Three years ago, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef launched the University of the People, investing $3 million (£2 million) of his own money in a project that aimed to take low-cost online degrees to high school graduates who otherwise would not be able to afford higher education.
Since the institution’s launch, the availability of free online education has proliferated, most notably through the massive open online course movement, which offers students access to free courses from some of the world’s most prestigious institutions.
However, Mr Reshef is not concerned by the competition and believes his model of online learning will not only survive but also thrive and become financially sustainable by 2015.
“The best thing that could happen to us is the best universities in the world coming to say: ‘Online education is the best,’” he said. “[But] on a Mooc, you’re sitting in a class of 10,000 or 100,000 students. Our students…need the personalised attention that we give them. We put them in small classes of 20 to 30, no more.”
The University of the People now has 1,600 students across the world, and is on course to recruit the 5,000 it needs to achieve financial stability over the next two years.
It offers undergraduate degrees in just two subjects – computer science and business administration. Students pay a registration fee, determined by the gross domestic product of their country of residence, and are then asked to pay a $100 administration fee for each exam they sit.
To complete an undergraduate degree, 40 exams must be passed, bringing the total cost of a degree to around $4,000. Students that cannot afford to pay can apply for a range of scholarships.
Good odds in the circumstances
Although none of the institution’s students has yet graduated, Mr Reshef expects roughly 50 per cent of those currently enrolled to do so.
“This is pretty high, especially when you talk about the kind of students that we have,” he said. “Some are survivors of the earthquake in Haiti, people who live in tents and come to centres we create for them. We have survivors of the genocide in Rwanda.
“Their academic background is not very strong, and many of them need to work while they study.”
The university saves on operating costs by capitalising on the goodwill of volunteers and by taking a flexible approach to where it bases its operations.
Although headquartered in California, its IT development team works out of the West Bank, while a volunteer in Tokyo manages the institution’s learning platform.
In total, around 3,000 university staff volunteer their time to teach or advise.
“We have roughly two professors for every student,” laughed Mr Reshef.
“We are trying to show the world that higher education can be cheaper and available for everyone.”
He added: “Our success will be when governments come to us and say: ‘We want to do what you are doing.’ Either they will ask us to do it for them, or they will do it themselves – I don’t care, as long as it [happens].
“Our mission is to make sure everyone gets a chance at higher education.”