“Education should be a right, not a privilege,” Shai Reshef, founder and president of the online University of the People.

After spending decades building successful educational programs in Israel and online, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef decided it was time to give back. This January, the 55-year-old launched his revolutionary idea: a free international university, University of the People, allowing anyone, anywhere to earn a college education.

“Education, just like democracy, should be a right, not a privilege,” says Reshef, founder and president of the University of the People (UoP). “With a few keystrokes, UoP takes the concept of social networking and applies it to academia, providing a global chalkboard for all students.”

With two degrees on its curriculum already – business administration and computer science – it’s a little early to see where the future is headed, Reshef tells ISRAEL21c. Already featured in major newspapers such as New York Times,he doesn’t believe that it will take much effort spreading the good word, given the power of social networking on the Internet. And dozens of professionals from academia, administration and the field of computer programming, have come on to support the cause.

Operating as a non-profit organization, Reshef will not, now or in the future, collect a salary, he says: “I’ve done enough – now it’s my turn to give back,” he says. Primarily volunteer run, and taught, he will expect those enrolled to pay basic costs – $15 to enrol, and about $15 per exam.

Meanwhile, about 300 students from University of the People are about to start class this fall, in a trial run to see how it works, Reshef says. Every semester thereafter he expects the enrollment to multiply by 30 percent.

Blackboards without borders

The project is a democratic one as well. Even though the Internet does make the world in some ways, a global village, there is still a major disparity between the West, and the less developed countries. While the University of the People may not be as hard to get into as Ivy League colleges, Reshef does expect graduating standards to be the same. It will finally allow those without means, an equal opportunity to study, wherever they are.

Reshef is currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel, but the school is applying for US accreditation, and will operate out of Pasadena, California.

All that’s required for admission to UoP is proficiency in English, a graduation certificate from a secondary school and an Internet connection, though come exam time, students will be required to show up at a physical location.

Universities around the world have been adding more and more distance programs to their curriculum. And through the Open Courseware Consortium, started in 2001 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, universities can post teaching material from courses on quantum theory all the way through to training in agriculture. Free for the taking, some universities are also presenting teaching material on popular media sites such as iTunes.

Using active and retired professors, in some cases the teachers will collect a small stipend for their work at UoP; in others, they will teach as volunteers.

Investing $1 million of his own money, Reshef hopes to have 10,000 students enrolled at UoP within the next five years. The modest amount of money they are expected to contribute will go towards startup costs, and to keep the university sustainable, says Reshef.

Harnessing a growing trend

Reshef started building his fortune in the education business back in 1989, as the chairman of Kidum Group. The Israeli test-preparation company was then sold to Kaplan, one of the world’s largest education companies in 2005. He also built an online university affiliated with the University of Liverpool, which was later sold to Laureate, a large, for-profit company.

In the US alone, online learning is a growing trend with about four million students enrolled in a program somewhere. It’s not the first time academics gave thought of such an idea, but it’s the first time someone’s put the idea into action.

Why now? “When I started the online university in the Netherlands,” says Reshef, “I realized how strong the Internet is and how far it can go. It lets people all over the world study for an academic degree. For many of them it was impossible before.

“The University of the People represents a huge leap in the democratization of education by reaching those who until now viewed college as a pipedream,” Reshef says. “Education is a proven mechanism for upward mobility. Our goal is to positively impact the life chances of as many people as possible.”

From America, Africa, Asia, Europe or the Middle East, UoP may never have a football team, cheerleaders, or crazy Frosh parties. Despite that, it’s open to jocks, geeks, Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers and anyone who has only been able to dream about studying at university and earning a degree.

Concludes Reshef: “Every single person on earth is more than welcome.”