Credit Transfer or Joint Program – How to Determine Which One Is More Suitable?

Published November 2020

As the objective of a credit transfer program is to relocate students to study on the offshore campus, the students’ capability to study abroad (academic score and financial backing) is the key driving factor. It’s common for Chinese institutions to offer one cohort multiple offshore programs with different study destinations; for any international partner, your success in recruiting can only be guaranteed by those students who believe your institution is a better choice than the rest. Students must weigh out the costs and benefits of each different option—studying in a different country, different institute, or remaining in China—before mapping out their future.

As a generalization, high ranking, well-known institutions (either through ranking or having obtained their reputation in other ways) have much better chances of success. Mike Yu, Former Director of International Development of BOSSA, suggests that any comprehensive university with a ranking behind worldwide 300 has only a slim chance of building a successful credit transfer program; a joint program is more likely to present a better outcome. Although a credit transfer arrangement may still succeed through a niche discipline, Mike pointed out that credit transfer programs often face much stronger competition with some programs connected to 20+ options. Universities without top ranking will need to come up with solid selling points. The cost of maintaining a credit transfer program is also often much higher than the international institution’s initial expectation, given the rising HR and management costs, plus frequent travel for onsite, direct promotion with the students. Over time, a joint program structure appears to be more cost-effective. 

Undergraduate (UG) vs. Postgraduate (PG)

The vast majority of TNE programs are delivered at the UG level for one obvious reason: UG programs provide a longer runway to achieve an economic equilibrium.

Generally speaking, unless the providers can offer some worthwhile attractions, either a commendable history or unique learning experiences, most institutions are better off with starting a UG TNE program. 

Location Considerations

Whether you are considering top tier cities, less known places or special trade-free zones, there is no set answer for a superior location. Each opportunity needs to be assessed on a case-by-case basis. You may be lucky to find a vacuum of space in a seemingly crowded environment; you could also face an unexpected direct competitor in a 3rd tier city. While a special trade-free zone may not have a desired pool of students, the key is to form a clear picture of its ability or potential to attract students outside of the region. The preferential treatments may be attractive, but do they stack up when weighed against the shortcomings?

3rd Party Involvement

With nearly 30 years of history of joint programs / joint institutes in China, many have held the misconception that the industry must be very well-equipped with knowledge and know-hows, that there is no need for a 3rd party. Unfortunately, in most cases, this frame of mind has been overly optimistic. While traditional retail recruiting has become increasingly competitive, a growing number of agents are specializing in partnership building to bridge this gap. 

Many of the early joint programs were established by 3rd parties, some working well and others disastrous. Despite decades passing, much of the knowledge relating to joint programs has not been digested by institutions; nor does every institution have the resources or growth mind-set to closely monitor all the changes on policies and market trends. Today’s joint programs have made room for 3rd party agencies to play significant and positive roles in the establishment of these programs; some agencies continue to prove their value on an on-going basis. It’s important for institutions to learn what they don’t know, and when such gaps can not be confidentially filled internally, allow an experienced, reputable 3rd party to be part of the execution team. Due diligence checks on a 3rd party should be compulsory. Some 3rd parities are lacking in professionalism or even engaged in fraud and other unethical issues, severely damaging not only the reputation of the institutions, the joint program itself, but also eroded the supporting role filled by 3rd parties. Without clear guidance and support mechanisms, some institutions have established a dozen joint programs yet reaped little benefit over the years, resulting in the joint programs becoming a burden to the management.

As a relations-based society, we believe China is a playing field which requires a multi-dimensional management structure. Institutions should not rely on a single resource to maintain a complex relationship; instead, a matrix structure team is more likely to ensure your lasting success. 

2+2, 3+1, or 4+0

International institutions would like to have students transferred to offshore campuses as soon as they can; however, students may not have sufficient English proficiency or have a budget constraint. While at face value, it’s easy to see that 2+2 appears better than 3+1, and 3+1 appears more attractive to international players than 4+0, the reality is never as simple. Firstly, MOE discourages 2+2 programs; to obtain a new 2+2 approval at the moment is highly unlikely. Secondly, if the program doesn’t get sufficient student enrolment in the first place, or has a low conversion rate at the end of the 2nd year, it would not only demotivate the operators but also jeopardise future MOE renewals.

Starting from 2020, MOE particularly encouraged the 4+0 dual degree in-country model (3+1 approaches are still possible). This pushes everyone to look at a revenue-sharing based model. There are successful cases for the revenue-sharing model, but it does require significant understanding of the local market and revenue structure; teaching and other resource commitment are crucial.

For a typical 4-year Chinese undergraduate degree, the international provider may be required to offer 16-18 subjects, mostly during the 2nd and 3rd year. Studying on the offshore campus earlier is always a feasible option for those who wish to do so. Recruiting international guest lecturers through a 3rd party is not an uncommon practice, with appropriate quality control. 


Both joint programs and joint institutes can be a successful choice in today’s environment, whether through revenue-sharing or conversion of students to offshore campuses. Key factors for success are 1). identifying and screening opportunities carefully; 2) strong buy-in and support from senior management and faculties, and 3) an experienced execution team with local knowledge. 


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