PurposeThis research attempts to reveal ways of addressing challenges in open universities related to empowering lifelong learning; establishing policies and strategies in dropouts, student portfolio and support services for students with special needs; and implementing online instructional design and strategies. Two institutions were investigated, namely National Open University (NOU) Taiwan and Universitas Terbuka (UT) Indonesia, both founded in the 1980s to serve lifelong learners with diverse backgrounds and needs. This study was aimed at understanding good practices and challenges for improvement for the two open universities in those areas being investigated.Design/methodology/approachThis research was qualitative using document analysis along with focus group discussions and interviews with administrators, academic staff, students and alumni to collect data for analysis.FindingsLifelong learning is the necessity of individual in societies for continuing professional development through enabling access to quality university education. Open universities have been tasked to cater for lifelong learners using non-traditional approaches, new technology and adapting to online learning and teaching in digital age. This research was exploratory, and the findings were expected to improve understanding of lifelong learning in open universities, particularly in NOU and UT.Practical implicationsFindings of this research are relevant to open universities to enhance its missions and define its possible new roles to serve lifelong learners.Originality/valueThis research reveals the roles of open universities in lifelong learning and enhances understanding of open universities that have a wide range of responsibilities in offering programs and courses to accommodate lifelong learners.

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