Shai Reshef: The Man Educating The World


In his late 40s, Shai Reshef was lucky enough to enter into semi-retirement. After all, he was a man who thought he had achieved much of what he wanted to achieve.

But having been an educational entrepreneur all his life, there were nagging questions: “What if everyone could go to university? What if education was a human right?” Many people might have kicked their feet up and left it at that. Not Reshef.

The fearless entrepreneur set about bringing together volunteer tutors, low-tech open-source software and the internet to create the world’s first tuition-free online, accredited university. But even he didn’t realise just how much the whole world was behind him.

Today University of the People (UoPeople) has enrolled students from 160 countries, including Vietnam, Sudan, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Haiti, and features widespread support and volunteering from blue-chip institutions such as Yale University, Oxford University, New York University, The Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. UoPeople even has 1.2 million followers on Facebook, ranking it the second most followed university, just behind Harvard.

Reshef is now taking the first steps to bringing US-accredited degrees to the masses. The online model means that learning can now reach the remotest and most impoverished parts of the globe. What’s more, the centuries-old institution of education has been turned on its head. So, how did he do it?

AB: What gave you the idea for University of the People?

SR: My former education company was a great success but I started to feel that something was missing. I was conscious that, for some people, getting a great education is nothing but wishful thinking. It’s just too expensive. So I ended up selling my university and the rest of my business to go into semi-retirement in New York; but I soon realised this wasn’t for me. I needed to continue doing things, but I just didn’t want to continue doing the same thing.

After I sold the company I was conflicted because I was so aware of how education can change the world and people’s lives. When you educate one person, you can change a life; when you educate many, you can change the world.

It always puzzled me: ‘Why can’t we educate everyone?’ I looked around and I thought – ‘how can I do it?’ Then I met a group of entrepreneurs and they ran a company where hundreds of professors helped children with their homework online for free. And then I realised – this means we can create a university. So I said ‘let’s do it’, and we did it!

How was the idea initially received?

I announced UoPeople at a conference in Berlin, Germany. The next day The New York Times wrote a story about us and I soon had hundreds of professors writing to me saying they wanted to help.

The price of education is going up and up in the US and elsewhere to the point that people cannot afford it. On the other side of the world, people lack the chance to go to university and there aren’t enough seats. Take Africa, for example. In Nigeria, one million students can’t get into university because there are no seats for them – it just doesn’t make any sense.

This is a lost generation. Their future is affected and also that of their family. There wasn’t a better reason for the invention of the internet than spreading the knowledge for free. I believe that education is a right; if everyone had an opportunity for education our world would be better. Education is a human right.

You currently have 2,500 students enrolled. How much do you plan to grow?

In 2025, 100 million people will be deprived of a higher education simply because there will not be enough seats available for them. We want to build a model to show the industry that they can educate every single person in the country. We are going to grow until all the people are served. Some people might replicate what we do and if they replicate what we do, then maybe there won’t be a need for us. Our plan is to double our growth every single year. A year ago when we were accredited we had about 1,000 students – since then we have doubled our numbers and we will continue to do this until there is no need for us.

How many staff do you employ?

We have about 3,000 volunteers who came on board, that includes 500 instructors. We also have about 100 people that are actively involved with the university.

UoPeople works with prestigious volunteer academics and uses open-source software, but how do you fund the rest of your overheads?

We are not completely free. Students take the courses for free but we expect them to pay US $100 for each course exam. Students studying for a BA will pay $4,000 for the degree if they can afford it. If they don’t have the money then they can apply for a scholarship; we have options with global companies, such as Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. No student will be left behind.

It costs around $1 million a year to keep UoPeople sustainable. In 2017 we expect to be financially sustainable from the exam processing. Until then, we are relying on grants – we have received money from The Gates Foundation and many individuals.

Currently you offer Computer Sciences and Business Administration as degree subject choices. Why did you choose these and will you develop more?

We are working on a Masters of Business Administration course and a BA Health Science option.It is our intention to continue developing additional products too.Westartedwith the two programmes that are most in demand worldwide and will also help students find jobs. These subjects are also very important in helping their communities to develop.

Will online universities pose a threat to bricks-and-mortar universities?

Not really. I think that online universities will change higher education but it will make a different world, not another world. I believe research universities will continue to be there, take Harvard and New York University, they will always be there.They will remain extremely high quality, with a lot of people willing to pay a lot of money in order to get there.

On the other side of the spectrum UoPeople will be there – extremely low-cost, quality education for the masses. In between, there will be specialised universities. Some other universities will offer hybrids between online and offline. Every university will have to think about what it offers to attract its target audience.

Most universities in the US cost a similar price. Why do we need to pay a high price for everything? I think we will make this flexible trend happen faster. I think online is a different option – for some, it’s not the best option because they prefer sitting in front of a professor. When you’re online, you don’t have face-to-face contact – but, on the other hand, you’re part of the global village. In the global village you learn about different cultures and communicate with them. In some ways, studying online is better than traditional learning. But I need to stress, in many cases, the students who come to us, come to us because they don’t have any other opportunity. People come because they can’t afford college or because they can’t get seats. We are an amazing alternative for them because there is no other option.

Do you think a lot of your success can be put down to your US distance learning accreditation?

I think that it’s a bit more than that. Our success came because of the support that we are getting. New York University is giving full scholarships. We have great support and when people see who is behind us they realise that we are serious. Obviously, since we were accredited people have realised that this is a stamp of quality.

Where is your biggest market?

The US right now is our biggest market because there is a huge demand – a lot of people cannot afford the local colleges. We got a lot of publicity in the US, so this is one reason why we are so popular there.

In Africa there is a great need for us – in every single country there is a problem of not enough seats and not enough universities. I think many Muslim countries where women are deprived of a higher education are also relevant to us.

You said the internet was important for transforming education. Which other human development areas have the potential to be changed by the web?

I think the internet can make a huge difference to the health sector. For example, you can type in your symptoms online and a doctor on the other side of the world can tell you what you have. I hope it will improve the lives of millions who right now can’t get access to health services.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve had in business?

When I announced the university, I’d had 20 years experience in education so I knew that there was a demand. The thing I was not sure about was whether we would get enough support to make it happen. Thankfully, the day after it was announced we had hundreds of people coming on board saying “we want to help you make it happen”. I was shocked – my biggest surprise was how much goodwill is out there.

People are willing to take from themselves and give to the world, give to students, give to us. I knew that there were good people out there – I just didn’t know how many. This was my biggest lesson – if you have a great idea, you will find the people who are willing to make it happen.

When you give, you always get back more than you have given; when you give, you get all the power and all the support you need. When you start a business, you know some times are harder than you expected.

Do you enjoy your job?

I have never worked as many hours as I do now. From the minute I wake up until I go to sleep it’s the only thing I do. But because I love what I do, it feels like I’ve never worked a day in my life. I’m fortunate that I came up with the idea; I’m fortunate that I’ve had so many people with me; and I’m fortunate that I’ve succeeded.

What’s your leadership style?

I am marathon runner – I never give up. I’m the Energizer Bunny, I keep running and running and I never give up. I also think I am very demanding – of myself and those I work with. I’m running and I expect everyone to run with me. On the other hand, I think I am very grateful for the people that work with me. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them. I hope that I’m right when I say I always let them know how important they are.

You sound like a very busy man. What does the average day look like for you?

I’m constantly on the road. I work 16 hours a day and sleep eight hours a night. I spend most of my time in NewYork, but often I’ll wake up early to fly somewhere far away. I fly a lot but I sleep well on planes so I can’t complain


UoPeople is the world’s first non-profit, free-tuition, accredited online university dedicated to opening access to higher education globally. Using open-source technology, Open Educational Resources, and the assistance of academic volunteers, UoPeople is especially designed to provide access to university studies for qualified individuals, despite financial, geographic or societal constraints.

The university offers Associate and Bachelor degree programmes in Business Administration and Computer Science.

Founded in 2009, UoPeople has partnered with Yale ISP Law School for research; New York University to accept students; Microsoft for scholarships, access to its certificate programmes, mentoring, internships and employment opportunities; and Hewlett-Packard, for general support, scholarships for women and internships.


Photo credit: Steven Tan and TED Conference from flickr



  1. When I completed high school education, I tried many avenues for employment opportunities as well as access to higher education. Most times I hit dead ends until I met then worked towards application and when I finally got admitted, I realized that I did not only get access to higher education, but the best education curriculum. I was surprised to get a scholarship from Microsoft, a Company I always wanted to be associated with. I am so proud to be part of the Uopeple community. You changed by life to the better.

  2. Great article! I always had a dream to become a software developer, but education costs too much and also I have full time job and I have to support my family. When I first heard about this university I thought that it is the joke. But now after one year in university I just have realised that my dreams come true.

  3. It is a privilege to be part of a great community of students revolutionizing college education as we know it. I’ve had the opportunity to see things from the perspective of other students around the world. Having professors as instructors in my very first course is just amazing (that’s close to impossible in Nigeria, you may not even see one till graduation). With the quality of education I get, I feel I should be paying more. Reshef is an inspiration to me and I plan to follow in his footsteps in a few years, helping others discover their potentials.

  4. I am a product of uopeople. when i started i didnt know how it would look like having to study in an educational virtual environment. but now i can gladly say that uopeople is an initiative of a brighter future, giving hopes to the less priviledge and promoting education towards self development.

  5. Thank you Mr. Reshef, UoPeople has given me a second chance and for this, I am very grateful. I am now in my second year, and before I started, I never thought I would be able to learn this much about Computer Science. I hope one day I can become a useful person in society and be able to give back to the community as you have. Your kindness and wisdom is much respected.

  6. Love this quote: “We are going to grow until all the people are served”. Very honored to teach at UoPeople and look forward to teaching until every student is served!

  7. After racking up nearly $20,000 in student loan debt during my first two attempts at earning a degree, I thought it would never happen. University of the People opened a new door for me and gave me the opportunity to work around that debt and I completed my A.S. in Business Administration last July. I am forever grateful to my fellow students, my instructors, Mr. Reshef, and the countless volunteers who have made my UoPeople experience a successful one! I’m looking forward to finishing my B.S. and perhaps moving on to an MBA 🙂

  8. I’m on my 3rd term at UoPeople and I love it! UoPeople gives me the freedom of having a full-time job, active social life, and a college degree, for a fraction of the normal price. I’m working towards a bachelors degree in Computer Science, and I don’t have any complaints at all! Highly recommended.

  9. I did an extensive research to find a reasonable online school. Most schools offer a ton of programs, a ton of promise, and a big bill. Later, I stumble to UoPeople. I read everything on the website, I did additional research on the school, and the people involve with the school. I am impressed with the transparency and the accuracy of the information, from the school’s website. How do I know that? I am a proud first year student at the University of the People. Everything was as I expected.
    At first, the school was not accredited by either Regional or National. My application was on hold due to my residency in TX. About 5-6 months later, the school received accreditation from the Distance Education and Training Council, a national accrediting group. I reactivated the application and here I am.

    My instructors came from Canada, US, British, and prominent universities. Yes, I google my my teachers too. There was a wonderful Greek history teacher from Greek. She excavated many historical sites and share the first hand information with her class. Students exchange photos, stories, inputs regarding the history. I had to do a lot of research and reading to catch up with the class. It was my best experience at the school.

    I also love my business class. We receive free “high quality” digital textbooks (many publish by Flatworld). We use the Principles of by Larry M. Walther in our accounting class. Please check out the book. It is a very good material. After a few courses in business, I am starting to debate with my coworkers regarding behavior and value in the work place. I provided technical and logical feedback to my employer, I recognize the company organization structure, and identify strengths/weaknesses to my manager. It was well received.

    I love learning, but I don’t like writing essays every darn week. English is my second language, writing is my nemeses. On the up side, my coworkers commented that my English and communication skills is noticeably improved.

    You need a high school diploma, a proof of English proficiency for non English speakers, and $50 application processing fee. It is well worth it.

  10. Many thanks to UoPeople and Microsoft4Afrika for making it possible for me to study towards a degree in Computer Science all tuition free. From the Virtual classroom to the Virtual Computer Lab, Everything is so perfectly setup to for students to excel and change our stories for the better. UoPeople, I love you.

  11. I have been a lover of an online approach to studies. I think its God making that I was privileged to start associate degree of computer science with the school.
    However, my greatest challenge have been on discouragement from friends in Nigeria- they still doubt the possibility of gaining quality education without a conventional approach but rather online.

  12. UoPeople is indeed an educational miracle to the world. There is now hope for the less privileged. I will forever remain grateful to this noble institution of learning.

  13. An endeavoring consciousness’ thirst to realize the dreams and passions of life and believe in something is seldom satisfied especially from where I geographically belong. This exact thirst became realized when, after desperately wandering for last 12 years to find an opportunity for quality higher education due to severe financial hardship; I got the privilege to get admitted and
    to be awarded a full year scholarship by University of the People (UoPeople) for my study program of an Associate degree in business administration ultimately leading to a BSBA program.

    University of the People has literally provided me and all of us with an inspiring opportunity and a stage to get ourselves acquainted with the tools and strategies needed for self improvement and for being a reason to influence, contribute and add value to those around us, the society and the world as a whole.

    UoPeople has been like the a rain drop on the land void and deficient of this aspiring and compassionate philosophy towards education of considering it as a basic human right as beautifully put by the Mr. Rashef himself.

    This vibrant view of UoPeople towards education in fact has inspired all of us to believe in doing something for good, for humanity and for tomorrow of all of us.

    I am wordlessly thankful to Mr. Rashef for providing this opportunity to realize our endeavors and aspirations and for being a breeze of change in it own right to the global education ambiance and outlook.

  14. Thanks to Shai Reshef, he has made possible for me what previously seemed impossible. I am a Kenyan currently studying at University of The People and i am really enjoying the International interaction in the classroom.
    Hail Reshef.

  15. I have always looked forward to having a tertiary education in the Europe or in the US. Sitting back and wondering how and when that will happen especially knowing even the traditional tertiary institutions in my country I cannot afford. Even more, I have always had a problem with the system of education in my country. The traditional system of education where you only cram books for examination purposes and leaves out the part of self-development. A problem which has only carved and nurtured many African leaders who are only driving the continent to a hole except for the few who are thriving to make things work. I can say that most of the good ideas and developments in Africa have been nurtured by people who have had the best of education and I am happy that in just a matter of years I will be a part of that group of persons. Moreover I have always tabled that I will choose to go to a low-class accredited university in the USA than in my country just because with policies and programmes in place, every school in the USA conforms with a set of policies to run an educational institution which is of the best quality. UoPeople which happens to be an online, accredited university has just been a life saver. With my few weeks of experience so far , I believe I am set to go to accomplish my dreams of a higher education in Computer Science and touch the world. I am very grateful for all the contributors and supporters and especially Shai Reshef who had to carry and nurture this dream relentlessly to make it happen.

  16. Many thanks to this man! For the greatest chance of my life to free education.
    The world will be a better place with opportunities like this to all the less privileged!!

  17. This is my fifth term studying BSc computer science and have enjoyed the experience. I enrolled last year, recently married, coming from Zimbabwe and moved into a new country this was the best opportunity for me to continue my education. Thanks to Shai I will earn a quality degree regardless where my work takes me and without getting into much debt. I am encouraging my wife to enroll and my little 3 sisters who are currently doing their high school.

  18. UoPeople has pushed me to pursue my endeavors in software engineering. The instructors here are attentive and are happy to provide assistance and answers to your major questions.

    In reality, your experience here will reflect on what you put in. Nearly everything will require you to have self-discipline. The courses serve to provide a common place for you to interact with an instructor and the classmates, but you should not expect too much hand-holding after the initial orientation.

    UoPeople does provide specific places to interact with the general student population and form study groups. Certain courses will have emphasis on writing and enforce proper formatting. Needless to say, you will become adept at writing and your English will improve on its own as you progress.

  19. People like me who probably would have never been able to afford the kind of education that the UoPeople offers are very fortunate that there is someone like Mr. Shai Reshef who is bold enough to think that “we can educate the world.”

  20. I am one of the first graduates from University of the People. I started my studies back in 2009 with only the grit to start and finish my higher education. Unfortunately, high tuition costs in the United States was not going to allow me to pursue my goal. Hence, my internet research returned University of the People and fast-forward to 2014, I had obtained my Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from an accredited, non-profit, low-cost tuition and online university.

    It was a great experience to study online with many individuals from all around the world. Since it was online learning it provided me with the discipline to be a self-learner and to view knowledge as a life long goal.

    Thanks to Shai’s vision of “educating one person, to change a life and educating many, to change the world”, is now becoming a reality!

  21. UoPeople is a project committed to human life and country development. So this is what all global leaders and national leaders should be looking at and learning from. Kudos UoPeople management!!!. I am rounding up my Business Administration course at UoPeople in December 2015.

  22. I feel so lucky to stumble over this one a kind premier online university 2 years ago when I couldn’t get a place in brick n mortar universities. Uopeople is not just giving us skills and degree relevant knowledge but at the same time culturing balanced individuals with same social entrepreneurial philanthropic spirit as Uopeople’s great founder ‘Mr. Reshef’. Also, the model is exciting for me as a student because of vibrant and a very diversified student community here at Uopeople.