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Online alternative

Posted on Thursday, February 4, 2016

Can a US-based, tuition-free e-university be the solution to educating and skilling millions of students? Rahat Bano reports

Biswashree Dey loved the idea of homeschooling. However, her family decided against it due to the Indian context. In class XI, the Gurgaon schoolgirl came across an American newspaper article on a California-based, non-profit university offering online degree courses. “At least for a university education, I wanted to be homeschooled (self-taught). My parents said I could do this at the tertiary level,” she says.
After her class XII, she signed up for the chartered accountancy programme, undertook a few internships and took courses through EdX. Eventually, she enrolled for the associate degree in computer science at the University of the People (UoPeople) in January 2015. “I want to start a business, for which I need both technical and managerial skills,” says Dey, a business development intern at a start-up. “It’s more important that I have work experience than a college degree. This has the structure of a regular university with the flexibility of being homeschooled.” 
Dey receives a scholarship from a multinational which covers 90% of her exam fee (while tuition is free). The exams are online, proctored by one of her family friends living nearby (proctors are required to fulfil certain conditions). “It’s more about learning on a weekly basis than about a single exam.” She does not think about whether the courses would be valid in India or if employers accept them, says Dey, whom UoPeople nominated to transfer to NYU Abu Dhabi to complete a four-year degree in CS (though she is not going due to family reasons). 
She recounts meeting an official from a start-up interested in “learning more than grades.” According to her, the focus is shifting to work experience and the right skills than a regular college degree.   
Dey is one of 90 students in India enrolled in UoPeople, which wants to reach more “education-thirsty minds” here. Shai Reshef, president of the university, says the tuition-free platform is a solution to educate and skill the millions of Indians that cannot attend conventional universities. “Many people simply cannot afford going to a regular university. There are not enough places. Indians accepted to Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge should go there. We are not competing with that. There are others who need an alternative. We are showing that. We are building an alternative – accessible, affordable and which will provide employment,” he says, during a recent visit to Delhi. Apart from the cost, Reshef says students join the university because of the quality. 
As the university was founded in 2009 (and accredited in 2014), it is too early to talk about graduate outcomes though, says Reshef. “Once the graduates start working, the perception will change. We are a bit too young to see what our graduates are doing. They already work while studying. One of the students started as a receptionist and is now a manager in charge of 300 people in the same company. It’s a combination of factors. I am not saying she achieved this (only) because she studied with us. She is talented.” 
With more than 2,500 students in over 170 countries, the university plans to offer more courses.
More information is available at www.uopeople.edu



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