Higher education is key to breaking cyclical poverty, yet it’s only accessible to a tiny sliver of the world’s population. Affordability, cultural barriers and limited space prevent students in all walks of life from completing tertiary schooling. Educational entrepreneur Shai Reshef has endeavored to close this gap with the creation of the University of the People (UoPeople), the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, online university.
UoPeople is built on the idea that higher education is a basic human right and a catalyst for global development. It was founded in 2009 and officially granted accreditation from the Distance and Education Training Council, a U.S. Department of Education authorized accrediting agency, in February 2014. The institution offers four degree programs in Business Administration and Computer Science, two of the most highly demanded disciplines by employers worldwide.
Since its inception, UoPeople has admitted more than 2,000 students from over 140 countries. The degree itself is not entirely free; each student is charged a one-time $50 admission administrative fee and $100 per course examination fee. However, the institution has aligned with strategic corporate partners to offer scholarship programs for those who can’t afford it. Hewlett Packard (HP) has a Women’s Scholarship Fund that provides financial support for 100 women for two years, as well as mentoring support from HP employees. Similarly, Microsoft 4Afrika was recently launched to support 1,000 African scholars between the ages of 18-34. Other partners include Intel and Western Union.
Reshef’s vision is “to create an alternative [for] those who have no other, an alternative that will be affordable and scalable, an alternative that will disrupt the current education system, open the gates to higher education for every qualified student regardless of what they earn, where they live, or what society says about them.” This vision has been made possible through financial support from the United Nations, the Clinton Global Initiative and Yale Law School, and support from over 3,000 volunteer professors and advisers from renowned global academic institutions.
UoPeople has been able to address a very critical global need – access to affordable higher education – with a very simple recipe – the internet. By the end of this year, there will be roughly three billion internet users worldwide, many of whom live in regions where geographical, financial or social constraints stand in the way of their education. Because the school leverages online, open source educational content and volunteer professors, it eliminates the need for fees associated with physical classrooms, instructors and textbooks. Limited enrollment space is also not an issue with virtual classrooms, and the courses are designed to work even with limited internet connectivity. The institution also promotes a peer-to-peer learning model to facilitate knowledge exchange and minimize the input required from professional volunteers.
Reshef hopes that UoPeople will set a precedent for other academic institutions. He notes that “a new era is coming, an era that will witness the disruption of the higher education model as we know it today, from being a privilege for the few to becoming a basic right,affordable and accessible for all.”