China, in many ways, has become the wild west of higher education. It seems that individuals are free to do pretty much anything they want, as long as they stay clear of the Chinese government. Chinese entrepreneurs continue to devise new schemes to exploit the extraordinary demand for a foreign higher education. And there doesn't seem to be much oversight.
The newest scheme was described in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education and involves hiring professors from US universities to teach summer school in China so that Chinese students can earn US college credit in a short, cheaper class closer to home. These for-profit schools have been established by US-educated 20-something Chinese familiar with both cultures and both systems. Cheap US college credit without leaving home— a promising venture with large profit potential. The formula is simple and smart—set up shop on a well-known Chinese university campus and then hire US professors to come teach courses that “look like” they satisfy general education requirements at a US university. But the host university only provides real estate, not necessarily supervision. And where supervision is supposedly provided, the evaluation criteria are anything but clear. And these new summer schools are accountable to no one for the quality (or lack of it) of the students enrolled or the education provided to them.
Apparently, since these schools are set up primarily to address the desire for cheap and easy US university credit, cheating appears to be a big problem and the very part-time faculty in residence for a short time are ill-prepared to address it. But the scariest part of this story is the number of US universities apparently accepting these credits. And worse, these programs are expanding their services to the study abroad market, marketing programs to US universities that want to offer their students a semester in China without any effort from the home campus.
So, you might wonder, what is wrong with this? These programs are built on US-style syllabi by graduates of US universities familiar with the requirements of American higher education. They are taught but professors who teach at accredited US universities. They are housed on the campuses of recognized Chinese universities that issue transcripts for the classes taken, something that perhaps gives them some tacit creditability.
I can’t help but ask the somewhat trite question, “If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, etc. is it a duck?” The phenomenon of Chinese summer schools begs the question of what qualifies a classroom experience as appropriate college-level study? Is it truly just a simple formula of a course syllabus taught be a professor? Can college classes be so easily detached from the whole of the degree program but still have the same value? These are tricky questions. Many US colleges deliver their own summer classes overseas for credit—is there a difference?
Additionally, many US universities offer classes on or near their main campus through separate extension or continuing education entities that are taught by professors who may or may not have other connections with the same university. The primary purpose of these programs is to generate revenue. One can only hope that the close affiliation between an accredited university and its own extension program represents a level of oversight and accountability less likely to exist between a US university and an free-standing, independent Chinese summer school. There are many intangible measures of quality here that are hard to define but need to be examined carefully before credit is awarded towards a US degree.
I am not saying that only classes designed, delivered and supervised by accredited universities have educational value. I am warning that we shouldn’t award college credits quite so readily. There’s more to it than just making it look like a duck. I’m sure that we’ll soon see a new agency in the US established to accredit for-profit summer school programs in China. After all, anything that sells is worth accrediting.