‘Great resignation’ turn to short courses boosts FutureLearn outlook

Younger learners seeking to reskill and upskill brighten UK online education provider’s fortunes, says new CEO Andy Hancock

February 18, 2022
FutureLearn chief executive officer Andy Hancock
Source: FutureLearn
FutureLearn CEO Andy Hancock

The growing number of young people signing up with the UK’s main online higher education provider in the wake of the pandemic suggests it can successfully stand up to the challenge from bigger US rivals, according to its new chief executive.

Andy Hancock became FutureLearn’s chief executive officer in October, joining the Open University-founded platform from the price comparison website Moneysupermarket.com, where he was chief operating officer.

He said he was encouraged by FutureLearn’s popularity with younger learners, many of whom were seeking to retrain for new jobs following the pandemic in what has been called the “great resignation”.

“Increased adoption by younger learners has been a real positive for us,” he told Times Higher Education. “The great resignation will settle down but it’s clear that the days of doing the same career for 30 years is over – we will certainly have a role to play as people begin to reskill and upskill."

FutureLearn has built to more than 1,000 online courses and 18 million learners since its launch in 2012.

With American platforms Coursera, edX and Udacity boasting more courses and more financial firepower than FutureLearn, some have questioned whether the British operator will thrive long-term, despite securing £50 million of funding in 2019 when the Australian education provider SEEK Group bought a 50 per cent stake. In a situation similar to its rivals’, its rapidly growing user numbers (up from 8 million in 2017-18) have yet to translate into profits, with its latest annual accounts showing it lost £13.2 million in 2019-20, up from a £6.6 million loss the previous year.

But Mr Hancock said: “We have some compelling USPs – being the easiest platform to use, for learners and partners, and our socially engaged learning…There are four big price comparison platforms and there is room for all of them to operate – it’s all about having clear and compelling proposition.”

To build on FutureLearn’s appeal, he wants to make it easier for its 250 course partners – including the universities of Cambridge, Glasgow and Leeds in the UK, the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University in the US, and Australia’s Deakin University – to add content.

Incorporating emerging technologies and better use of learning data to improve student experience and building its microcredentials offer, in which short courses can be stacked into more substantial certificates, will also be important, he added. “It feels quite nascent here in the UK – it’s much more advanced in Australia but I think there is a lot of opportunity here,” he said.

Indeed, the returns could be huge, with one recent analysis suggesting the ed-tech sector could be worth as much as $605 billion (£444 billion) by 2026, up from $254 billion last year. That said, some of the biggest players have faced vertiginous falls in recent months, with the shares of edX’s owner 2U falling more than 40 per cent in one day this month in the wake of an unfavourable earnings report, and down more than 80 per cent over the past 12 months.

At present, Mr Hancock said he is more focused on ensuring FutureLearn provides the best possible student experience, building on already high student satisfaction levels.

That focus will mean users return for further courses throughout their lives, he argued. “I’m motivated by people saying: ‘I had a great learning experience – what’s next?’ I’m not so worried about what our competitors are doing as long as we are successful in our own right.”


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