The Rise of International Summer Schools in China

Since the early 2010s, many summer schools have opened in China. A simple keyword search with “暑期学校” (summer school) results in a list of options for studying on Chinese campuses during summer break. Ads boldly claim, “1/6 U.S. tuition,” “Ivy League faculty,” “Enjoy $200 discount,” “15 U.S. credits in one month,” and “Transfer guaranteed.”

These international summer school programs boast affordable fees and attractive locations. They also specifically target Chinese students enrolled in universities in the United States who intend to transfer the credits back to their U.S. institutions and thereby speed up their study.

As appealing as they are to students, these programs have raised concerns among international offices and registrars at U.S. universities. There is uncertainty about the quality of the education they provide and their lack of oversight and regulation. This article seeks to provide context for the phenomenon of the international summer school in China, and examine recent developments in the field.

Summer Schools

Harvard University started the first summer school in 1871 [1]. Initially, summer schools helped institutions use otherwise empty, idle facilities, and provide a “third semester” to shorten the entire program. In addition to their own students and external applicants, American higher education institutions usually open the doors of their summer schools to secondary students interested in exploring college culture and taking college-level classes.

As a growing global trend over the past two decades, summer schools have expanded all over Europe, the U.S., and Asia. In their European Association of International Education e-book “Summer Schools in Europe [2],” authors Jeroen Torenbeek and Edwin van Rest discuss the characteristics of various summer schools in these regions. For example,

The authors also see the uptick in summer schools as a natural result of the rise of self-financing in higher education. According to the e-book, just 15 years ago or so the majority of summer courses in continental Europe were entirely free and subsidized by the government. Today, however, more and more people are paying for credits and considering education as a “commodity.”

Peking University pioneered China’s first summer school in 2004. The summer session offers four types of courses [3] for different populations, including courses exclusively for its own students which are part of their undergraduate curriculum; public interest and advancement courses open to all; and international courses for foreign students.

A Package Tailored to Chinese Students

While many other prestigious institutions in China have established their own summer schools, a different breed of international summer school has become popular, growing in tandem with the surge of Chinese undergraduates studying abroad in U.S. institutions. These Chinese international summer programs are distinct from the summer schools developed directly by Chinese universities in that they are organized by third-party platforms, such as Sinoway International Education Group, which first opened for business in 2009, followed by LION International Summer Programs, and ONPS International Summer School Platform in 2010, AUIA, JNC International Summer School, China University Summer Schools Association, and Summer China Program & Internship (SCP) in 2011, among others.

Despite variations in partnerships and locations, these programs share striking similarities. The sessions take place at reputable institutions in big cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Chengdu over a four- to seven-week period. The courses are “American style” short courses on liberal education subjects, such as world history, psychology, and American government, taught by professors from North American institutions. The schools make sure that the course structure meets the standard requirement of U.S. course work, such as from 60 to 72 contact hours for a four-credit course; and that the structure includes assigned work outside of class, presentations, quizzes, and a final exam.

The actual numbers of students enrolled in these programs is impossible to determine from available data, but in 2014 JNC indicated that “the students at our summer school grow by 50 percent every year. [4]

Transferability Is the Key

The more credits students earn in summer school, the fewer they will have to earn in regular semesters at their U.S. universities. It costs roughly USD$800 to $1,200 per credit at U.S. institutions, but only an average of USD$350 per credit in Chinese summer schools, plus relatively lower living expenses. The difference in cost adds up to massive savings for these students—or appears to.

Upon completing the international summer programs, students are promised official academic transcripts issued by the host Chinese institutions, which are all well-known accredited universities. LION, one of the leading summer program providers, had achieved a milestone in 2014—until it attempted to transfer 10,981 [5] total credits to North American universities. Failure to transfer the credits earned through attending summer school not only means wasted time and money but could also risk a delayed graduation.

It was reported [6] that U.S. universities declined many credit transfer requests from international summer school students in 2013—an action most likely triggered by the revealing Chronicle of Higher Education article [7] published in January that same year on the “cheap, Chinese program.”

The article highlighted the profit-seeking nature of these programs, and exposed the insufficient regulation of international summer schools industry-wide. The reporter interviewed professors hired by these schools, who provided valuable insights into the schools’ dubious attempts at transplanting a U.S. education experience in China through what is basically a formulaic approach.

The organizers of summer sessions have responded by implementing new mechanisms to legitimize their credits. They now post detailed instructions for students to obtain pre-approval for a credit transfer from their university’s international office or registrar. More importantly, they reached an agreement with the Ministry of Education-affiliated agency CDGDC on the compliance requirement for official recognition.

CDGDC is the China Academic Degrees & Graduate Education Development Center, authorized by the Ministry of Education to conduct verification services for degrees and other educational qualifications. As a rule, CDGDC does not recognize courses in non-degree-granting programs or those outside the purview of the national education system, which is where summer schools lie.

Despite this, in 2015, CDGDC created a list of institutions [8] with which it already had an agreement. These agreements had to be signed off on by both the academic affairs office and the specific administrative department for summer schools at the host institutions. They contained conditions and protocols which the program had to meet in order to be recognized by CDGDC.

For instance, CDGDC recommended keeping the ratio of total credit hours to total school days under 6:1. Furthermore, the host institution had to review the faculty qualifications, course syllabi, and teaching materials. Only when all the criteria were met could they be considered within the verification scope of CDGDC.

However, due to a recent policy change [9], CDGDC is no longer providing verification for such programs, leaving many programs and students in a state of uncertainty.

Some third-party organizers sidestepped the Chinese recognition body by collaborating directly with U.S. institutions to issue transcripts. International Association of University Summer Sessions [10] claims that the transcript for its Chinese international summer schools will be issued by its American partnering institution, Broward College. SCP [11], another organizer, will have its transcripts issued by Portland State University and Texas Wesleyan University.

Infographic showing the structure of Chinese third-party summer schools [12]

Broken Chains of Quality Assurance

Tracing the roles of each party in the third-party summer school structure, it becomes apparent that there are outstanding question marks in the area between the faculty and the Chinese institutions with the organizers in the middle. The information available on these third-party organizers indicates that the platforms are in charge of the administrative aspects, functioning almost like a broker. What remains unclear, however, is to what extent the organizer and the host institutions respectively have authority over academic quality assurance, including the recruitment of professors, student management, schedule of courses, and course content.

Other Concerns

When the upsurge in international summer schools began, Chinese higher education institutions embraced it as part of internationalization [13]. But the exact relationships and capacities of Chinese institutions, foreign faculty, and the organizers lacked transparency.

It is also worth noting that some internationalization programs are recognized by China’s Ministry of Education, while others may not be. For example, Sichuan University has incorporated a joint institute with the University of Pittsburgh, where graduates in select majors will be awarded both a Chinese and U.S. degree [14] upon completion of the programs. On the other hand, Sichuan International Studies University operates a dozen Sino-foreign programs [15], including an international summer school, which do not lead to a recognized degree in China.

The quality of summer school education is not just a country-specific concern. A Harvard student once penned an opinion piece comparing the majority of summer courses taught at Harvard summer school to a watered down [16] version of similar courses offered during the regular academic semester. Since most institutions accept transfer credits with a minimum grade of C and indicate them on the transcript as Pass—and do not count them toward the GPA—the institution must determine on a case-by-case basis whether summer credits reflect the same academic rigor as those earned during the regular term courses. The institutional buyer must beware.

The increase in revenue-driven international summer schools in China is inseparable from the global gravitation toward the commodification of education. Nevertheless, international summer school—an economic shortcut in its essence—does not necessarily have to suffer academically, given proper supervision. Therefore, more research is required to develop quality assurance safeguards and appropriate evaluation methods for the credits earned in international summer schools—in China and elsewhere.