Alan Hartstein

University of the People levels the global knowledge playing field


Approx Reading Time-12A huge leap forward for education exists in Shai Reshef’s University of the People, a high-level, global, accredited, online education institution – available 100% tuition free.


“Thought leader” is a term bandied about a lot these days, though what it really means is anyone’s guess. Moreover, it’s rare to find someone who has put their lofty ideas into action in ways that have the power to benefit a large slice of the global community.

Shai Reshef is one of those extremely rare individuals, much better described as an “action leader”, who has begun a process that aims to educate the many citizens of Earth at a high standard for free, simply so they can lead better lives.

Reshef is the President of the University of the People (UoPeople), the world’s first non-profit, accredited online academic institution.

Founded in 2009, the UoPeople, headquartered in Pasadena, California, now offers degree courses to over 6,000 students in over 180 countries as disparate as Indonesia to Micronesia, Sudan to Afghanistan, and the United States to the United Arab Emirates.

In Australia, where the organisation has barely been established, there are already 100 enrolled students, of which 60 percent “we know were not born in Australia and many of whom come from some sort of refugee background,” Reshef said.

The university is currently supported by an incredible network of about 5,000 volunteers, many of whom are leaders in the global education field. In 2014, the UoPeople became fully accredited in the US, offering degrees in Business Administration, Computer Science and Health Science.


Genesis of idea

Reshef was in Sydney this week as a keynote speaker for a higher education summit. He is also here to talk to journalists, supporters, and the university’s first Australian students.

He said there had always been barriers to entry to higher education, yet the advent of open source technology, the availability of vast amounts of free Internet content and social media sites had levelled the education playing field to the point where a high quality, tuition-free online university had finally become feasible.

Leaders in the education field involved in UoPeople include former Vice Chancellor of Oxford Sir Colin Lucas, Chancellor of Berkeley Nick Dirks, New York University President Emeritus John Sexton, and Nobel Prize winner Torsten Weisel.

Reshef is also driven by one overarching belief: that knowledge is a key ingredient of world peace and thus higher education opportunities should be available to everyone, regardless of where anybody comes from and how much money they have.

“The gates to higher learning have finally swung open and we are reaching out to the least upwardly mobile population – refugees and asylum seekers – the ones most in-line with our mission, and those who most need education to overcome life’s other barriers,” he said.

Reshef said he had worked in for-profit education for over 20 years and he had done well from his ventures. However, in semi-retirement it suddenly dawned on him that he had an opportunity to give back to the sector that had been so good to him, and that higher education should be affordable and accessible for everyone.


Breaking down barriers

“For most people globally, the notion of obtaining a great education was nothing more than wishful thinking. But then I realised that once you combine open-source technology with open-source thinking for a higher education model, you understand that while financial capital may not be evenly distributed, intellectual capital could and should be,” Reshef said. “I genuinely believed that if we could educate one person I could change one life, but if we could educate many we could change the world.”

UoPeople has also received tremendous support from the Gates Foundation, Microsoft, HP, and Australian foundation Small Giants.

“The things that had always made education expensive were not necessarily barriers anymore,” he added. “We chose to offer degrees in the areas we believe are most in-demand worldwide. The main challenge, according to UNESCO, is that over 100 million people globally by 2025 will not have seats in existing universities. These are people searching for services that don’t exist for them and our aim is to fill as much of that gap as possible. With our current model, there’s no reason why we can’t double our intake every year.”


Refugees major beneficiaries

I recently watched a TED talk from 2012 in which Reshef posed the question, “How many Einsteins and Curies are out there? I don’t know, they could they be in Haiti, Bangladesh, or South Sudan. These places are full of exceptionally bright individuals, yet millions of adults forego higher education each year due to expense or geopolitical realities. The tragedy is not just an individual one; the next great breakthrough in clean energy or game-changing medical treatment could be lurking in the minds of one of these underserved students. How would the world change for the better if we reduced the barriers to higher education?”

UoPeople currently has 500 Syrian refugees studying with them, a number they expect to grow markedly over the next term. “We have 2,000 more Syrian refugees who want to study with us and who we want to accommodate,” Reshef said.

The university is actively working with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission on Refugees) to bring UoPeople to the attention of refugees all over the world, and is also involved with a refugee and asylum seeker programme supported by Amnesty International, the African Refugee Development Centre and HIAS (formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).

Also on The Big Smoke

UoPeople offers scholarships to those who can’t afford its very basic fees for annual End of Course exams, and Reshef said about 50 percent of all students were currently on scholarships. “Our mission is that nobody is left behind,” he said.

Interestingly, at the other end of the scale in some ways, Reshef said over a third of UoPeople’s enrolees were currently from the US. Some may be undocumented immigrants, he said, but many are students who have been forced to drop out of physical tertiary courses due to astronomical fees, something which has been very well documented and received some lip service from candidates in the presidential election campaign. “We are tuition free, so these people can come to us and study for a fully accredited degree and it doesn’t cost them anything,” Reshef said.


Huge support network

Reshef says he has been overwhelmed by the support UoPeople has received from huge numbers of volunteers, all of whom “understand the real value of education and its importance”. Some of them give up to 10 to 15 hours a week of their time, Reshef says, adding that right now they are in the enviable position of having a surplus of volunteers to requirements. “These people are highly qualified educators including instructors and course writers. Over 5,000 people came to our website and said ‘we want to help’.”

Some of the more notable leaders in the education field involved in UoPeople include former Vice Chancellor of Oxford Sir Colin Lucas (who saw Reshef speak at a Clinton Global Initiative function), Chancellor of Berkeley Nick Dirks, New York University President John Sexton, and Nobel Prize winner Torsten Wisel. UoPeople has also received tremendous support from the Gates Foundation, Microsoft, HP, and Australian foundation Small Giants, Reshef said.

Reshef says the UoPeople is growing extremely quickly and that he expects student numbers to continue to rise sharply. “We are continuing to push as much as we can, but our marketing is limited by budgetary constraints, which is why we are still reliant to a large degree on word-of-mouth, some press coverage, and social media . We also need to be able to sustain ourselves during the growth process.”

“The gates to higher learning have finally swung open and we are reaching out to the least upwardly mobile population who most need education to overcome life’s other barriers.”

The goal is to continue to reach as many people as possible, from as many different channels. Apart from the belief that everyone has a right to higher education, Reshef said UoPeople should be supported by organisations and governments everywhere, regardless of ideology. “If you’re from the political Left and you believe in the right of everyone for equal opportunity or if you’re of a Right-wing persuasion and believe that government should not have to pay for or subsidise education, you should be supportive of what we do,” he said.



Reshef has received a large number of accolades for his work to date. In 2010, he became a high-level adviser to the United Nations Global Alliance for Information and Communication Technologies and Development (GAID) and a member of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) through his work with UoPeople in Haiti, and was selected as the Huffington Post’s Ultimate Game Changer in Education. In 2012, he was named one of the 50 People Who Will Change The World in Wired Magazine’s Smart List and a “Top Global Thinker” by Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, and in 2015 he was ranked 8th on Salt magazine’s 100 Most Compassionate Business Leaders list. He has also lectured at Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Oxford, among others.

For more information about its world-changing initiatives, go to University of the People.


Alan Hartstein

Alan Hartstein has worked in publishing for over 20 years as a writer and editor across a range of sectors including finance, business, politics, and IT. He has also held senior roles on major broadsheets and magazines such as The Australian Financial Review and BRW.

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