Fewer barriers, more opportunities: University of the People is disrupting the traditional higher educational model in South Africa

By: Shai Reshef, President of the University of the People (UoPeople)


University of the People (UoPeople) launched an Education Revolution in 2009 that has exploded in recent years to become the fastest-growing online university in the world. UoPeople’s innovative tuition-free model of higher education is quickly gaining momentum among South African students looking at cost-effective ways to earn a degree from an accredited and respected university. UoPeople President Shai Reshef says embracing a disruptive educational model is necessary to make quality higher education accessible, affordable, and empowering for more people. 


The Covid-19 pandemic and other events over the past 18 months have accelerated existing trends at speeds few could’ve anticipated. Traditional institutions across the globe, understandably caught off guard, have scrambled to adapt. Higher education institutions that have been too slow to transform are now being forced to rethink their approach and develop business models and ethos for a new world in which students are ready for a more flexible and transformative learning environment.

With the rapid shift to online learning, there is a unique opportunity to prove that with the right support and training, digital teaching and learning can become successful and ubiquitous even in resource-strapped households, particularly within South Africa’s so-called missing middle student demographic.

Founded on the belief that higher education is a human right, UoPeople is the first non-profit, tuition-free, American-accredited online university. The University is dedicated to providing access to higher education globally to help qualified high school graduates overcome the financial, geographic, political and personal constraints keeping them from university studies.

One way of achieving this is by thinking globally and acting locally. The University of Cape Town’s Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng, is an advisor on the President’s Council of University of the People, together with Presidents and Vice Chancellors of some of the best universities in the world. Wits University’s Emeritus Professor, Barry Dwolatzky, serves on the University’s Computer Science Advisory Board.

Embracing disruptive education requires a paradigm shift which recognises some individuals need new and different strategies, resources, and ways of teaching and learning in order to secure employment and career success. Higher education institutions of the future will have to be far more dynamic and adapt quickly to meet the demands of the job market. For this reason, UoPeople offers Bachelor’s degrees in the high job demand academic programmes of Business Administration, Computer Science, and Health Science as well as a Master’s in Education and an MBA. These programmes were specifically chosen for their real-world relevancy and students can study from anywhere, on any device – even a mobile phone.

In addition to transforming lives and championing social good, producing employable graduates who go on to find fulfilling careers remains central to meaningful disruption in education. According to UNESCO, by 2025 almost 100 million students will be deprived of higher education simply because there isn’t enough space in existing institutions. In South Africa there are an estimated 1,4 million individuals who have completed secondary education but have been unable to enrol in a bachelor’s degree program due to limited seats or financial constraints.

With advances in technology, steadily growing smart device penetration, and ongoing pressure for reduced broadband and data prices, much more can be done to address the country’s critical skills shortage and persistently high levels of unemployment. UoPeople has built a model to solve the artificial problem of space constraints because the institution knows there is a way to accommodate as many qualified students as possible, not just a few.

While higher education on its own is not a cure-all for every socio-economic challenge facing South Africa, it can make a significant difference. Disruptive education, or education that is delivered in an affordable, accessible and effective way is an empowering alternative for students ready to learn, work and thrive in an uncertain world defined by change.

For more information, please visit: www.uopeople.edu

Bio of the author: Shai Reshef

Shai Reshef is President of University of the People (UoPeople). Reshef has over 25 years of experience in the international education market. Reshef has been named one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business; selected by The Huffington Post as the Ultimate Game Changer in Education; granted an RSA Fellowship; nominated as one of Wired Magazine’s 50 People Changing the World, and selected as a Top Global Thinker by Foreign Policy Magazine. Reshef’s speaking appearances include the Clinton Global Initiative; DLD; TED, and lectures at Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Edinburgh, Oxford and many others. Reshef holds an M.A. from the University of Michigan and an honorary doctorate from the Open University. Reshef’s TED Talk and Nas Daily video have over 25M views.

About University of the People

University of the People (UoPeople) is the Education Revolution. It is the first non-profit, tuition-free, American, accredited online university. Currently there are over 106,000 students from more than 200 countries and territories. Designed to open access to higher education globally, UoPeople helps qualified high school graduates overcome financial, geographic, political, and personal constraints keeping them from collegiate studies. The university offers associate and bachelor’s degree programs in business administration, computer science, and health science, as well as an MBA and M.Ed. program. Graduates of UoPeople can be found working at such companies as Deloitte, Amazon, Apple, Pfizer, Google, Microsoft and IBM. UoPeople collaborates with Harvard Business School Online, New York University, McGill University, and the University of Edinburgh and is supported by foundations such as the Gates Foundation, Ford Foundation and Hewlett Foundation. Learn more at www.uopeople.edu.