Prime mover

Updated: 2013-03-22 07:33

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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 Prime mover

Hao Liu says it is exciting to be making US universities rethink study abroad. Provided to China Daily

A former math and philosophy student is running a business that offers summer studies to chinese at US universities

An old saying goes, "Idle hands are the devil's tools." But sometimes good things come from boredom.

Today, Hao Liu, 25, sits in a gleaming new CEO's office in the Sanlitun Soho area of Beijing because he could not find something to do with his summer break while studying abroad in the US.

"It was the end of my first year at Wabash College in Indiana and I was looking for a program over there where I could earn credits during the summer vacation." He failed to find a US university program that fit his needs, but he found some accredited, American-style courses in Hong Kong and Singapore.

"And then I thought, 'OK, but why not in China?" he says. "Plus those programs were limited, only for four weeks."

So Liu, who was studying mathematics and philosophy in the US, seized the opportunity to become an education entrepreneur.

Liu and a friend who had been at Harvard Law School entered a partnership to create SIE International Summer School, which opened on the campus of East China Normal University in Shanghai in 2010. While his friend put together a business model, chased investors and drafted contracts, Liu created a structure that was unique three years ago but has been copied widely since.

"We wanted to offer Chinese students studying in the US a summer at home with American-style classes taught by American professors for American university credits." The formula is very appealing to first- and second-year students, who would like to return to see family and friends in the summer break. "Many of them don't want to interrupt their studies and their parents don't want them to interrupt their studies.

"We took the idea to ECNU in Shanghai and they liked the idea, but they had never done anything like that before." Schools officials told him to try to recruit students and teachers and "we'll see".

Liu hoped to get about 60 students that first year, and signed up 240. Through his US contacts he also recruited 13 teachers - three from Wabash - and the company was up and running. Liu finished his own degree in Indiana last year, and today presides over more than 50 employees who organize summer-school programs at six universities around China. The Chinese schools provide facilities, but SIE recruits teachers and works with the US institutions to ensure the courses will be eligible for credit transfer, and that academic standards are strict.

The last was easier said than done. The newly arrived American teachers struggled with cultural differences, which sometimes had a dark side: an expectation that grades could be bought or inflated.

The pressure became so intense Liu feared it would bring the whole enterprise down. "If the curriculum or the grading lost integrity," he says, "we would lose our relationships with US universities and our credits would be worthless." So Liu's team instituted a review board at the end of the first year composed of one US teacher from each participating university and gave teachers carte blanche to enforce a grading sys tem as if they were at home. There was no grade-inflation pressure from the host universities since the teachers were not their employees.

But instituting the new board required fast action, since some competing programs were eager to show "success rates" and instituting no-fail policies to achieve them.

"The stigma of 'no-fail' would kill us in the long-run," says Liu, who is quirkily proud that 2 to 5 percent of SIE's enrollees fail. One professor who teaches a comparative religions course failed about one-third of the students last year, which Liu says reflects both the program's integrity and the fact that such philosophy courses are simply tough for anyone studying in a second language.

"I was a philosophy student myself and there is a lot of jargon, maybe some academic language, that's just not typical English conversation."

Liu says the students will not find the course to be easier, but they can choose not to have the transcript sent to their US school if they get a poor grade. So there is no damage to their GPA, and they have made a "test run" at the difficult subject so they will do better when they take it again at home.

"For students who have been struggling to maintain their level of academic performance in a new environment," says instructor Kesho Scott, "being back in China re-establishes their comfort zone but still gives them US-standard classes. And for the professors? We get a great opportunity to come to China and work without giving up our 'regular job' during the normal academic year."

While SIE has a US director who recruits from a base in Los Angeles, Liu makes about a half-dozen trips to the US himself every year. One always coincides with Wabash University's annual big football game vs DePaul, when the two rivals vie for the Monon Bell trophy.

"Since 95 percent of our students are based in the US, we prefer professors from the US, too," he says, though SIE has recruited a few from Europe and elsewhere. "So far we've had professors from about 40 American universities."

More than 3,000 students have now passed through the program, and SIE will offer classes in Vietnam for the first time this year as well as the six Chinese campuses in Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Hangzhou and Guangzhou. Renren, the social network known as the Facebook of China, is a major investor.

"It's exciting to be making US universities rethink study abroad," he says, adding that he hopes SIE will eventually offer a four-year program through at least one university. "It will be a Chinese diploma, American style."

While Liu can spit out facts and figures in a manner that is all business, he does not mind acknowledging that his own university days included fun as well as study.

"I had many friends - it was an all-male college so sometimes it was like a big fraternity," he says, adding that he misses the fresh air of his small-town life.

So was the beer better in the US?

He laughs out loud, shaking his head no. "It's much better here," he says, but concedes the circumstances were different in the small Midwestern town.

"In college," he says, "we pretty much drank beer from Wal-Mart."

(China Daily 03/22/2013 page21)