Most people in edtech have no idea that an Australian company, SEEK, has been making waves in the world of MOOCs. To understand the educational significance of what at first glance appears to be a successful listed Australian recruitment business you need to look beyond the headlines.
The backstory – SEEK rescued Australian education business IDP after a disastrous period in the early 2000s. Founded in the 1960s, IDP was part of the ‘Colombo Plan’ to strengthen economic and social development across the Asia Pacific. For Australia, who from 1965 to 1975 were heavily committed to fighting with the US in Vietnam, it was effectively a parallel soft diplomatic bet to engage across the region.
Initially IDP was owned by all Australia’s universities and focused on recruiting the best and brightest students from across the Asia Pacific to study in Australia. By 2000 it had grown to over 40 offices around the world and a new CEO led a strategic year-long overhaul. Rather than building on its strong history in education, this allowed subsidiaries to take on contracts for Bulgarian social insurance administration for example. This reorganisation almost became a corporate death spiral, but replacing the CEO and Chair and bringing in talented education leader, Tony Pollock, with a large cash injection from member universities, was just enough to save IDP. The trade-off was that by 2006 the universities decided to sell 50% to SEEK. Pollock remained until 2011, with SEEK listing their shareholding on the ASX in 2016 with an initial market cap of A$660m (now A$4bn+).
Another interesting fact – in 1989 IDP co-founded IELTS along with the British Council and Cambridge Education.
Along the way SEEK owned several colleges via the private Torrens University (now owned by Laureate) via an entity known as Think Education (also owned by Laureate) that was part of what was then called SEEK Education.
SEEK currently own 80% of Online Education Services, a JV with Swinburne University. OES delivers online learning while SEEK’s other education business is SEEK Learning that provides ‘Australia’s most comprehensive directory of accredited courses, student reviews, and job insights’. As an online program manager, OES has been a significant success in Australia and has offices in the UK, while SEEK Learning is similar to Hotcourses UK, a business IDP acquired in 2017 for £30m using some of the cash generated from their ASX listing.
Why is this relevant? It explains why we shouldn’t be surprised that experienced education investor SEEK put in ~$100m to lead Coursera’s latest round and acquired 50% of FutureLearn for £50m (previously 100% owned and funded by The Open University).
The OU has been a MOOC for almost 50 years. Part of its current problem is the £50m it poured into FutureLearn with no clear business model. The OU claims that SEEK’s £50m vindicates their investment as it values FutureLearn at £100m. I suspect that’s not quite how SEEK sees it as their investment looks and feels very much like a repay of the investment (takeover) that saved IDP and made SEEK’s investors a fortune. Expect big changes at FutureLearn’s Camden offices.
The ironic twists in this story are:
- the OU’s former Vice Chancellor, who pushed them to invest in FutureLearn as a ‘fight back’ against US competitors like Coursera, was Martin Bean, an Australian who is now Vice Chancellor at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) and did his undergraduate studies at Sydney’s University of Technology; both part of the group of Australian universities who own 50% of IDP
- IDP’s success in recruiting foreign students, along with the ineptitude of the British Council and Teresa May (as Home Secretary and later Prime Minister) propelled Australia to overtake the UK as the world’s #2 destination for fee-paying foreign HE students (education is now Australia’s 3rd largest export industry).
Irony aside, I hope you now have a better picture of just how experienced and sophisticated SEEK’s founders and management are when it comes to the business of education. Sydney may be 10,500 miles from FutureLearn’s Camden office and 7,400 from Mountain View (Coursera) but that won’t stop SEEK from imposing some immediate and sharp operational and financial lessons learned over 22 years in international education and training.