First chance for many, last chance for Earth

November 14, 1997

Tony Durham talks to the president of Commonweath of Learning, Gajaraj Dhanarajan (below) about the triumph of distance learning in Asia

For a child whose school journey began with a two-mile pre-dawn walk through the Malayan countryside, there were opportunities to acquire a curiosity about nature and a fierce belief in the value of education.

It could have turned out many other ways, but Gajaraj Dhanarajan makes it sound almost inevitable: from school in the tin-mining town of Ipoh to university in India; briefly back to the forests of home and then off abroad again to the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Canada, first as a student of entomology and then as an educator.

Dr Dhanarajan (Raj to his friends) now works in Vancouver as president of Commonwealth of Learning, an organisation which promotes collaboration between Commonwealth countries in distance education and educational technology. He is well qualified for the job, having played a leading role in introducing electronic distance education first to Malaysia and then to Hong Kong. This week he was at the 11th annual conference of the Asian Association of Open Universities, in Kuala Lumpur, to deliver a keynote speech and receive the association's first-ever Meritorious Award for contributions to distance education in Asia.

His life story exemplifies the Asian fervour for education that westerners regard with admiration, envy or even fear. It begins on a British-owned rubber plantation where his father worked as a clerk: "Going to school meant walking about two miles on a plantation road to a main trunk road, picking up a bus, then travelling about half an hour to 40 minutes on the bus and then walking from the bus station to school." School in Ipoh began at 7.30, necessitating a 5.30 start.

Though his father had risen a few steps up the managerial hierarchy by the time he retired, the family was never well off. Yet of the eight children, all but one completed post-secondary education and five are university graduates. This, Dhanarajan insists, was not untypical for lower-middle income families at the time, who saw education as the only escape from the poverty trap.

He went to India, which was the cheapest source of higher education, and studied at the Madras Christian College, an old Presbyterian institution affiliated to the University of Madras. With a BSc and MSc under his belt he set off for Imperial College London, where a job as a demonstrator enabled him to live while he took another masters degree, in applied entomology.

Returning to Malaysia he worked for three years as a research officer at the Forest Research Institute, developing "a passion for conservation" during his stint in the woods. In 1970 he was invited to join the faculty of the new University of Science, the country's second university. But soon he was headed for Europe again, to Aston University in Birmingham where he acquired a PhD in insect behaviour.

The "ant man" Edward O. Wilson had recently poked a stick into the conventional biologists' nest with his attempt to launch the new science of sociobiology. Researching termite behaviour, Dhanarajan was swept up in one of the great intellectual controversies of the 1970s.

However, his research was also irreproachably relevant to the rural economy of his homeland. "Termites are the great agents of nutrient recycling in tropical forestry," he says, speaking up for an insect that has had a bad press. "There are 2,000-2,400 species of termites, and probably about a dozen or so which would I suppose be called pests."

Back in Penang, Dhanarajan found that a new British experiment in distance education had attracted attention. "In 1969-70 when the Open University got started in the UK, it sparked off a lot of interest everywhere including the Science University," he recalls. The vice chancellor formed the idea of delivering science education at a distance, OU-style, in Malaysia.

Dhanarajan was not, at this point, a distance education enthusiast. But he had always had a feeling for adult education, which he attributes to his tough childhood: "You've got to be in a plantation to see the appalling conditions in which people live, and the ignorance." So when the vice chancellor offered him the project, his reaction was, "why not?" From that diffident beginning in 1974, distance education became his passion. On sabbatical at the OU in 1976 (an easy choice despite the lack of termites in Milton Keynes) he drew inspiration from the dean of science Mike Pentz, with his passion to inform and his belief that science could be taught to anyone who wanted to learn it.

Malaysia was not politically ready for the OU's open-to-all model, and students needed a minimum qualification before they could join the Science University's distance education programme. The country also had a policy that might now be described as affirmative action: as in India, access to education was made easier for lower caste communities, especially the Bumiputras or children of the soil. Just 25 students were accepted for the first courses. But numbers grew quickly.

"By the time I left, 25 per cent of the university population was doing off campus studies through distance education throughout the country, and that measured three or four thousand," Dhanarajan says. He advised the university authorities that they could take ten times as many. But the government saw education as a social engineering tool, and put a cap on student numbers.

The 1980s raised a new barrier for Asian students, as both Australia and Margaret Thatcher's Britain began charging full fees to students from overseas. Dhanarajan went to his friends in distance education across the Commonwealth with a proposal. He would set up a local support system so that, instead of Malaysian students travelling abroad, institutions in the UK and other countries could deliver their courses to Malaysia.

The institutions liked the idea. The OU liked it, but in 1988 was still limited by its charter to providing education within the UK. For Dhanarajan it was time to take a leap into the unknown. "The Australians and Canadians said yes. I was not sure where I was going to get my next loaf of bread, but I quit my university job and set up this network."

Students had begun to sign up when disaster struck. Australia extended the full-fee policy to distance education programmes. A potentially rewarding business overnight became a financial burden. Dhanarajan went to the education ministry, and asked for a licence to start a small college. He had a new scheme that would take the sting out of overseas tuition fees.

With his business partner Sharom Ahmed, Dhanarajan succeeded in establishing Disted College. "It became a fairly good business and it is still running as an excellent college," he says. "What I did was to take the distance education material, buy the rights to use it in Malaysia, deliver it in a classroom, and then have students do two years of it and get them transferred to wherever they want to go. That became the most famous twinning arrangement in the country."

At least colleges in Malaysia are now twinned with institutions around the world.

Experience has vindicated Dhanarajan's insistence that successful global distance education depends on local support, and in particular, the ability to discuss work with fellow students and tutors: "A lot of learning takes place by peer exchange. And then, however clever we are in packaging information, the human mind always raises a problem, a gap. It's helpful to discuss this with a tutor."

Learning resources such as libraries, laboratories, and counselling are also vital. Ignore any of these and the result will not be total failure but something that for Dhanarajan is almost worse: unfairness. The best students, he says, "regardless of what the situation is, will always succeed. But the average and below average are looking at personal frustrations and difficulties and failures."

He is scathing about commercial correspondence courses, and laments that many students drop out because no local support is available to them. "A dropout is a profit for a commercial enterprise," he cynically observes. But he insists that properly supported distance learning must shake off its second-class reputation: "It's not second class. It may be second chance. For many it is becoming a first chance."

At the end of 1988 came an invitation to help set up Hong Kong's open learning institution, which Dhanarajan accepted with delight. "That was wonderful," he says. "I really wanted to go and do some work there," and for the next seven years he did. As academic associate director under Don Swift, his job was to set up the academic programmes and learner support systems. He succeeded Swift as director and ran the Open Learning Institute of Hong Kong until 1995. Malaysia is stretched out over miles of land and sea. Hong Kong's problem is different, a question of access rather than distances in space. There the traditionally intense desire for education has been overwhelmed by a rampant work ethic.

"People do not have time to go into three years of knowledge gathering. They go into the workplace and then they realise how important it is to come back to improving themselves. In Hong Kong it's all about access rather than distance. It's turning out to be a very, very successful venture." The institute, now renamed the Open University of Hong Kong, teaches through print, broadcast radio, video, audio cassettes, telephone conferences, the Internet and personal tutorials.

The government provided a startup grant and gave the institute three years to break even, which it duly did. So the fees are high? "Very high," Dhanarajan admits, fully aware of the moral and political dilemma this implies. "While I sometimes think this is the right direction to take, I also very strongly feel that access should not be denied because there is not the resource, if one considers that access to learning has to be a basic human right." He is hopeful that new ways of handling this contradiction will be found. The colonial government set up a fund to support low-interest student loans, and the new administration has given the university HK$50 million (Pounds 3.8 million) for general development and HK$20 million (Pounds 1.5 million) towards the development of an electronic library.

"I am not happy about loan schemes," Dhanarajan says, "but I think one needs to be realistic. Governments have got themselves into awful difficulties on almost every front including education. The question for us is how long are we going to support individuals' learning needs? Should you stop at primary school? At secondary school? At universities? At postgraduates? It's a real question that one has to ask. If they are coming to the realisation that supporting people to learn throughout life is not affordable, then people like me who manage institutions must ask how could we take that on, and still be able to provide learning to those who need it. That's a challenge for managers."

Research is one thorny issue. With misgivings, Dhanarajan peeled off a small percentage of student fees to support research. It was done openly, and for a reason: "The institution has just one important resource, its people. You can't keep them if you don't support their own personal aspirations to do research. In the case of Hong Kong I had to make this decision. If you are going to keep good people then we jolly well also support their thirst for knowledge."

Amid predictions that technology will rapidly create a borderless global market for education, Dhanarajan's experiences demonstrate that there are still many cultural, political and economic barriers to the sharing of knowledge between nations. At the Commonwealth of Learning, he nurtures a dream of a pan-Commonwealth university while working on more immediate and practical projects. This work received a boost in August when the Commonwealth education ministers, meeting in Botswana, pledged the organisation Pounds 2.4 million a year for three years.

But beyond even the great groupings of nations such as the Commonwealth, there is the planetary perspective. Brenda Gourley, vice chancellor of the University of Natal, believes that the threat of ecological disaster may precipitate a global sharing of education and knowledge that mere market forces have failed to deliver. As a sometime educational adviser to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Dhanarajan seems likely to have a view on this. It took him till the 1980s, he says, to make the connection between education and conservation. But then he realised that actions on one part of the planet have an immediate effect on others. "The imperative of using educational tools to manage our planet becomes an obvious thing. So I agree completely with Brenda, and I think our role in doing this becomes even more critical."

Commonwealth of Learning:

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