens,” he said. Tan Sri Anuwar further highlighted three major strategies which OUM had implemented over the years that provide a unique, but replicable, model for other universities on how to consider the needs of students. The focal areas of these three strategies are:

1) Accessibility:

Making OUM’s programmes available all over Malaysia and beyond tops the list of priorities for the management of the university. Anywhere in Malaysia, students can find one of OUM’s centres where they can enroll in the university’s programmes. OUM welcomes all students regardless of their age or profession as long as they have the passion to learn. The profile of learners at OUM includes teachers, engineers, doctors, housewives and retirees. Furthermore, OUM increasingly establishes partnerships with other countries to offer its programmes and methods of teaching to a wider range of students.

2) Flexibility:

In line with making the programmes accessible, OUM focuses on the flexibility of the learning process starting from enrollment until graduation. One remarkable highlight about the learning experience in OUM is that students self-pace their learning process. They decide what courses to take and when to take them. Continuous counseling and guidance is provided by OUM’s administrative as well as academic staff, however. “If we feel they can manage, then we give them extra courses per semester.” Flexibility has another dimension in OUM, that is students who enrolled in Kuala Lumpur, for example, and had to relocate in another state of Malaysia can easily continue their studies at the nearest learning centre.

3) Affordability:

The third equally, or perhaps more, important focal area of OUM’s strategies as perceived by students is the affordability of the programmes. In fact both accessibility and flexibility will not serve its purpose if the programmes were not reasonably affordable, especially when the objective of the university is to encourage standard education, Tan Sri Anuwar emphasised.

We know our learners may have their own commitments so at OUM learners choose what and when they want to learn according to their own schedule. Tan Sri Anuwar Ali

Maintaining quality

There is a general public perception that the quality of learning in private Open and Distance Learning (ODL) institutions is low compared to public HLIs. Even though there have been many studies to prove the fallacy of generalising this perception, the management of OUM does not need to illustrate much to prove their level of excellence. The milestones achieved by the university, the recognition gained by local as well as international institutions, and the number of quality awards received over the years speak for themselves. “The way you handle the learning process is what matters the most,” said Tan Sri Anuwar. “Having lecturers who are sincere in providing students relevant updated knowledge is sufficient to make OUM a successful university,” he added.

OUM links the strategies through which it facilitates the learning process to providing high quality programmes which in turn produces highly qualified graduates. For example, Tan Sri Anuwar mentioned that from time to time the faculty management changes or updates the syllabus of a programme based on the latest updates in technology and methods of teaching. “We always give special emphasis on Information Technology (IT). We spend time, effort and money to choose systems which best suit the needs of our students.” he said. For instance, students at OUM use the Virtual Learning Environment (MyVLE) to interact online with their lecturers, their colleagues and various other departments.

Learners can study from printed modules or access our learning resources online. Some examples of online resources include interactive study materials, quizzes, video lectures and discussion forums.

Unique identity

There are several characteristics of OUM that make the university different from any other university in Malaysia. Unlike many public and private universities, OUM encourages its academics to focus on organisational research. “Universities should create some kind of balance between research and teaching activities of the lecturers,” said Tan Sri Anuwar. Research activities must consider the development of individuals, organisations and the society at large, he added. In OUM, the main focus of the research activities is on improving the teaching and learning process. These studies not only helpful to OUM in terms of providing better experience to its learners but also the models and frameworks which are drawn from their findings can be used by other ODL institutions around the world.

At OUM most of the students are already working in either the private or public sector. Tan Sri Anuwar pointed out that this special nature of the students requires special treatment. “In normal universities, young fulltime students need guidance all the time, but when you have very senior people, you must treat them differently”, he said. Even though the common problem of graduate employability is not applicable to OUM, since almost all employees are working, Tan Sri Anuwar mentioned that “occupational mobility” is what OUM offers its graduates. “Once a learner graduates, he will be eligible to be promoted and we have witnessed many cases when our graduates who were given more responsible positions in their respective organisations”, he said.

At OUM, working adults may leverage on their prior learning experience to gain admission into a university programme.

When we asked Tan Sri Anuwar about the difference and significance of using the word “learners” instead of “students” to address those who enroll in one of the OUM’s programmes, he mentioned that a learner is a person who seeks to improve their knowledge through rational thinking using all available resources. Learners at OUM do not confine their receipt of knowledge on what lecturers provide in the teaching materials. Unlike normal students, who study certain books to enter an exam, and than perhaps forget what they have read afterwards, a learner matches the newly gained knowledge with previous knowledge and existing practical experience to move forward in their personal and professional life.

Another very important aspect of the unique identity of OUM is the sharing of knowledge and experience between the senior and junior staff members. This sounds familiar since many organisations promote the mentormentee relationship. But at OUM the nature of knowledge transfer is different. Tan Sri Anuwar mentioned that the periodic assemblies between the top management and the staff represent a core element of success. During these assemblies, the shared values of OUM such as professionalism, teamwork, integrity, innovativeness and caring are emphasised. “We keep reminding ourselves and educating the new staff members of the importance of these values,” said Tan Sri Anuwar. Moreover, external speakers from local and international organisations are invited to share their stories of success in OUM’s staff assemblies.

OUM and the government’s blueprints

When we asked Tan Sri Anuwar about his view of the latest blueprints announced by the Malaysian government and what strategies does OUM implement in fulfilling these blueprints, he expressed his support to the plans introduced by the blueprints. However, what matters more than a fantastic plan, he said, is the implementation of these plans. The continuity between the successive plans is not really visible. “Before announcing a new plan the outcome of the previous plan should be reviewed. What went well can be enhanced and what went wrong can be rectified,” said Tan Sri Anuwar. It is with successful execution of well-established plans where we gain recognition from the within our country and also those from other countries who might adopt our plans.

As far as OUM’s progress is concerned, the programmes and policies of the university match several of the strategies announced in the government’s blueprints. Tan Sri Anuwar explained three of them. First, the life-long learning strategy is one of the basic foundations of the university, said Tan Sri Anuwar. “During the last convocation in December last year, there was a 75 year old learner among the graduates, and this is not the first time,” he said. The learning process at OUM is not bound by age, place, or time. Anyone can learn anytime wherever they are located in Malaysia, he added. The second strategy implemented by OUM, which is in line with the government’s blueprints, is e-learning. Technology is, in fact, more important to OUM than many other normal universities since it offers the Open and Distance Learning (ODL) education. OUM spends generously on enhancing its IT system, mentioned Tan Sri Anuwar.

Globalisation of education is the third strategy mentioned by Tan Sri Anuwar. Although it is Malaysia’s first open university, OUM has formed many partnerships with other universities around the world. The quality of its programmes and dedication of its educators and learners have taken OUM very far. “We do not face any problem getting public trust in our programmes. More than 6,000 international learners are taking our programmes in their respective countries,” said Tan Sri Anuwar. In addition, OUM actively participates in conferences and other activities which discuss improving the quality of higher education. “We encourage our staff members to take part in these activities because we believe in meeting other people to exchange ideas and thoughts with them is very important.”

OUM’s strategies are in line with plans by the Malaysian government to provide a lifelong learning experience based on the latest available technologies so that Malaysia’s education system will always be recognised globally.

The sponsor of the oic higher education conference

OUM has sponsored the OIC Higher Education Conference during the 5th and 6th Muslim World BIZ in 2014 and 2015. Tan Sri Anuwar highlighted the significance of this event to OUM’s mission. “I believe in interacting with my colleagues from overseas. It is important to exchange views and best practices. OIC International Business Centre has created this platform for us and we find it significant to what we do in OUM,” he said. Distance learning is rapidly growing and at these types of events we can meet leaders and professionals from various parts of the world he added. In general, Tan Sri Anuwar acknowledged the efforts to organise the Muslim World BIZ which, in one way or another, have many benefits to offer. “You cannot go on your own. Regardless of what is the topic and who is the speaker, you will learn something,” he said.