Shai Reshef
Shai Reshef speaking at the Financial Times Innovate conference in 2014 © FT

Entrepreneur Shai Reshef has many reasons to be happy. In 2014, he achieved his long-term goal of gaining accreditation for the University of the People (UoPeople) — an online non-profit American university he founded six years ago to deliver higher education worldwide to those who otherwise could not afford it.

Students can study for undergraduate degrees in business administration or computer science without paying tuition fees, although there is a charge of $100 for each course exam and a student can expect to pay a total of $4,000 to be awarded a degree. If this is not affordable then there are scholarship options available, with support to the university from global foundations and corporations, such as tech groups Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft.

The graduating class of April 2014 included the first seven individuals to receive degrees in business administration that had the official stamp of approval of the US educational accreditation agency Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC). So far there are 65 graduates from the two deegrees.

Mr Reshef, also the president of UoPeople, says accreditation is an indication of quality. “It offers assurance that UoPeople provides valuable instruction by qualified professors, offers services created for the benefit of its students . . . employs ethical admissions policies and engages in continual self-improvement.” Accreditation has helped to boost enrolment numbers from about 100 to roughly 450 a term, he says. In total, there are about 2,500 students from 151 countries; a third are from the US and many from Africa and the Middle East.

What other courses are in development?

As a result of the university’s market research study on potential course demand UoPeople is in the process of developing two MBA degrees in management and entrepreneurship. Again there are no tuition fees, although it expects to charge for exams.

Roxie Smith, vice provost of the university, is developing the programmes with Russell Winer, marketing professor at NYU Stern School of Business, in the US, and with help from members of the UoPeople’s Business Administration Advisory Board.

She explains that the board will be maintaining strict curricular oversight throughout the development process, as it did with the undergraduate business degree. “This is the mechanism that UoPeople uses to ensure that it is developing quality programmes and that what is being created will meet the standards of its accrediting agency,” she continues.

Board members include Mr Winer, who is chair, and Stephan Chambers, chairman of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and a former director of the MBA programme at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

The plan is to have the two MBAs ready to submit for review by the accreditation agency in summer 2015.

Ms Smith says the coursework for the two programmes will be developed by experienced faculty who want to help the institution bring a quality education to those who might otherwise not be able to pursue a graduate degree in management.

The application requirements are still in the planning stages, but the university expects to look at an applicant’s overall profile, which would include their undergraduate academic performance, their work experience, other life experiences and how they will benefit from the programme, she adds.

What is the employment record for graduates?

“It is still early days yet and we believe that any statistic regarding employment could be misleading,” says Mr Reshef. This is because many of the students work while they are studying.

“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 as a result of studying at UoPeople,” he reports.

Last summer, Mohammad Wael Ahdali, from Damascus, Syria, a business administration graduate, managed to secure an internship with one of UoPeople’s partners BAV Consulting in New York, a subsidiary of Young & Rubicam, the WPP-owned advertising agency.

Currently, Mr Ahdali is a senior local security assistant for the United Nations Office for Project Services in Syria. “I am still seeking to continue with my studies and to get an MBA in the future,” he says.

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