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University of the People: changing the world, one student at a time

February 04, 2019
topic:Economic Inclusion
tags:#education, #world peace
org:University of the People
by:Yair Oded
Established in 2009, the University of the People is the world's only tuition free online university, which now offers degrees in Business Administration, Computer Science, Health Science, and Education to students from all across the globe. Their diverse student body is comprised primarily of individuals who would have either limited or no access to education otherwise, as well as of members of vulnerable communities, such as refugees and undocumented persons.

What makes University of the People unique is that in addition to bequeathing knowledge and skills to their students, the university views its programs as a way to propel positive social and economic development throughout the world and promote peace.  

As the university celebrates its 10th anniversary, FairPlanet sat down with its president and founder, Shai Reshef, to learn more about this institution, how it operates, and the philosophy behind it.

FairPlanet: How would you describe the University of the People?

Shai Reshef: We are a non-profit, tuition-free, accredited American online university that is built to help people who don't have other ways to access education. We believe that the internet provides us the opportunity to bring education to these people.

What do you find to be the main causes that prevent people from accessing education today?

UNESCO stated that there are 100 million people who can’t attend higher education because there aren’t enough schools. And that’s the situation in Africa. Nigeria is a good example; there every year half a million people get into local university, but there are an additional one million people qualified for higher education but can’t attend a university due to lack of available spaces.

Other people, in many parts of the world, like here in the U.S. for instance, can’t afford to go to school because it’s too expensive. In other places, there are political reasons that prevent people from going to universities- whether because they are undocumented or refugees. A lot of people can’t do it for cultural reasons- women in Saudi Arabia, for instance. Then there are personal reasons- one might be disabled and is living in a place where universities aren’t accessible to people with disabilities, and so on.

What types of degrees does you university offer?

We started with an Associate’s Degree and Bachelors in Business Administration and Computer Science. Later on, we introduced a program in Health Science as well as an MBA. Just recently, we announced an MA in education.

Any reason you chose these particular degrees?

Most people who approach us do so as a result of hardship. For example, we have survivors of the genocide in Rwanda or the Tsunami in Asia. Because these people experience such great difficulties, they need education in order to have a better future, and for this reason we chose degrees that increase their chances to find a job.

Walk us through the admissions process, what are the requirements for enrollment?

When students sign up, all they need is to have a high school diploma and to demonstrate proficiency in English. If they can’t, we ask them to take an English course. Once they pass it, we ask them to take two foundation courses and pass them in order to continue their studies with us.

What is the “unique model” of the courses you offer?

Every course is eight weeks long. Every week, students log into the virtual classroom and encounter twenty different students. In addition to the other students’ profiles- they also find the lecture notes, reading assignments, homework, and the discussion question, which is the core of our studies.

The first student who logs in, let’s say from China, decides what to contribute to the class discussion after he or she had read the material. Then the second student, say from Indonesia, decides to comment on what the first student said. This way, a discussion develops between all of them under the supervision of the instructor, who interjects only to correct mistakes, answer questions nobody else could answer, or moderate the discussion.

Every week each student must write at least one original contribution. By the end of the week, they take a quiz that tests their understanding of the material and hand in their homework assignments, which are accessed anonymously and randomly by three of their peers. They then get graded on all of the assignments and their contribution. By the ninth week, there is a final exam and they get graded on the course.

Tell us about the makeup of the classes and the idea behind their structure.

In every class we mix students from twenty different countries. We want to get them to learn about different cultures, especially those they may regard as hostile. Israelis and Palestinians, for example, may sit in the same class and all of a sudden realize that they are so much closer to one another than they are to students from America or China. So beyond passing knowledge, what we try to do is make peace in the world, by showing people that their so-called enemies may be their best friend in the class.

Is there a particular target audience you try to reach in terms of students?

Our students come from 200 countries and territories. We strive for diversity, but the majority of students are the ones who face some sort of hardship. We try to address global issues that we believe education can help solve; that’s why we focus on refugees, and that’s why we focus on undocumented students. Another example is women from majority Muslim countries. At one point a special scholarship fund for women, which gave us a great push into the Muslim world, in places like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

How do you reach these communities?

First of all, there is media. We get positive coverage from different outlets who see how important our work is. Secondly, there is social networking online, and we try to push as hard as we can on this front. Thirdly, there is word of mouth. We currently have 18,500 students and we ask them to spread the word, which they are happy to do.

Your university is tuition-free but not fees-free. What about people who can’t afford to pay the fees?

We ask each student to pay $100 per course assessment, and on a MBA and MED level it’s $200 per course. It comes to $4,000 for a BA and $2,600 for a Masters level degree. They pay it only if they finish the course, and if they don’t have the money we try to help with scholarships.

How do you allocate the scholarships?

Until we started to grow, we had money for all of our students who asked for a scholarship (one third at the time). Now that we’ve grown, we only have enough funds to cover the fees of one-sixth of our students; we have 1,000 Syrian refugees and 2,000 people in Africa who are waiting for scholarships at the moment. We urge them to find scholarships elsewhere but if they can’t they get on a waiting list.

Where does the university draw its funding from?

With $100 per student per assessment we are financially sustainable. We reached financial sustainability when last summer we reached 15,000 students. It means that our existence doesn't depend on donations. Now, our ability to run such a university is first and foremost due to our use of technology.

Can you elaborate?

Human resources and buildings are usually the largest expenses of universities, and we spend very little on staff and have no buildings, since everything is online. For example, we have only four people in our admissions department, and rely heavily on technology to fill in the gaps. All the course assignments and grading process are automated.

Also, we rely heavily on volunteers. I am a volunteer. The provost and vice provost are volunteers. We now have over 11,000 volunteers who are backed up by paid personal and do replacements if needed. It’s true that there are things like amenities and counselling services, which are important, that are available to students at other universities and not with us, but it enables us to be tuition-free and stay financially sustainable.

What impact does your university have on the lives of its graduates so far? Do they succeed in assimilating in the job market with your degree?

Definitely, yes, even though we’re young. We are only ten years old. Four years ago when we got our accreditation we had 500 students, and in the past four years we really grew. So now we have about 700 graduates, many of whom work in amazing places. We have graduates at Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan… to our knowledge, all of our graduates are either employed or started their own small businesses.

Based on your experience, how would you define the impact of education on communities around the world?

I think that education is the secret to everything. Educated people have something to lose. Educated people are people who seek a future in front of them. Educated people are more open-minded and tolerant of other people. If you look at statistics, university graduates in the U.S. make 60% more than people with high school diplomas. Other statistics show that the higher the education level is of a country the less violent it is, and the more productive it is. So there is a correlation between the standard of living in a country and the level of education. Investing in education is by definition the interest of any country. Maybe not of any ruler, but as a human kind, yes, education is the answer. I personally believe that education is a basic right. I think that that’s our future. It’s the overall solution.

What are the greatest challenges facing the university currently?

Firstly, spreading the word. Those 100 million people who soon will not have seats at existing universities- they don’t know about us. So spreading the word is a main challenge. Our next big challenge, which connects to the first one, is that we don’t have enough scholarships, and that stops us from reaching out to communities we know would depend on them in order to enrol with us. And our final challenge is constantly figuring out how to manage growth. We double ourselves every year. I think that so far we’re doing well, mainly because we have so many people with experience who believe in what we do and have so much love for the project.

What is your vision for the university in the next few years?

I hope that we will continue to grow as long there’s a need for us. We want to be there until all the people are being served either by us or by others. I also hope that governments will adopt or replicate what we’re doing, and solve the challenge of higher education.

What motivated you to establish this university?

I was in for-profit education for twenty years, and did everything from kindergarten to university level education. Among other things, I started the first online university, for-profit, in Europe, through a collaboration with the University of Liverpool. What I saw was how powerful online education is- people can stay at home, keep their jobs, and still get great European education. What I also realized, was that for most people it was wishful thinking- they simply couldn’t afford it.

I ended up selling these universities and went into semi-retirement, only to realize that it wasn't for me. I was too hyper and wanted to continue and felt that now was my turn to give back and do it in a way that will have an impact on the world. I figured I should do it through education; not because it’s what I knew best, but because I thought: if you educate one person - you change a life, if you educate many- you change the world.

What inspired the particular model of the University of the People, then?

I realized that everything that made the online University of Liverpool program so expensive is also available for free: open-source technology, open-educational resources (content that people put online to others to use for free), and the then-new phenomenon of social networking, where people were willing to teach each other for free, basically as volunteers. I figured- if you bring all these factors together, you have a university. And that’s the University of the People.

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Yair Oded
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The university views its programs as a way to propel positive social and economic development throughout the world and promote peace.
Embed from Getty Images
UNESCO stated that there are 100 million people who can’t attend higher education because there aren’t enough schools.
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