Online 'university of anywhere' opens to refugees

Online students Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption There are 5,000 students around the world taking University of the People degree courses

An online university is offering 500 refugees from Syria's civil war free places on its degree courses.

The University of the People, based in California, is a fast-growing, non-profit project designed to provide higher education for those with the academic ability to study, but without the ability to pay or without any practical access to a traditional university.

"There isn't a better reason for the invention of the internet," says the university's founder and president, Shai Reshef.

The university offers fully accredited four-year degrees, completely taught online, with students scattered across 180 countries.

"We open the gates to higher education. We are an alternative for those who have no other alternative - survivors of the genocide in Rwanda, refugees from Syria, the earthquake in Haiti," says Mr Reshef, speaking to the BBC in London.

In the United States, the university provides places for people without documentation, who otherwise would be stuck in a loop-tape of needing qualifications to get a better job but not having the paperwork to enrol in a conventional college.

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Image caption "Nobody deserves education as much as refugees," says the university founder

The courses are built on 40 separate units, with each usually costing $100 (£77) to take an invigilated exam - making a full degree $4,000 (£3,100).

The fees are being waived for the Syrian refugees.

"Nobody deserves education as much as refugees. These are people who have lost everything. Many will never go back to their countries, and their children and grandchildren become refugees too.

"The only way out of the cycle is by education, the only way for them to integrate in their new countries is through education," says Mr Reshef.

What makes this low-cost model possible is a combination of academic and tech philanthropy.

It's allowed the university to expand from 500 to 5,000 students in two years, with an expectation that it will double again.

Image caption Shai Reshef wants the University of the People to keep doubling in size

Students are taught for 20 hours per week in online classes of about 20 to 30 students, with the instruction and support and homework assignments provided by a small army of volunteer academics and retired university staff, who receive only a token payment.

Mr Reshef says there is no shortage of academics wanting to help students who otherwise would be excluded.

"These professors see the price of education, particularly in the US and the UK, and they think it doesn't make any sense."

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The aim is to make the university self-sustaining, but it's supported by some big donors, including the Gates Foundation, Hewlett Packard and Google.

And at the university's academic top table are people such as Sir Colin Lucas, former vice-chancellor of Oxford University; Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of University of California, Berkeley and John Sexton, former president of New York University.

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Image caption Instruction is provided by thousands of volunteer academics

Much of the attention in online higher education has been focused on so-called Moocs - the massive open online courses.

They have tens of millions of students, but they usually offer only short units rather than full degrees.

But the University of the People approach is fundamentally different.

It's about providing qualifications to improve employability for students who are in difficult circumstances.

As such, the university has focused on a small range of subject areas, such as computing, health and business.

It's also not an easy option.

"Online education is not for everyone. It requires extremely high motivation and self-discipline. I mean, you work full time and then you have to study for hours at home," says Mr Reshef.

"In a traditional class, you can fall asleep, get something afterwards from a friend. Here, it's much harder."

Image caption Studying from Cambodia: The university has a global reach

For the refugee students, there is a plan to make this less isolated, with negotiations to see if they can study online for two years and then move into a local university for the final two years.

In the US, it already has a relationship with Berkeley, so that high-achieving University of the People students can transfer after two years to the bricks and mortar institution in California.

Another project in the pipeline is to create courses that can be delivered and studied in Arabic.

The University of the People was created with a specific mission to reach those who otherwise would be excluded from getting a degree.

But Mr Reshef says such online innovations raise wider questions about the future shape of higher education as it continues its upward curve of expansion.

Image caption A board meeting of the University of the People: The project has been supported by academics and tech donors

There has been a huge global rise in demand for university.

Figures from the OECD showed recently that China was opening the equivalent of a new university every week.

In Western countries, student numbers continue to climb, but there are thorny political questions about the rising cost of fees and inequalities of access.

Mr Reshef says the emergence of online universities will raise some hard-headed business questions about what a degree should cost.

In particular, he says a low-cost, wide-access approach could benefit students in developing countries, which at the moment are rich in talent and poor in opportunities.

All too often, he says, governments invest in prestige campus university projects, when online universities, or courses part-taught online, would provide much better value.

If universities could "open the gates" in sub-Saharan Africa, he predicts a flood of untapped creativity.

"You will find the next Einstein coming from Zimbabwe," he says.

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