THE BRITISH COUNCIL – AND THE COSTS OF SOFT POWER

The Times and many influential members of the establishment have expressed their growing concerns about funding cuts to the British Council. The Council has been seen as indispensable, they say, to the projection of our‘ soft power’, which we need more now than ever before.  Earlier this month The Times revealed the Foreign Office’s £39 million-a-year grant to fund much of its cultural activity in countries not entitled to aid was to be phased out over the next three years. It is reallocating funding towards poorer countries.  The council, a public body, also a registered charity, has promoted British values, culture and education around the world for 80 years, using soft power to cultivate relationships which survived the Second World War and the end of Empire. On the education front it has   offered, amongst other things , English language teaching abroad, seen to be its strongest card  and one of its  stated roles is to support UK  education exporters . It is partly funded by the taxpayer.

When the British Councils funding is thought to be under threat, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the great and the good, and the elite who define our culture for us,  become animated and   write lots of letters and  raise the matter  urgently in Parliament.  Make no mistake, the BC has many friends in high places.  In this case,  its supporters have  appealed to the Times. A supportive Leader,   somewhat inevitably, followed.

But as the Times reminds us the British Council has a reputation for  being poor at controlling its operational and staff  costs .  It also has a pretty poor record of  measuring its outputs, or demonstrating that it offers value for money to the British taxpayer. You see soft power is hard to measure and evaluate, so the BC always has a get out of jail card in its back pocket,when challenged about   value for money. In  the most recent Triennial review of the British Councils operations (2014)  concerns were registered by stakeholders  ie other English language education providers (remember its supposed to support our  education exports)about  its anti-competitive antics in the market,  as a subsidised provider of services. There are, and have long   been, particular concerns around the conduct of the BC covering   unfair competition,  conflicts of interest , and  a lack of accountability and transparency. The then junior Foreign Office Minister Hugo Swire said in 2014 of the BC :

“I would argue that the threat from the commercial activities of the British Council has been real. Our concern is that in some ways, particularly in the provision of English language teaching and exams, it can freeze out the private sector. “

Spot on. This  was  the first time that any member  of any government had acknowledged that there might even  be an issue.  He went on to explain that  a  new independent complaints process was being  set up  run by a company called  Verita, which  was supposed to better  “hear and understand stakeholder concerns, including the concerns of the English language teaching and education sector, and take steps to address them.” Not much has been heard of Verita since.  Presumably its quietly going about its business.  Historically, though, complaints against the Council have rarely  been investigated with any semblance of  rigour.

The British Council wears many hats: it is a language school business, a language testing business, an international education marketing business (SIEM), an online english teaching business, a language school accreditor, an education service and support provider and  an exam provider . It also happens to compete in the above, with other UK providers , while ostensibly having the role as a promoter and supporter of these same providers. How does that work? Well, in short, it doesn’t and cant.  You cannot  work ‘for the benefit of all UK providers’ when you  compete directly with these same providers  for the same contracts abroad , often with a bit of very  special  bespoke support from local diplomats.

Kevin McNeany, one of our best education entrepreneurs  over  the last generation ,  having worked   in education for over 40 years,  told the Guardian a while back “ I never gave the British Council a moment’s consideration as a source of information and support. Even if they had information of commercial value, it would first be filtered through its own internal networks to see if it could be monetised for in-house benefit.” That’s what they do. Cherry pick for their own benefit,  and leave the rest   struggling with the remains

Going back to the  2014,  Triennial Review-it  found ‘ Feedback from some UK stakeholders reinforced our impression that the British Council was a less transparent organisation than might be expected of a major public body.’ That is an understatement. Its also hard to over -state how much ill feeling there is towards the BC in sections of the education market who believe that the BC,   far from supporting   their efforts,   actually undermine their business interests.   Not only have they used their privileged position to muscle out smaller providers from the market, but they use their contacts,  local intelligence and market  domination to secure the  big contracts, at the expense of other providers.  This is a nonsense if one is concerned about the development of this  education  export market and the  interests of UK plc , yet    its  been allowed to happen for years.

The   BC has also ,rather cleverly and quietly, been dipping into the aid budget too,   to make up for  the shortfalls in its FCO funding. The FCO has been subject to cuts, of course,  as has every other department ,excluding of  course  Aid.   Its not entirely clear why the BC should be exempt from cuts in a way that, for example , the Ministry of Defence and FCO aren’t.  Are we saying its Ok  as part of austerity measures to cut Defence (hard power)  but not  Culture (soft power)?

There is little evidence that the BC has done much in response to the recommendations made by the  last Triennial Review,  over improving its financial and operational transparency.   So, before one gets too dewy eyed about the BC and its ‘soft power’ being eroded , just remember that it should be subject to the same accountability  and transparency  as other bodies in receipt of taxpayers money. Which as things stand it isn’t.  .  As worrying is that in one  of the few export sectors where we should have a comparative advantage,  education,  and particularly  English language provision and related services, the BC increases the costs and risks of operating in that market, and acts as a barrier for many providers to enter that market in the first place. It reduces real competition in the market which affects  quality,   price and value for money. This all seems to be a matter of little concern to the great and the good,  or the Times, for that matter. One has to ask-why on earth not?

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