Intended for healthcare professionals


The creator of Peoples-uni

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: (Published 14 February 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e374
  1. Keir Philip, foundation year 1, North Middlesex Hospital, London, UK
  1. kejphilip{at}


Keir Philip talks to Dick Heller, who came up with the idea of an initiative to improve access to public health education in poorer countries

  • Name: Dick Heller

  • Position: Emeritus professor of the universities of Manchester, UK, and Newcastle, Australia

  • Biography: Graduated in medicine from London University, going on to work in the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. In 2006 he retired as professor of public health at the University of Manchester, UK. Career highlights include working for INCLEN (International Clinical Epidemiology Network), an organisation involved in capacity building for medical schools throughout the developing world, and developing a distance learning masters course from the University of Newcastle and a fully online masters in public health in Manchester. He is the originator of the idea of the People’s Open Access Educational Initiative, better known as Peoples-uni (

What is Peoples-uni?

Peoples-uni is a volunteer led educational programme designed to help build public health capacity in developing countries through modules delivered via the internet. The use of volunteers and open source educational materials and delivery systems allows the programme to be very low cost. As many as 100 people are currently active as tutors on the programme; the largest number come from the United Kingdom, but in all they come from more than 20 countries. Students come from more than 30 countries, but mainly from Africa. The programme has now been validated by Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK, and students can gain a master of public health degree through study with Peoples-uni. We have 19 course modules covering the foundation sciences of public health and public health problems facing populations in developing countries.

Where did the idea for Peoples-uni come from?

When I retired from the other Manchester University in 2006, I was annoyed that the university increased its fees to overseas students for the internet based masters programme I had established there. Fees for overseas students enrolling in universities across the West are not affordable to people in developing countries, where public health capacity building is so much needed. I wondered whether we could identify volunteers to act as tutors and as support staff and take advantage of the increasing availability of the internet and an open source educational platform (Moodle) to offer a low cost educational programme in public health. I had previously been very impressed with the use of the internet, which allows access to education for those who cannot be spared from their work for manpower reasons or who cannot leave home for personal or family reasons—especially women or people with disabilities.

How do you see global medical education changing with current technological advances?

The internet is the key to this change, by unleashing the power of collaboration. It allows the use of resources from the best sources internationally; there is a global movement to open up access to educational resources through the internet so that they can be shared, and we use these extensively in Peoples-uni. It allows the creation of an international faculty to collaborate virtually to develop and deliver high quality education, and it allows the identification of students from a variety of settings to share their experiences and contribute themselves to the educational process. However, let’s not forget that there are a number of important principles of education that the use of technology cannot replace: respect for students, use of evidence based methods, and the instillation of excitement and passion for learning and the subjects being taught. Technology can enable these but not substitute for them.

What drives you in your work?

I have had a wonderfully enjoyable career, a lovely family, as well as financial security, and I feel the need to do what I can to share the luck I have had with others. Peoples-uni allows me to use what I have learnt to help others in a quest to try to improve the health of populations that face problems I have been lucky enough never to have to face. I also really enjoy the interaction (mainly virtual) with younger colleagues and students from so many different cultures and enjoy learning how to use new technologies.

What advice would you give to people interested in public health in the UK and abroad?

Go for it! Improving the health of populations is the key to improving the health of individuals—you can make a difference. The masters in public health degree is one of the most widely sought-after postgraduate awards internationally, and the skills learnt can be used widely not only to help develop a career in public health: don’t forget that the skills of population health are those required to develop and apply the evidence base for evidence based practice.


  • Competing interests: None declared.