FutureLearn takes $65M from Seek Group for 50% stake in UK online degree platform

Edtech and recruitment continue to converge. London-based online degree platform, FutureLearn, is taking £50 million (~$64.6M) from Australian-based online job matching group, Seek, in exchange for a 50 per cent stake in the business — just days after the same group led a massive Series E in U.S. online learning giant Coursera.

U.K. distance learning veteran, the Open University — which had wholly owned the FutureLearn platform up til now — retains a 50 per cent stake in the business following the Seek Group investment.

In a press release announcing the news, FutureLearn said the investment values it at £100M ($129M) — some six years after the initiative was first announced, with the OU bringing together a consortium of U.K. universities to attack the MOOCs/online learning space which was then being rapidly expanded by U.S. edtech startups. 

“Our partnership with Seek and the investment in FutureLearn will take our unique mission to make education open for all into new parts of the world. Education improves lives, communities and economies and is a truly global product, with no tariffs on ideas,” said OU vice chancellor Mary Kellett in a statement on the investment.

The joint venture will have “contractual arrangements” to protect its academic independence, teaching methods and curriculum, the OU added — in an attempt to assuage concerns about an (overly) commercially minded takeover of its fledgling digital education platform.

The first FutureLearn courses launched in fall 2013. Since then a cumulative total of nine million+ people have signed up to learn via its platform — which now offers around 2,000 courses in all.

This includes short courses; postgraduate diplomas and certificates; all the way up to fully online degrees. (FutureLearn partners with six U.K. universities on the full degree courses at this stage.)

FutureLearn also has partnerships with management consultancy firm Accenture; the British Council; the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development; learn-to-code foundation Raspberry Pi; and Health Education England (part of the UK’s National Health Service); and is involved in U.K. government-backed initiatives to address skills gaps — including The Institute of Coding and the National Centre for Computing Education.

Last fall the Financial Times reported that the OU was looking for a £40M capital injection for FutureLearn to fund more courses and better compete with the scale of U.S. edtech giants — like Coursera and Lynda.com.

It’s not clear how many more courses FutureLearn plans to add with its new partner on board; a spokesperson told us it is not able to provide a figure at this stage.

For a little comparative context, some 40M people have taken online classes via Coursera to date — with that platform currently offering some 3,200 courses, and partnering with the likes of Columbia University, Johns Hopkins and the University of Michigan. While Coursera’s $103M in Series E reportedly valued its business at well over a $1BN, with Seek coming on board as a strategic investor. 

The shared investor is an interesting but perhaps not surprising development given the different markets involved, and the challenge of monetizing free-to-access courses without having massive scale — suggesting the Seek group, which is already well established across Australia, New Zealand, China, South East Asia, Brazil and Mexico — sees more opportunities from strengthening regional online learning platform plays, in Europe and the U.S., to grow the overall online learning pipe and expand adjacent cross-marketing options in employment/job matching.

Last week, when its strategic investment in Coursera was announced, the Seek group talked effusively about how edtech platforms enabling up-skilling and re-skilling are “aligned” with its employment-focused business mission. (Or “our purpose of helping people live fulfilling working lives”, as it put it.)

The FutureLearn partnership provides Seek with access to another pool of potential job seekers — including  actively engaged learners in the UK/Europe — to further grow the geographical reach of its recruitment platform.

Commenting on the investment in a statement, Seek co-founder and CEO Andrew Bassat said: “Technology is increasing the accessibility of quality education and can help millions of people up-skill and re-skill to adapt to rapidly changing labour markets. We see FutureLearn as a key enabler for education at scale.”

“FutureLearn’s reputation is strong and it has attracted leading education providers onto its platform. We are excited to come on as a partner with The Open University,” he added.

FutureLearn’s CEO Simon Nelson said the joint venture will allow the learning platform to extend its global reach and impact.

“This investment allows us to focus on developing more great courses and qualifications that both learners and employers will value,” he said in a statement. “This includes building a portfolio of micro-credentials and broadening our range of flexible, fully online degrees and being able to enhance support for our growing number of international partners to empower them to build credible digital strategies, and in doing so, transform access to education.”

Read more: techcrunch.com

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