Q: Please tell us about yourself, educational background and the path that led you to The University of the People (UoPeople)?
Reshef: I spent twenty years of my life in the for-profit education sector. Among other accomplishments, I established the first online university in Europe. In doing so, I witnessed how powerful online learning can be. We had students from all over the world. They stayed at home and while continuing their jobs, they were able to obtain a high-quality European education. At the same time, I realized that earning an online degree was nothing more than wishful thinking for many people. Because the program was too expensive, they could not afford it.
Unfortunately, the current higher education system is failing millions of potential students—millions who graduate from high school, millions who are qualified for higher education, millions who want to study yet cannot access higher education for various reasons.
The first reason is financial. Colleges and universities are expensive. In large parts of the world, higher education is unattainable for the average citizen. Higher education is not a right for all but is, rather, a privilege for the few. The second reason is cultural. Many students who are qualified for and can afford higher education, who want to study, often cannot because higher education is not a “decent” place for a woman. This is the story for countless African women, for example, who are prevented from higher education because of cultural barriers. And the third reason? UNESCO has stated that by 2025, approximately 100 million students will be deprived of higher education simply because there will not be enough seats to accommodate them, to meet the demand. They will take a placement test, they will pass the test, but they still won't have access because there are no places available.
Q: Tell us about UoPeople: Why UoPeople? And who created it? What programs and services do you offer and who do you serve?
Reshef: In the previous question, I mentioned the reasons why I founded University of the People. As I looked around, I realized that all of the resources that had made the online program in Europe which I had originally established expensive, were now available for free: open-source technology, Open Educational Resources, and a new internet culture where people share with and teach one another. At that point, I realized that all I really needed to do is bundle all of these resources together. The University of the People is the outcome. It is the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited, degree-granting online university, dedicated to opening access to higher education globally. We create an alternative for those who may have no other—an alternative that will be affordable, accessible, high quality, scalable and one that will disrupt the current educational system and open the gates to higher education for all qualified students, regardless of constraints.
UoPeople opened its gates in 2009, was accredited in 2014, and enrolls more than 3,000 students from over 180 countries. It operates using open-source technology, Open Educational Resources and the assistance of 4,000 volunteers coming from top universities around the world. The University offers associate’s and bachelor degrees in Business Administration and Computer Science. The University’s leadership includes esteemed academics from Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, Yale and more. UoPeople's President’s Council is chaired by NYU President Emeritus John Sexton and includes Vice-Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Oxford Sir Colin Lucas, Former U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha Kanter, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, and Nobel Laureate Torsten N. Wiesel among others.
UoPeople is affiliated with the UN, UNESCO, the Clinton Global Initiative and Ashoka, among others. UoPeople has academic partnerships with NYU, to accept students, and Yale Law School ISP, for research. UoPeople's corporate partners include Microsoft, which sponsors scholarships for African students including all costs towards their studies, internships, mentoring and job opportunities; and Hewlett Packard (HP) which sponsors a women's scholarship and mentoring program. UoPeople is supported by several foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Fondation Hoffmann, and more.
Q: What challenges does UoPeople currently face? And what opportunities do you see in the future for your organization?
Reshef: Creating and implementing an online university that is affordable and accessible to people around the globe is not without its challenges. One challenge is managing and using efficiently an army of volunteers.
A second challenge is getting the word out to our target audience of students. Although we have had publicity in prominent media outlets such as the New York Times and through TED Talks, many of our potential students are not consumers of this kind of media. People who stand to benefit from tuition-free education need to know about us, and yet the people who may need us the most may have a hard time finding out about us. As a nonprofit, and to remain tuition-free, UoPeople must operate on a very lean budget. Thus, without a wealth of funds for marketing, the university is largely dependent on word of mouth and media coverage. Though our mission is to ensure that no one is left behind for financial reasons, we need help both making sure that students can find us in the first place and being able to assist them with financial aid, if necessary, once they do. An ongoing challenge, then, is making sure we are visible and accessible, when people who need us are researching their options, and ensuring we have the scholarships to support them if they attend.
A third challenge to implementing this model is facilitating diversity in admissions. For instance, UoPeople often has applicants who want to study at the university, who stand to gain the most from tuition-free higher education, and who fit our mission, but who, for various reasons, do not have the necessary documentation (e.g., refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people). To help meet this challenge, as of November 2014 we have been working with the UN Refugee Agency (the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) to establish policies that make the admission process for refugees as easy as possible in cases where official transcripts and documents cannot be obtained. Thus, UoPeople is attempting to tackle one of its biggest challenges, that of reaching out to the least upwardly mobile people, refugees and asylum seekers. Reaching out to this population is an initiative most in line with our mission: to open the gates to higher education to all qualified students and help those most in need of education overcome other barriers. We are hopeful that this model of collaboration with the UN Refugee Agency can be replicated wherever there are refugees and can be scaled up to serve millions of refugees around the world, providing them with access to higher education.
A fourth challenge faced in implementing this model is that some of the students UoPeople seeks to help educate live in areas with unstable electricity or broadband access. Although we could argue that the spread of technology will ultimately bring education and academic studies to every corner of the world, today many of those who have Internet access still don’t have broadband, which limits the educational benefits of technology. To help mitigate this situation, we have sought to design courses that use the technology that is available to students, not the broadband we might wish they had. Such efforts have helped increase our outreach to more than 180 countries across the world. Nonetheless, we recognize that conditions for online education around the world remain less than ideal; some of our students get by through accessing classes as they move around, looking for free wireless Internet; other students, who do not even have running water or electricity in their homes, must go to a lot of effort to reach their classwork by studying from Internet cafés. We remain hopeful that as more people become educated and inspire the desire for education in others, they will advocate for change, and conditions will continue to improve.
Q: Why is free university level education important?
Reshef: I believe that when you educate one person, you can change their life; when you educate many, you can change the world. The University of the People (UoPeople) believes that access to higher education is a key ingredient in the promotion of world peace and global economic development. We view higher education as a basic right, and believe that it can both transform the lives of individuals and be an important force for societal change. Education plays a fundamental role in strengthening respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and in promoting understanding and tolerance. An educated world is a better world. Educated people have bright futures ahead of them.