The Idea Called UpGrad: Why Education is Serious Business

This is the first of a three-part series written by Co-Founder and CEO, UpGrad, Mayank Kumar

The needle moves…

When I visited the campus of a higher education institute, somewhere in Noida region of Delhi NCR. I saw a building, inside which there were about five or six students and the guard at the gate had no idea what was going on inside.

It was a very run down place but on inquiring I found out that people were paying anywhere between INR one to two lacs per year to be able to study there, and had traveled from places like Bihar and Chhattisgarh to get their higher education.

This only told me one thing, that people were willing to spend beyond their means for a good education. But sadly, that is the one thing that still eludes them. Even if one can afford it, quality education is not guaranteed in this country. Let alone relevant education. And if you can’t afford it, you are not even in the picture.

An idea takes root…

This experience jolted me into action. Don’t get me wrong, it is not as if I had been unaware of the education crisis that persists in our country before my visit to this campus. However, we undermine the power of visual confirmation as opposed to reading, hearing about it in theory, in the news, etc.

Soon after this I started researching a lot and checking out various education models globally – some emerging, some that have been around for a while. But I was always struck by the thought that the way people were looking at solving for education was not quite the correct approach and most of them needed a lot of work.

Was it possible, that most of us were yet to understand what a learner wants, and more importantly, needs? And my final thought was; do we want to waste away India’s demographic dividend by not recognizing that online needs to become mainstream?

The challenge…

upgrad-team

When Ronnie Screwvala and I, along with my co-founders Ravi and Phalgun, started UpGrad – just over 15 months ago – all we knew was this:

There are 150 million Indian youths that need to be in higher education, at any given time, but only about 20% are;

That more than half of them are not getting through higher education, because at an early age they need to get down to earning instead of learning;

That online is a strong disruptor for this core group who absolutely need to upgrade and learn more in order to be effective and grow in their jobs;

That this is not ‘skills’ training but training of the mind, to think sharp, lateral and learn more about the industries of the future and the new working world;

That for India’s GDP to continue to grow at 7%+ it needs to have this young, working demographic (the largest in the world) be the best and be more specialists than generalists;

And that we at UpGrad needed to do our bit to change, contribute to and build this ecosystem.

Faced with the Everest of business problems…

Some of the key challenges were clear when we started off:

  • Online lacks the gravitas of offline. I’m not going to be able to ‘walk’ into a campus and classroom. 
  • Online is very anonymous. No one will know when I join, or, what’s more worrisome; when I drop out.  
  • Online can get monotonous. How will I stay engaged? How will I be able to interact with everyone in a large class and get the benefit of hearing many ask great questions and get some sharp answers?
  • Online is not serious learning. It is an aggregation of content. A good content library – but not education. 
  • If it is online, it should be free. Why should I pay for online content? Especially if I can get a campus-based offline education at a similar price?
  • And lastly, online is not credible. How do I get my present employer as well as my family to respect/recognize online learning as the future?

In my next post, read about what happened next. And how, despite many reservations, sprouting from the challenges I listed, we managed to get UpGrad on the road anyway. Stay tuned!

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Mayank Kumar

Mayank Kumar

Mayank Kumar is Co-Founder and CEO, UpGrad.