Summer study programmes at universities, colleges and schools span Celtic literature and history, creative writing, painting and drawing, through to music and dance and computer science and languages. Summer school students can also sample most areas of a traditional university curriculum.
Students have a wide choice of where and when to study. Most principal towns and cities across the UK have summer schools at a local university. A number of the grander public schools, such as Marlborough College run courses, as do colleges in the Irish Republic.
The term summer school is something of a misnomer: only rarely do students need to devote a whole summer to study. An intensive course usually lasts one or two weeks, with teaching, private study sessions and field visits during the day. Sometimes, centres run evening classes, and in most cases they provide a social programme after hours, perhaps finishing with an end-of-course meal. Students on the more intensive courses can stay in campus accommodation throughout the programme.
Some students opt for a local course: university extra-mural or continuing education departments run a plethora of courses. Some are just one or two sessions a week, over a longer period of time, so students can fit them around work or child-care commitments.
Local courses are generally far cheaper, as there is no need to pay for a room or for meals. A fully residential course can cost more than pounds 400 at a university, half board. Non-residential programmes start at around pounds 70 for a week of half-day sessions. These courses are advertised locally.
Nationally, 12 UK and two Irish university centres have grouped together to form the Summer Academy. The academy's courses are residential, lasting a week, and make strong use of the universities' locations. The programmes are particularly strong in local history, architecture and archaeology, as well as literature.
Summer Academy courses are mostly taken for pleasure, but a limited number now offer credits towards a university degree or diploma. Even on summer schools aimed mostly at the holiday market, universities recognise that some students want formal qualifications.
Students who take credit-bearing courses can put them towards a degree under CATS, or the Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme. CATS now covers full- and part-time degrees at most universities, so students can move between colleges without falling behind in their studies. Bringing summer schools into CATS means students can take a holiday programme as a taster for a degree, and carry their credits over to university if they do decide to study further.
Some universities have changed their summer courses so that the bulk give credits. Others have moved out of recreational study altogether. Loughborough, for example, now aims its summer school at existing, or potential, Masters students. Many are teachers, who take modules in subjects such as school management.
Kingston University runs a summer school aimed at 16- to 19-year-old students who want to prepare for an art foundation course; Westminster University organises an extensive media programme, including courses in radio journalism, photography and multi-media, and Brighton University offers several courses in art and design.
Creative expression is one of the most common reasons students give for taking a summer course. The result is often no more than an enjoyable few weeks, but sometimes the consequences reach much further.
Richard Love studied creative writing, short stories and play-writing at Edinburgh University. At the time, he was a scientific manager, but felt disillusioned with his career. Initially, he took the courses for pleasure, building on his interests in writing and the theatre. He has now left his job, and works partly as a dry-stone waller, and partly as a writer. He believes the summer school was instrumental in giving him the confidence to try writing professionally.
"The course was a turning point," he says. He learned about writing to deadlines, and found the swift feedback from both the course leader and students supportive. "The course kicked me into doing something with my writing, when I was in a position to afford to make the jump."
Summer schools can also help existing students with their degrees. Universities offering formal academic courses recognise each others' credits, and undergraduates can use the summer vacation to take a course that might not be on offer on their degree. Summer study shortens a degree course, too, and local authorities may pay fees and maintenance.
Sarah Clarkson is taking a degree in English literature at Lancaster University. She attended the university's own Summer University for two years, taking courses in romantic poetry and prose, and children's literature. Both gave credits, reducing the number of modules she needs to take in her final year.
Sarah's mother, Stella Clarkson, was a mature student on a history degree when she took a summer school course in medieval Latin. The course was not available on her undergraduate programme; she also says she benefited from studying just the language over the summer. During the academic year, she had to juggle coursework for several modules.
Both Clarksons found that they enjoyed studying with motivated people in small groups. Summer schools attract a far wider range of students than degree courses, and the tutors are often leading specialists in their fields. "The social side was wonderful," Stella Clarkson says. "I would do a course again, even though I would now have to pay for it."
"It is a lot more fun, and a good deal better than undergraduate teaching," Sarah Clarkson agrees. "With the Summer University, you are with people who actually want to do the course. It is a completely different atmosphere from studying in a lecture hall: everybody relaxes and students talk to each other about the subject."