Pioneer on a mission to democratise higher education

Shai Reshef is on a mission. Troubled by UNESCO data estimating that millions of people worldwide risk being denied a college education simply because not enough seats will be available for them, he came up with an alternative model where capacity is a non-issue, tuition is free and the curriculum, drawn from Open Educational Resources, is designed by professors from world-class universities.

Founded in 2009, it's called University of the People or UoPeople, boasts more than 60 graduates to date, enrols about 2,000 students from more than 150 countries and offers associate's and bachelor's degrees in computer science and business. A bachelor-level programme in health science and MBA degree are in the works.

The non-profit endeavour boasts an impressive roster of partners and supporters, including a former US under-secretary of education, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and an emeritus vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford.

It's also drawing scrutiny. Is University of the People "the Holy Grail of higher education?" asked Mohammad Mansoor Khan, a University at Albany graduate student, who presented a case study of the model last week at a conference of the Comparative and International Education Society in Washington.

In an interview with University World News, Reshef said his motivation is simple: "Education should be a right for all, and not a privilege for the few." His comments below have been edited for length, flow and clarity.

You once said, "It's better to have decent education for all than exclusive education for few." What did you mean?

When you educate one person, you change that individual's life. When you educate many, you can change the world. University of the People is a model showing how to serve this mass of people. It democratises education by being tuition-free.

Our students don’t need to go out and buy textbooks. We don't use audio. We don't use video. You don't need broadband. Everything is text-based. Any student from any country with a high school diploma, adequate English skills and an Internet connection can study with us.

Nigeria is a great example of a country that is struggling to keep up with demand for higher education. This month 1.4 million Nigerian students are sitting for the annual Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examinations – or entrance exam – and yet the capacity of the country’s universities combined is 500,000 seats.

We build a model for countries like Nigeria, and we are open to do it for them, or to show them how to do it themselves. We are sure that as we grow countries and governments will approach us.

How did you get the idea for University of the People?

I spent 20 years in the for-profit education sector. I established the first online university outside of the United States. In doing so, I witnessed how powerful online learning can be.

Sometime after I sold the business, I saw that the resources used in the online programme I had established were now available for free, and that social networking had created a culture where people share, teach and learn from each other for free.

All I really needed to do is bundle all of these resources together.

What is the biggest challenge?

The people who need us most have a hard time finding out about us. We operate on a very lean budget. We are largely dependent on word-of-mouth.

The second challenge is financial aid. While we are tuition-free, there is an examination fee of US$100 per exam. A full-time bachelor degree student taking 10 courses a year for four years will pay US$1,000 per year; US$4,000 for the entire degree.

For those students who cannot afford even this, we offer a variety of scholarships. Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Western Union and many individuals have set up scholarship funds, but it’s an ongoing challenge to make sure the funding will be there.

Do you see the university as a disruptive force?

A new era is coming, an era that will witness the disruption of the higher education model as we know it today (but) I see our relationship with traditional higher education as symbiotic; we need them as much as they need us. There are great research universities like New York University, or NYU, Harvard, the University of California, Berkeley and others.

Our board is comprised of the leaders of such universities, as are our instructors.

How does University of the People work?

Our deans decide the curriculum of each programme. In our advisory board we have both academics and practitioners, so in the computer science advisory board, for example, we have professors from Yale and NYU, and practitioners such as Gabi Zedlmayer from HP. The same applies for the business administration board.

This dynamic ensures that we are given the right academic perspective while at the same time making sure that what we teach is relevant for the job market.

Within online study communities, students share resources, exchange ideas, discuss weekly topics, submit assignments, and take exams. For any given course, students are grouped in classes of 20 to 30 and study in week-long cycles.

Each week, students log into the classroom and find lecture notes, reading and other assignments, and the discussion question for that week. The discussion develops between the students under the supervision of an instructor.

At least four times each week, students are asked to raise issues and present ideas on the subject, as well as reply to their classmates. This method forces active engagement, deepens involvement and encourages self-discipline.

A course instructor is there to read all the material, to supervise the discussion and to get involved if needed.

By the end of the week, students hand in their homework assignment, which is assessed by their peers under the supervision of the instructor, who has the right to override the grade. They take a quiz to verify that they mastered the material, and continue to the next week of their studies.

By the end of the course, after nine weeks, students take proctored final exams, and they get the grade for all the components of the course and move to the next course.

The curriculum itself is supported by a community of educators, comprised of active and retired professors, masters level students and other professionals, who participate and oversee the assessment process. They also develop ongoing procedures for curriculum evaluation and development.

In some places, we have facilities for taking exams. University of the People students are required to successfully complete an appropriate number of proctored exams spaced throughout their programme of study prior to graduation in order to verify the student’s identity as a condition of awarding a degree upon graduation.

All proctors must be approved by the University. Students have to come to the proctor, identify themselves, and take the exams in front of the proctors.

University of the People, or UoPeople, students and graduates also receive internships, mentorships, and job opportunities from our global corporate partners, including Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. UoPeople’s Career Service Center prepares students to find jobs after graduation.

University of the People relies on volunteer labour. Is that sustainable?

We draw from more than 3,000 highly skilled and experienced volunteers to run the university, using about 10% of that pool, supported by a small cadre of paid staff. The pool includes retired professors, many from the best universities around the world, who are in great physical and mental shape, and are eager to continue being productive.

Like me, the provost is a volunteer, as are the deans. However, the vice provost and the associate provost for academic affairs are paid. Similarly, the director of finance is paid while the CFO is a volunteer. Because we rely on many volunteers, we want to use their time efficiently.

Whereas many university professors squander an enormous amount of time dealing with bureaucracy and administrative work, we remove this burden by using our paid staff.

This way, volunteer faculty can focus on the tasks for which their skills are most important. Understudies can immediately step up to the plate if a volunteer must discontinue his or her service. So I would say, yes, absolutely, this model is sustainable.

Your annual report suggests that retention has improved rather dramatically. How did you achieve that?

When we just started, we had an open door policy where any high school graduate could be accepted, no matter what their level of English was.

The result was that we accepted unqualified students who could not make it – we realised it hurt not only them, but at the same time, since our entire method is peer-learning, having unqualified students hurt the overall quality of the discussion.

In time, we became much more strict with our English requirement. If a student comes to us and we are not sure about his/her English or mathematics level, we put them in a non-degree student course for English and/or mathematics, which they must pass in order to be accepted to the programme. As a result, our retention rate has increased.

Explain your relationship with New York University and its Abu Dhabi campus.

Our relationship with NYU is a particularly strong one. High-performing UoPeople students are eligible to be accepted to NYU Abu Dhabi, where they enjoy full scholarships. Two students so far have taken up this option and both are currently studying there.

Our first student to get accepted there comes from Haiti. His family lost everything in the earthquake, which destroyed 28 of the country’s 32 universities and seriously damaged the other four. He is studying computer science with a minor in economics and has one more year to go before graduating.

The other student is a young Afghan Muslim woman, who is now in her second term there, studying towards a bachelor of arts in economics.

Congratulations on your accreditation with the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, a national accreditor recognised by the US Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. As you know, traditional non-profit colleges and universities in the United States aspire to be accredited by regional agencies.

We believe the standards of the Distance Education Accrediting Commission are equivalent to those of the regional accreditation agencies, and at this stage we believe that it is sufficient for our students.

Like other universities, UoPeople cannot guarantee that its students or their credits will be accepted by other academic institutions, since this is determined by each institution individually. However, we believe that universities will look positively upon our graduates.

At this point, to our knowledge, none of our graduates has tried to be accepted to other universities.

Also, when talking to our students and graduates, we know that work placement has not been an issue, and in some cases, we know of students who even got raises and promotions.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

I am most proud of the students whose lives and families’ lives we have changed. I often think about Joe Jean, who came from the rubble of Haiti and the many challenges he faced, and of how we gave him the stepping stone he needed to get to where he is today at NYU, fulfilling his dreams.

I think about our students who are being given a chance to get ahead in life, after having survived all kinds of hardships and challenges thrown their way, whether it be financial hardships, poverty, genocide, conflict, natural disasters, racial discrimination, or simply being female in a country where it’s not acceptable to study… the list goes on.

Our students and their stories make me proud.