Open Eye: It all depends what you mean by Distance

Open Eye: First Tuesday
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Generally speaking, it is best to avoid generalisations. More so when they might be interpreted, even by the very narrow minded, as condescending or, worse, racist.

Nevertheless (Oh no! He's going for it!) it is worth noting that Singaporeans, of any race, are as delightful, friendly, and welcoming to strangers as you are likely to find on half a world's march. There: that didn't hurt, much.

Just don't ask them for directions, that's all.

Not only do they appear to lose all sense of navigation: they immediately lose the grasp of any known language, much the same as a Maltese does when - as he inevitably will - he crashes into your car.

This intelligence dawned on me when, while visiting Singapore, I realised that people, tourists in the main I suppose, were bypassing the obvious locals and asking me for directions.

Did I look like the person most likely to know the route to City Hall or to the nearest tube station? Crimson of hue - a tint I acquire by the simple fact of leaving Heathrow - and leaking at every pore, I thought I looked distinctly unlocal. I did, however, know the way. And yet whenever I was doing the asking, the people I accosted simply seemed to seize up.

There was, as you would expect (even, or maybe especially, in a gross generalisation) an exception to the rule. Two, actually. I asked these guys the way to a restaurant that I knew was in the vicinity.

The first said: "It's there - look, you can just see its neon sign across the road, behind that building site." His chum, ignoring him, pointed down the street. Eventually I realised that he was telling me to go to the end of the street, and hang a right.

Thanking them both, I started to cross the road when the second one grabbed my arm and said: "No, go down here to the traffic lights..."

I said: "But it's over there! I can see it!"

Unperturbed, he continued: "...take a right and it's along there at the second or third crossroads."

According to an old Singapore hand the explanation is that the geography, the landscape and the skyscape, change so quickly and so frequently (it has been known for new apartments to be opened at the rate of one a minute) that the locals simply get flummoxed.

Places that were there last week might have disappeared and been replaced this week. Residents sometimes have trouble, he said, finding their way home.

It's much easier for a tourist whose knowledge of local topography is fresh as paint. The mascot of the island might well be the Merlion, but the symbol is the crane - the wingless variety.

The OU, too, has grown at an impressive rate. We were in Singapore to share the pleasure of nearly 500 OU students on their graduation, about 150 more than last year.

Thirteen hours flying time and seven hours difference on the clock, it could even be a definition of distance learning. Four of them collected the first Singaporean OU MBAs.

This reminded me that a former employer with ideas above my station once announced, out of the blue, his intention to send me to Harvard "to get an MBA". No matter that I didn't have a first degree - at that stage I hadn't even had first degree burns - he assured me that he would fix it. It was only when he discovered that I would need to be away from the office for more than a long weekend that, just as suddenly, he dropped the idea.

More recently one of England's oldest and most prestigious universities offered me a place on a masters course by distance learning, and then mentioned casually that they would expect me on campus at least 22 weeks of the year. Yes: I said by distance learning. But, they said, it was a concept new to them, and they wanted to get into distance learning gradually.

So when I came to the OU I was thinking: Well, not much competition out there.

Now, only a few months down the line, everybody's doing it.

This column started in Singapore and this morning's edition of The Straits Times had more than a dozen advertisements from overseas universities for distance MBAs alone.

Yesterday there was a similar number, from different institutions: 26 in two days. Some, as you might expect, were from Australia (what other sort of learning could they possibly have, there?) and a few from the US. But the majority were from the UK, some from universities you wouldn't have thought of - and I am not even including Leeds Metropolitan or Sheffield Hallam, each of which counts me as an alumnus (Night School Division).

It seems fairly obvious, doesn't it? The Far East experienced a severe economic shock wave - serious enough for its constituent countries to call back students who were studying overseas. So, if students could not afford to travel and subsist and buy education abroad, it seemed reasonable to take the education to them.

And then I noticed that one of the UK universities was advertising for its 16th intake.

They take education seriously in Singapore. While the OU was applauding its new graduates, Singapore was being declared the most competitive nation in the world. It is also, and has been for some time, the most wired. That's why the place is so eminently suited to learning with the OU.

Other institutions advertise distance learning, but they still require bums on seats, in the UK or wherever, to a greater or lesser extent. The OU operates with electronic technology - plus face-to-face contact at the Singapore Institute of Management. That totally negates a need to fly to Huddersfield or Aberystwyth.

There's even talk of a "virtual graduation ceremony", although whether donning a gown and mortar board (they wear headgear in Singapore, and very smart they look, too) and sitting in front of a laptop waiting for it to laser-print a degree certificate, would provide the same sense of occasion, seems to me to be doubtful.

What's certain is that the other institutions will smarten up their acts.

It is important to remember that universities were originally created to educate monks, and some haven't changed much in the meantime. But nowadays even monks buy air tickets and operate laptops and can benefit from learning at a distance.

Thirty years is a long time for the OU to have enjoyed a virtual (if you'll excuse that expression) monopoly and it has taken this long for the idea that Harold Wilson first saw in Chicago in the Sixties to find its way back to the States.

The column is being topped out in Boston (56 universities or colleges in the City, including Harvard, with 300 more in the neighbourhood, apparently) and everyone I meet says: "Distance learning... yes! - We're gonna have to get in to that, now that you guys have arrived!"

They will catch up eventually, even if the world of Higher Education is not best known for its speed of action. And when they all do, when they all realise that Distance means off-campus and even out of sight, guess what?-The OU will have become the oldest of the conventional-style universities.

Singapore was not, oddly enough, the best place to be last month if you wanted to avoid all the hype about Nick Leeson. The local paper was lifting every word from the UK blats and actually ran a cartoon strip about his reported prison experiences.

But being there did provide the opportunity to revisit a watering hole that he (and I) used to favour.

It's called Harry's Bar and is part of the reconstituted development of Boat Quay. It is still packed with bankers and the owners have invented a drink - well, they would, wouldn't they? - to mark their connection with the world's biggest loser.

Whisky-based and called Bank Breaker, it is described in the cocktail menu as being "in honour of Nick Lesson". Clearly need for a spelling leeson there, methinks.

Revel Barker

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