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Mayank Kumar, Co-Founder & MD, upGrad, India

 Started in early 2015, upGrad has emerged as a leading platform that is reimagining online education using high-quality content, student handholding & an engaging learning environment for the Indian market. The PIE spoke with one of the founders Mayank Kumar about why employees need to continually learn to stay relevant in a rapidly changing workspace.


Photo: The PIE

"You need to get them to a place where they feel it's part of community learning rather than individual learning"

The PIE: How did you start upGrad?

Mayank Kumar: The three co-founders and I came together about five years back without raising external capital but now we have a team of close to 500 people.

“Out of every hundred kids in India, only 25 end up going to university”

A large portion of the team is on content and technology, which was an investment for us in advance because if you do it right, scaling up becomes far easier. Otherwise what ends up happening is that people tend to throw employees at problems rather than figuring a long term solution.

The PIE: Why did you found the company?

MK: There are three reasons. One is purely about access. In the gross enrolment ratio or the tertiary enrolment ratio in India, we have 150 million people in the 18 to 24 age group. Out of those, 35 million are going to colleges. So for maybe every three of us from India, there are nine others not going to colleges. The access is about 20-25% right now. In the UK it is at about 80% plus, the US about 70% plus.

Out of every hundred kids in India, only 25 end up going to university – that has to change. It’s the same shift that we saw between landline to mobile – right now I don’t have a landline phone in my house, but I carry a mobile phone. That will happen in India on education and people will shift from brick and mortar to online programs.

Two, the quality of education is abysmal. It is extremely inferior and learners are paying about $2,000 for it. I told myself, ‘if you don’t do something about it then there’s no point complaining’. And that’s why I started with upGrad, to create quality programs for working professionals.

“Online education is extremely anonymous, many students won’t have told anyone about their online education”

The third very crucial reason was changing skillsets. The jobs are changing. The quality of jobs is changing. And I think that that change is quite rapid now. People have to go back to schools and learn. And many skillsets needed today are not taught in colleges.

The PIE: How many students have been taught on your platform since you launched?

MK: So between free and paid, about 360,000. We have been an official part of the government of India’s Start-Up a learning program. So that’s one place where we get a lot of free traffic.

We see about 15,000-20,000 students per year. We are looking at scaling this up to close to 30,000 in a year.

The PIE: Are most of those programs delivered with IITs?

MK: One is an IIT, another is a triple IIIT. And then there a partner, BITS Pilani – among the top universities in India. And then there are some management institutions. So, seven in India, three outside India: two the UK and one in the US, Duke Corporate Education.

The PIE: What is the price point for students?

MK: That entire program is about US$7,000. So from an Indian perspective, it is very expensive as it is purely online. These are not the guys looking for immigration to the UK, because an online degree does not allow them an immigration opportunity. They are just looking for good quality education that allows them to stay more relevant and to upskill.

The PIE: So someone spending $7,000 on an MSc in data science. Do they see good ROI on that in India?

MK: I think we witness about 40% to 50% increment in salaries for our programs. The last number that we did the averages for was 46% – these individuals are at a salary level of about US$20,000, so they see a $7,000 increase in their salary, straight after.

Slightly senior guys don’t see that ROI, but they are not doing this for a job change, they are doing it to stay relevant in their current job.

The other proof of the pudding is the way our MSc has worked for us. Launched just nine months back, the 18-month course sees around 1200-1400 interested learners for every cohort. The program allows learners to get certified from IIIT-Bangalore, one of the top tech institutes of India, in the first 12 months and then get another certification from Liverpool John Moores University in the next six.

The introduction of an MSc enabled us to build a holistic ecosystem for Data Science enthusiasts, especially for those who had already enrolled for a basis DS course and can now enrol for the advanced level.

The success of our first masters program has given us the confidence to launch five more masters programs with universities in the UK, Australia and Canada.

The PIE: What is your ultimate aim?

MK: The aim is to create what the university of the future will look like. In the university of today, after 24, 25 [years old] we are done. You don’t see senior folks on the university campus if you walk around, except faculty members.

But I think we’re in an environment where, as you sort out your annual planning, you need to make time for education. The people who are not doing that will end up becoming less and less relevant.

If I go back two generations back in India, if the father was a doctor, the son and daughter would end up being a doctor. The vocation used to get passed on. If the father was a farmer and the son became an engineer, and the daughter became a doctor. So it changed, an entire generational sort of job shift happened.

“We’re are working for education that can lead to outcomes”

Today every individual goes through about six to seven job changes in their careers, and it’s just mind-boggling to see how quickly people are shifting jobs. I think in that context people always have to go back to school.

The PIE: But it seems like the shift is towards tech-enabled societies, and that’s not something we are necessarily seeing universities changing for fast enough.

MK: No, they’re not. But that’s the design, right? I mean universities are designed to be slow. A simple example: about 100 years back, civil engineering used to be one of the most sought after disciplines. Everyone was building bridges and roads. About 50 years back, everyone shifted to mechanical because automotive kicked off.

“We will never be able to make Game of Thrones, but how do we make a learner get up and say, ‘I want to watch that lecture'”

Then 25 years back electrical engineering came in. Today it’s about computer science and data science so that shift is happening. But the demand for change has increased significantly and the timeline has shortened. Half of today’s jobs did not even exist while I was studying in my college.

The PIE: One of the challenges with an online degree is that employers have been slow to give it parity  – do you think that’s changing in India much faster than in some other parts of the world?

MK: Yes, and as I mentioned, we are seeing an uplift of about 46% in terms of salary [for graduates]. We keep track of past learners. One guy received a 100% salary hike, another person told us he got about 38% of a salary hike.

We’re are working for education that can lead to outcomes. One person did our program on data science after working in the army for 20 years, and he is now one of the lead data scientists at a large video platform. His life has changed.

The beauty of education is that it’s not just about a transactional relationship but it changes a person’s life forever. So I keep telling my team members, ‘you guys are powerful. You can change someone’s career. But with great powers comes great responsibility, so do it right’.

The PIE: What is the experience like? If I was to do an upGrad course, how would it differ from other online courses?

MK: Education is about how you guide learners and how you mentor them. First, there is content. I told my team that we need to be more like the HBO of today. How do you make content to pull when people are just coming and watching? We will never be able to make Game of Thrones, but how do we make sure that when learners say, ‘I want to watch that episode or that the lecture’.

Unfortunately, education will never be binge-watching, but we can at least give a ‘pull’. People will come back and will watch a lecture video once or twice, so content has to be a place where it can pull people to come.

We also need great technology platforms to be more collaborative, but the biggest thing we want to work on technology platforms is to take out anonymity. Online education is extremely anonymous, many students won’t have told anyone about their online education. And therefore if they get out, no one will say ‘look, why are you leaving this program?’. But if they’d dropped out of the brick and mortar institution, they face naming and shaming.

If someone is not doing their program, we send a message to their spouse, kids, or parents. We say ‘education is a communal experience. You don’t learn alone, you learn as a community’.

So, you need to get them to a place where they feel it’s part of community learning rather than individual learning.

But if I take good content and good technology platform I’m still a glorified content library. None of us went to our university for libraries, we went for a full education. What converts a content library to good education is the human touch.

All our learners have a dedicated mentor. It’s a human touch that transforms. If you don’t do your modules you get a call from a mentor saying, ‘hey, you are lagging behind, you were doing really well two months back. If you need some support guidance, let me know’.

It’s a human touch that allows us to achieve a 90% plus completion rate. For a free program it’s about 6%, for paid program it’s 30-40%. 90% is a different ballgame altogether.


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