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Open University & FutureLearn take £50m investment from SEEK

Online learning platform FutureLearn has announced an investment of £50m (or $65m) from SEEK, a global group of “employment, education and volunteer businesses”. SEEK Group will become a joint-owner of FutureLearn, with a 50% stake.

The deal is indicative of the state of the market, according to observers

SEEK is floated on the Australian Stock Exchange, and already has online learning and life-long learning companies among its portfolio, including Online Education Services and SEEK Learning.

“The key players are seeking to establish dominance, so there is going to be a lot more activity”

Although the firm is based in Australia, its businesses are spread across “Australia, New Zealand, China, South East Asia, Brazil, Mexico, Africa and Bangladesh”. This is the SEEK Group’s first investment in a European market.

It will take a 50% stake in FutureLearn, with the other half remaining with The Open University – FutureLearn’s parent institution. According to FutureLearn and the OU, this is one of the single largest edtech sector investments in the history of the European market.

“Our new partnership is a fantastic opportunity to change more lives around the globe through flexible lifelong learning,” said Mary Kellett, vice chancellor of The Open University.

“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,” she explained.

SEEK Co-Founder and CEO Andrew Bassat added via a statement that the investment in FutureLearn was consistent with SEEK’s other stakes in education businesses such as IDP and OES.

“This investment follows the same logic applied to IDP and Online Education Services ‘OES’ in that we like to invest in disruptive business models that provide world class student education outcomes,” he explained.

He added that FutureLearn and The Open University’s reputation and future skills-focus drew the SEEK team to the move.

“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,” he explained.

Speaking on a phone call after the news was announced, Simon Nelson, FutureLearn’s CEO, said his conversations with SEEK spanned several years, but their sector expertise sealed the deal.

“SEEK were the partner we felt met our requirements and ambitions”

“I’ve actually been talking to SEEK or 2 or 3 years… in a variety of ways… But this is really the result of a formal process that we kick-started in autumn of last year.

“We connected in some way with well over 100 companies around the world. We whittled that down… and ultimately SEEK were the partner both the OU and FutureLearn felt met our requirements and ambitions. In fact, surpassed them. We’re absolutely delighted at where we’ve got to at the end of that process,” Nelson detailed.

“Through OES and what they did with IDP [SEEK Group] demonstrated their ability to work successfully in partnership with universities – and the most exciting thing is their presence as one of the leading job markets in the world.

“Our view is the worlds of education and employment are converging and need to be bridged more effectively

Speaking with The PIE News, Charles McIntyre, the co-founder of IBIS Capital and chair of EdTechX confirmed the analysis of the size of the deal was accurate and is indicative of the market’s mood.

“According to IBIS Capital’s proprietary database of transactions, it is the largest private placement in Europe. The other significant fundraises include Student.com ($60m), Open Classrooms ($60m), and ResearchGate ($53m). FutureLearn is also the clear market leader in Europe, by the number of users and courses on its platform,” McIntyre made clear.

And there is much more room for growth, McIntyre added.

“The education and training market is large ($6 trillion+)… Digital spend is currently around 3% and so the opportunity for growth of online platforms is and will be for some time, very significant.  The recent fundraisers by FutureLearn and Coursera, within a week of each other, indicate the confidence there is in this market.

“The key players are seeking to establish their dominance, so there is certainly going to be a lot more activity in the sector,” he predicted.”

As for the motivations behind The OU and FutureLearn looking for investment, a focus on accelerating plans for further growth was cited by the institution’s advisors on the deal.

“The Open University is a pioneer in higher education and has built itself into one of, if not the, largest university in Europe with a strong focus on innovation.

“However, the Open University was keen to add to the skills, resources and geographic reach available to FutureLearn as it accelerated its growth plans. It was for this reason that the Open University asked IBIS Capital to help find a partner who could join them in building a true 21st Century learning platform.”

IBIS Capital advised FutureLearn on the investment, SEEK Group was advised by O’Melveny & Myers, an international law firm.

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