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Shai Reshef, University of the People

After 20 years in for-profit education, Shai Reshef now has another goal: to make higher education accessible to as many people as possible globally. As founder and president of UoPeople, he talked to The PIE about the university and why he believes his target to teach millions tuition-free is attainable.

The PIE: How did UoPeople begin?

"A large percentage of them are coming from hardship to us: survivors of genocide; people who went through civil wars; survivors of natural disasters; and refugees"

SR: I spent over 20 years in for-profit education. Among other things, I started the first online university outside of the US in Europe – through a partnership with the University of Liverpool, we delivered the online degrees. Through this work I realised how powerful online learning can be. We had students from all over the world, they could keep jobs, stay with their family, but at the same time get this great European education. However, I realised that for most people around the world an online degree was nothing but wishful thinking. It was simply too expensive.

“I realised that for most people around the world an online degree was nothing but wishful thinking. It was simply too expensive”

So I ended up selling this university and went into semi-retirement, just to realise that it’s not for me; but I didn’t want to do more of the same. I thought: I have enough. It’s my turn to give back.

So I looked around and I realised that all the components that made higher education so expensive were already available and for free: open source technology; open educational resources; and the new internet culture, the social networks, where people share, teach and learn from each other for free. So I told myself: all I have to do is put it all together. So I created University of the People.

The PIE: How is it funded?

SR: When I announced the university in 2009 at a conference, the day after, we had an article in the New York Times and the next day we had hundreds of professors who sent me emails saying: “We want to volunteer.” Now we have over 3,000 volunteering professors and they are the backbone of the university. Our President’s Council, chaired by John Sexton, the president of NYU, includes the vice chancellor of Oxford, the president of George Washington University, the president of Berkeley and lots of others; I’m a volunteer, the provost is a volunteer.

Saying that, we have a sustainable financial model. While we are tuition-free, we are not free. We expect the students to pay $100 per end-of-course exam. These fees end up to be $4,000 for the entire BA degree, and it makes us sustainable because we have a very lean budget.

Until we get to that point, which will happen in two years, we lean on grants, and we have the support of the Gates Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Hewlett Foundation, and companies such as HP, Google, Microsoft, Western Union and many others.

The PIE: How many students are enrolled at the moment?

“While we are tuition-free, we are not free”

SR: We have about 2,000 enrolled and we are doubling the number every year.

UNESCO stated that in 2025 there will be 98 million students who will not have seats in the then-existing universities. We built a model for developing countries’ governments, where the lack of seats is huge, to say ‘you can educate every single person in your country because it will hardly cost any money’. We are here to serve the students, to stimulate others to replicate our model, and we will continue to grow until all the students that need services like the one we offer are served, whether by us or by others.

The PIE: You believe that the model is scalable then?

SR: The model is definitely scalable. And it’s not only that we give students an education; we give them the right education that they need to find jobs in the 21st century global economy. We teach them the needs of the market.

The PIE: Do students need to take an admissions exam?

“It’s not only that we give students an education; we give them the right education that they need to find jobs in the 21st century global economy”

SR: No. A student must demonstrate a high school graduation diploma from a recognised school and proficient English, but there’s no entrance exam.

The PIE: How do they demonstrate their English ability?

SR: If they’re not coming from an English speaking country or they haven’t studied in a high school where English was the main language of instruction and they haven’t taken an exam like the IELTS or the TOEFL, we created a special English course for them which they have to pass in order to be accepted. We don’t ask them to take the TOEFL or any other exam.

The PIE: What proportion of people who apply to UoPeople do you accept?

SR: Everyone that meets these requirements is accepted. There are two challenges: some people find our process hard even though it’s relatively short; the second is sometimes people have a hard time having the documents. And if they don’t have the documents we can’t accept them, unless they are refugees or have special status that means there’s a reason why they don’t have those. But we accept virtually everyone that has those documents.

The PIE: What does the virtual classroom look like?

“We make students part of a small world and that’s our small contribution to world peace”

SR: We put students in classes of 20-30 – often representing as many countries – each with an instructor. We believe that by doing so, we make them part of the global village, open their minds, and allow them to interact with fellow students who they normally wouldn’t have a chance to interact with. Actually, we make them part of a small world and that’s our small contribution to world peace – but that’s beyond the reason of them coming to study with us.

The PIE: And how does teaching work?

SR: Every course is nine weeks long. The first day the student goes into the classroom and finds the lecture notes, the reading assignment, the homework assignment of the week and the discussion question. The discussion question is the core of our studies. Every student must give at least one original comment to the discussion, and comment at least five times on other students’ contributions.

So the students discuss the topic of the week under the supervision of the instructor, who is in the virtual classroom every day to read what the students say and to get involved if there are questions. By the end of the week, they take a quiz, hand in their homework that is assessed anonymously by their peers under the supervision of the instructor, and they get a grade. They then take an exam and they can move to the next course.

The PIE: Is the exam taken remotely?

SR: The exam is sent to a proctor that the university nominates, and the student comes and identifies themselves with an ID and takes the exam in front of the proctor. The exam is sent virtually but taken under human supervision.

The PIE: What completion rate have you seen so far?

SR: In terms of courses, we have a 90-95% completion rate. The reason for that is we have academic advisors that actually try to help the students, because a large percentage of them are coming from hardship to us: survivors of the genocide in Rwanda; people who went through civil wars; survivors of natural disasters; and we have a lot of refugees too. In order to succeed, they need personalised attention and we do our best to give it to them.

And 75% of our students move to the second year.

“You read the New York Times, I read the New York Times, but Sudanese refugees who need our services might skip the New York Times

The PIE: How do you get the word out about the university to students?

SR: This is a challenge. We use the media and social networking to spread the word. We have 1.2 million friends on Facebook – we’re actually the second largest university on Facebook after Harvard – then there’s the TED talk I did.

Saying that, we still have a challenge because if you think about it, the New York Times have written about 10 articles on us, which is great, but you read the New York Times, I read the New York Times, but Sudanese refugees who need our services might skip the New York Times.

Take Nigeria: every year, there are about a million and a half students that pass the university entrance exam. There are about half a million seats for them. So every year, about two thirds, or about one million Nigerian students cannot carry on to higher education. This is a lost generation. It will change their life, it will change their country’s life if we can serve them – but how can they find out about us? We rely on word of mouth and media coverage.

Shai Reshef will be speaking at the eLearning Africa conference held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on May 20-22.

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