An oasis of hope: An open Letter to the University of the People

Dear Members of the Student Affairs Committee of the University of the People,

Within 8 years of its existence, the University of the People has digitized an entire industry. Far more than 5000 students have enrolled with your University and 3000 amazing volunteers and full-time employees help the University run smoothly.

Your unique curriculum, with its foundation in peer-to-peer feedback, has democratized higher education by making it affordable for everyone. While tuition at top schools like Harvard College costs as much as 40.000 USD per year (with an extra 10 % for fees and books), the degree at the UoP costs 40x less — with no burden to taxpayers whatsoever. But you did not stop there. You don’t even require the students to have a broadband connection for their studies. Thereby, you make higher education accessible for truly everyone, including students from third world countries. That’s what you pride yourself on in your slogan ANYONE. ANYTIME. ANYWHERE.” And that’s what intrigued us at the Mlambe Project.

Five years ago, we set out to construct school buildings in Chikolongo village, which is in a very remote part of Malawi. Malawi, as we learnt, is not only the 6th poorest country in the world, but also lacks access to natural resources and thereby is fully dependent on education to overcome the soaring poverty of most of its 16mn inhabitants. Yet there are only 4 public universities, with approximately 1000 graduates per year. (This equals 63 graduates per 1mn inhabitants, almost 200x less than in the US). It is obvious that Malawi cannot accommodate its people’s demand for degrees, especially given that the population will more than double by 2050.

A drone shot of the school block that we built in Chikolongo, Malawi

This is why institutions like the University of the People can be such a Game Changer in the global fight against poverty. But for us, operating a charity in one of the poorest and most remote places on earth, it seemed very unrealistic at first that the promise of tuition-free education would hold true for everyone. Would it be possible for students to earn a degree in such a place, with no electricity, no laptops, and no internet? Blessings — who is one of the four students we support on the ground — was determined it had to be possible. When we told him about the University of the People and the possibility to earn a degree online, he immediately caught fire.

For Blessings, it had not taken any number crunching to realize that he didn’t have a chance to go to University in Malawi. Growing up around Chikolongo village, where the vast majority of the population are self-sustaining farmers, there was no chance for him to pay tuition at one of the Universities in Malawi (the amount equals the annual income of a family in the region). Yet Blessings set out to set high standards for himself: in addition to nourishing his family of two as a farmer, he became a teacher and helped us greatly in our efforts at the local primary school. Even though his employer — the government of Malawi — would not pay him until two years after his training, he has never missed his daily 1h-bike-journey to school.

Ultimately, however, Blessing’s dream is to start his own company and to bring wealth and employment to his community — a dream he is never getting tired of repeating. The University of the People would enable Blessings to learn crucial capabilities like sales and accounting, and would give him the credibility towards business partners that he needed to represent a young business in Malawi. So Blessings and his three friends set out to convince us to enable their endeavor. Their determination convinced us to start our unique experiment, especially since there is no shortage of teachers in Malawi but certainly a shortage of capable and upright businessmen. More importantly, we hope that their story will inspire other students who face similarly adverse conditions to try and go for a degree.

Studying is my favorite thing […] so when I got this chance, it was clear I could not miss it. — Blessings on Youtube

So the charity shipped out donated laptops, bought internet sticks, and fixed our solar panels (all of which we needed for the primary school anyways) and sent me down to Malawi to teach an academic crash-course. The students became familiar with the laptops, and picked up the maths and English foundations that I taught them incredibly fast.

A snapshot from our maths prep course for the students

When I came back from my 2 months-trip to Malawi in December 2015, we had just finished the applications for the grants that you are generously providing. I was both extremely positive about what the Charity had accomplished in the past 2 months, and curious whether the students would actually accomplish their endeavor against all odds. The academic dismissal of Blessings, of which you informed us last week, is now a good opportunity for us to reflect on the project’s achievements and its challenges over the past year.

Overall, the program has proven to work. With John’s admission to the University’s Honor’s List for his outstanding results, the setting has shown to foster a productive learning environment. This was even though we managed to run the program on a very lean basis. While we invested significant time upfront, the students have proven quite independent since. And as we used resources which we needed for the primary school anyways, our costs for the program were almost negligible. Yet the students’ results were mixed overall and we realize that we as a charity have to change course if we are to make all students attain the degree. We will do two things in order to empower the students:

First, we will check in with the students more regularly, and support the students wherever we can. For subjects such as the Statistic course, we will bring instruction videos teaching the required software on a USB stick to Chikolongo village-as you can imagine, the internet connection is not sufficiently strong for this in Malawi. We have also identified several volunteers in our network who are happy to answer questions on a regular basis. For this to be efficient, we will make sure the students elect the same courses each semester. Second, we will upgrade our solar systems so that the students can study without interruption during cloudy periods. We will start fundraising for this as soon as possible.

We would be delighted if you gave Blessings the chance to benefit from those changes — as he pointed out, he will go to length to prove worthy of your continued trust and patience.


Magnus and the Mlambe Project team