Summer Schools in Europe: the latest higher education ‘commodity’

Summer Schools in Europe: the latest higher education ‘commodity’

Summer schools are booming business for universities today, and as such are an inspiration for the innovation of universities’ internationalisation strategies. Many of the existing summer schools have formed new alliances; some offer exchange programmes in a more traditional mould, but other forms of cooperation are becoming increasingly common. There are programmes that include modules in different countries, coordinated by a single summer school or a group of institutions working in partnership.

The summer school is a remarkable feature of higher education today. It entails a relatively short course, taken during the summer break by students mainly from other institutions and other countries. That is the ‘dictionary definition’ of a summer school. This next aspect is perhaps more interesting: after the explosive growth of exchange programmes, both on a European level and global level, we now see the rapid emergence of self-financed education whereby course fees are paid directly by students (or their parents). Although this has long been common practice in the United States, it is little short of revolutionary for Europe. Self-financing, and the associated consumer choice, may well represent the summer school’s greatest potential, an interesting part of the development of more customised education in order to provide for the need of individual profiling.

From free to fees

Over the past 15 years, the summer school has undergone a major transformation. Only a decade ago, the majority of summer courses in continental Europe were entirely free, the running costs being covered by government subsidies, and many were concerned with the local language and culture. They were often part of an inter-university exchange programme, and few carried course credits. This has all changed: today’s students ‘buy’ a course that is relevant to their degree programme and which will allow them to gain the required number of credits. They demand value for money. Is this the end of a trend? Perhaps, but it is also the beginning of another. This ‘education consumer’ is no longer solely interested in short courses, a growing number of universities discover. The student also seeks courses of longer duration – one semester or perhaps a whole year – for which he or she is willing to pay.

In short, the summer school can be seen as the culmination of one trend – that of ever-shorter periods abroad – but also the start of another: education for which the costs are directly visible and directly paid; possibly one of the consequences of the international trend to consider education more and more as a commodity.

Latest research on summer schools

By drawing on data from two websites – StudyPortals and Summer Schools in Europe, Jeroen Torenbeek and Edwin van Rest examine the quality and quantity of today’s European summer schools in an international context. Their research leads to conclusions that are frequently striking, and always challenging, for decision-makers in international higher education. Here are just a few of the findings:

  • The number of summer school courses offered in Europe grew by at least 200% in the past five years
  • The smaller European countries rank surprisingly high by looking at the number of courses offered
  • Over 50% of the summer school market is in the hands of only 6% of the providers
  • Last year some 40 000 students participated in a summer school programme
  • It shouldn’t be too hard to find the right incentives to involve academic staff, knowing that last year over 4000 people gave up at least part of their summer recess to teach the courses

Want to know more? Download the e-book, Summer Schools in Europe, authored by Jeroen Torenbeek and Edwin van Rest, and produced by the EAIE.

Sign up for the upcoming EAIE Academy to learn more about the topic.