At the online University of the People, anyone with a high school diploma can take classes toward a degree in business administration or computer science — without standard tuition fees (though exams cost money). Founder Shai Reshef hopes that higher education is changing “from being a privilege for the few to a basic right, affordable and accessible for all.
I would like to share with you a new model of higher education, a model that, once expanded, can enhance the collective intelligence of millions of creative and motivated individuals that otherwise would be left behind. Look at the world. Pick up a place and focus on it. You will find humans chasing higher education. Let’s meet some of them.
Patrick. Patrick was born in Liberia to a family of 20 children. During the civil war, he and his family were forced to flee to Nigeria. There, in spite of his situation, he graduated high school with nearly perfect grades. He wanted to continue to higher education, but due to his family living on the poverty line, he was soon sent to South Africa to work and send back money to feed his family. Patrick never gave up his dream of higher education. Late at night, after work, he surfed the Net looking for ways to study.
Meet Debbie. Debbie is from Florida. Her parents didn’t go to college, and neither did any of her siblings. Debbie has worked all her life, pays taxes, supports herself month to month, proud of the American dream, a dream that just won’t be complete without higher education. But Debbie doesn’t have the savings for higher education. She can’t pay the tuition. Neither could she leave work.
Meet Wael. Wael is from Syria. He’s firsthand experiencing the misery, fear and failure imposed on his country. He’s a big believer in education. He knew that if he would find an opportunity for higher education, an opportunity to get ahead of the rest, he has a better chance to survive in a world turned upside down.
The higher education system failed Patrick, Debbie and Wael, exactly as it is failing millions of potential students, millions that graduate high school, millions that are qualified for higher education, millions that want to study yet cannot access for various reasons. First, financial. Universities are expensive. We all know it. In large parts of the world, higher education is unattainable for an average citizen. This is probably the biggest problem facing our society. Higher education stopped being a right for all and became a privilege for the few. Second, cultural. Students who are qualified for higher education, can afford, want to study, cannot because it is not decent, it is not a place for a woman. This is the story of countless women in Africa, for example, prevented from higher education because of cultural barriers. And here comes the third reason:UNESCO stated that in 2025, 100 million students will be deprived from 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 it, but they still won’t have access because there are no places available.
These are the reasons I founded University of the People, a nonprofit, tuition-free,degree-granting university to give an alternative, to create an alternative to 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. Patrick, Debbie and Wael are only three examples out of the 1,700 accepted students from 143 countries.
We — (Applause) — Thank you.
We didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. We just looked at what wasn’t working and used the amazing power of the Internet to get around it. We set out to build a model that will cut down almost entirely the cost of higher education, and that’s how we did it. First, bricks and mortar cost money. Universities have expenses that virtual universities don’t. We don’t need to pass these expenses onto our students. They don’t exist. We also don’t need to worry about capacity. There are no limits of seats in virtual university. Actually, nobody needs to stand at the back of the lecture hall. Textbooks is also something our students don’t need to buy. By using open educational resources and the generosity of professors who are putting their material free and accessible, we don’t need to send our students to buy textbooks. All of our materials come free. Even professors, the most expensive line in any university balance sheet, come free to our students, over 3,000 of them, including presidents, vice chancellors, professors and academic advisors from top universities such as NYU , Yale, Berkeley and Oxford,came on board to help our students. Finally, it’s our belief in peer-to-peer learning. We use this sound pedagogical model to encourage our students from all over the world to interact and study together and also to reduce the time our professors need to labor over class assignments.
If the Internet has made us a global village, this model can develop its future leadership. Look how we do it. We only offer two programs: business administration and computer science, the two programs that are most in demand worldwide, the two programs that are likeliest to help our students find a job. When our students are accepted, they are placed in a small classroom of 20 to 30 students to ensure that those who need personalized attention get it. Moreover, for every nine weeks’ course,they meet a new peer, a whole new set of students from all over the world. Every week, when they go into the classroom, they find the lecture notes of the week, the reading assignment, the homework assignment, and the discussion question, which is the core of our studies. Every week, every student must contribute to the class discussion and also must comment on the contribution of others. This way, we open our students’ minds, we develop a positive shift in attitude toward different cultures. By the end of each week, the students take a quiz, hand in their homework, which are assessed by their peers under the supervision of the instructors, get a grade, move to the next week. By the end of the course, they take the final exam, get a grade, and follow to the next course.
We opened the gates for higher education for every qualified student. Every student with a high school diploma, sufficient English and Internet connection can study with us. We don’t use audio. We don’t use video. Broadband is not necessary. Any student from any part of the world with any Internet connection can study with us. We are tuition-free. All we ask our students to cover is the cost of their exams, 100 dollars per exam. A full-time bachelor degree student taking 40 courses, will pay 1,000 dollars a year, 4,000 dollars for the entire degree, and for those who cannot afford even this, we offer them a variety of scholarships. It is our mission that nobody will be left behind for financial reasons. With 5,000 students in 2016, this model is financially sustainable.
Five years ago, it was a vision. Today, it is a reality. Last month, we got the ultimate academic endorsement to our model. University of the People is now fully accredited.(Applause)
With this accreditation, it’s our time now to scale up. We have demonstrated that our model works. I invite universities and, even more important, developing countries’ governments, to replicate this model to ensure that the gates of higher education will open widely. 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.