The virtual university where titles are free

Patrik Ali Eid is a happy man. A few weeks ago he graduated from a university. “I didn’t have to attend classes nor pay for it. Shortly afterwards he began his course for the MSC degree in accounting and finance. He was enrolled at the University of the People (UoPeople), one of a growing number of online universities that are opening new doors for people, particularly in the developing world.

“I always dreamed of having a title but I never thought I’d make it,” he tells the BBC. Online courses are not new – the University of Phoenix, United States, for example, has been offering online courses 100% since 1987 but the UoPeople is the first to grant degrees without pay.

Students are asked to pay $100 for each exam, but if they have nothing, they can take advantage of a range of scholarships available. Eid did not pay for any of his 35 Tests and assumes that they were funded.

Letting down millions

Last year, Microsoft announced that it will provide Africa’s thousand students internships, technical training, mentoring, and the cost of screening in UoPeople. The university also recently signed an agreement with the government of Nigeria to give scholarships to potential students.

Last month, the university received official accreditation from the Council for Education and Training to Distance U.S., which probably significantly raised its status. The UoPeople was opened in 2009 by Shai Reshef Israeli businessman who believes that access to higher education is a basic right that should be available to everyone.

“We are reaching thousands of people who want to study but do not have access. Vast regions in the world where higher education is unattainable for ordinary people. I wanted to create an alternative, disrupt the current education system.” He says.

At the moment it only has two titles: business management and computer science. The university is deliberately low-tech. Although students need basic internet connection it does not require broadband or audio or video content.

At this time, it has 700 students from 142 countries, and Reshef hopes that by 2016 the number will reach 5,000. He invested $3.5 million of his own money to get the project off the ground but now works with an annual budget of just $1 million.

The dropout rate for online courses is high. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania, USA, revealed that one million people were enrolled in a course of virtual education platform created by Stanford University. Between June 2012 and June 2013 only 4% completed the classes.

This is due largely to a lot of people who enroll are not looking for serious ratings, writes William Lawton, director of the Observatory of Borderless Higher Education. Most do it for self-improvement interest.

Useful? To supplement what is gained by personally attending college, students are placed in a virtual classroom with 20 to 30 others and are encouraged to talk with each other online. But the big question is: how valuable is a degree from that institution?

Eid has not found employment and admits in an interview held in the UAE, the interviewer did not know of the existence of the university. Despite this, he says, the potential employer was “happy” with the title that Eid introduced himself with.

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