“Our Vision Is to Become a Lifelong Learning Partner for a Billion Plus Global Workforce”
Interview with Mayank Kumar, Co-Founder and Managing Director of upGrad
Today’s workforce wants a lifelong learning partner, says Mayank Kumar, Co-Founder and Managing Director of upGrad, India’s largest online higher education company. Upgrad has co-created more than 70 programs with 25 partner universities to give people opportunities to advance professionally. Kumar says that to successfully develop and deliver content, providers should focus on the skills needed right now and locally contextualize content for learners.
How did you succeed in becoming India’s leading provider of online higher education?
By focusing on learner success and outcomes. About five years ago, at a time when the emphasis was on access to content, we shifted our focus to successful outcomes—completion rates, job placements, and salary increases. Secondly, we created our own, independent consumer-centric brand. This differentiates us from many other edtech companies that operate more behind their partner university. Our approach led to a lot of repeat students and references that brought in new learners. This became a very strong part—40 percent—of new growth, meaning students come back to take a second and third program with us and recommend us to their friends.
How has the market has moved beyond the MOOC—massive open online courses?
There have been three different waves in edtech. The first was about making content accessible, the so-called MOOCs. The second came after people saw that the MOOCs model was broken—low completion rates and people not really learning—then the focus shifted from access to completion rates. The third phase, where we are now, is about outcomes. Everyone is looking for a return on their investment.
In what way are you like an online program manager (OPM) and how are you different?
We are similar to an OPM in that we partner with universities to offer a program, but that’s where the similarity ends. In the traditional OPM model, the university is out front and center for the consumer. We do things differently. We get about six million visitors on our own platform and have close to two million registered users. We also co-create the learning content, whereas a traditional OPM would ask the university to provide it. Sixty to eighty percent of our content comes from industry players. This puts us in a good position to control the outcome for our learners. We actively participate in the delivery of the program in the form of mentoring, coaching, and student support bodies—we have a dedicated career placement team who will help learners get jobs.
What do professionals want from higher education that they aren’t already getting from traditional providers?
After people start working, it becomes very difficult to take a break and return to a campus to study. Traditionally, higher education in India stops at around 23–24 years of age because it is designed as a single event in your life. But today, people are switching jobs every three-to-six years and the skillsets that jobs require are changing rapidly—skills are constantly becoming redundant. Now, people now want to, and can, go back to pick up new skills. This is why companies like upGrad have come in, offering ourselves as a higher education institution for lifelong learning. Just like you might have a lifelong banking or healthcare partner, our vision is to become a lifelong learning partner for a billion-plus global workforce.
What are the main drivers of the jobs market’s changing needs?
Digitization of the economy, a prevalence of new technologies that disrupt how industries operate, and an industry 4.0 ecosystem in which skills you learned five years ago are made redundant by the constant churn of technology. In every sector today, so much of the product you build is digital—crypto is disrupting financial services, education is being disrupted by digital learning, and that technology shift is causing much of our current generation to go through multiple career shifts in their lifespan.
Do you tailor content for countries and regions, or will what works in one market work tend to work elsewhere?
I believe strongly that education cannot be exported like other products. Because education is designed to produce an outcome, you need to contextualize it locally. You need to give a learner local examples for better understanding and retention of concepts. In higher education, this is extremely relevant, especially in the jobs market. Interested as I am in what Walmart did in the U.S., I need to understand what Tata did in India. Understanding local context is what helps crack an interview.
How is the pandemic transforming higher education?
Covid has changed several things. Firstly, people have become more accepting of online education as an effective medium of instruction. Secondly, it disrupted the jobs market: travel, tourism, hospitality, retail. People had doubts about whether they would keep their job and because spending on higher education is discretionary, this had a negative impact. Then again, the pandemic also gave people more time to themselves and as other discretionary spending dropped—travel, fashion, appliances—education ended up becoming the least guilt-inducing form of discretionary spending. So, in that way it had a positive impact. Perhaps the biggest disruption is that demand for skilled talent, especially tech talent, has shot up. This led to people knocking on our [virtual] doors seeking skills to get them the salary increment they want.
As you expand into new markets, which ones look most promising?
The United States is the biggest and most exciting new market to us for a few reasons. Firstly, it is very large. Secondly, the cost of education in the U.S. is very high. We believe that we have the capabilities to deliver a high-quality education, including offering the right mentors, coaches, and industry experts, while operating with a very different cost base. So, although this is a very competitive market and can be difficult to enter, the reward at the end could be well worth the effort.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published in September 2021