The Commercialisation of the British Council

Entrepreneurs and Education are Great… unless the British Council wants your businessentrepreneurs_are_greater_web

These days if you walk into the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills in Victoria Street, Westminster, or a British Embassy or Consulate around the world, you will see banners proclaiming how great we British are. Business is Great! Innovation is Great! Shopping…is Great!

As a small UK private company working with British education internationally, Levant Education is on-board with these messages, especially Entrepreneurs are Great! and Knowledge is Great!  We have been providing UK universities and schools with targeted marketing opportunities in Turkey, Iraq and Azerbaijan for 3 years now. In these countries we always seek to work with the British Council and UKTI to maximise the effectiveness of our efforts, which ultimately benefit UK student recruitment, an industry said to be worth £15bn to the UK economy. Unlike UK & EU students, who can take  government-backed loans to finance their studies, international students pay from their own resources, or are sponsored by their governments. Their enrollments have generated big business for agents, exhibitors, advertisers, marketeers and the like. We have been quite successful at providing targeted marketing for UK education, and are looking to recruit more staff in the UK to help grow our business.

While we are pleased with the support of UKTI, which charges UK companies for support with growth in export markets, the British Council has always resisted our appeals while it transitions from a cultural relations body to an ‘entrepreneurial’ commercial player.

Government Spending and the British Council

The UK goverment’s ‘Foreign Affairs Committee’ (FAC) spoke to the British Council regarding its diplomatic role in terms of soft power, support for which the Council benefits from a large government grant. Thanks to the Queen’s jubilee and the Olympic Games, the UK had had an ‘exceptional’ 2012, according to Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council. However, without even more expenditure on the UK’s image abroad, the benefits would “fade extraordinarily quickly.”

Because of its role prompting the UK’s image, and its charitable status that requires it to advance ‘any purpose which is exclusively charitable’, the British Council benefitted from £180 million of UK taxpayer’s money in 2010 – equivalent to 30% of its £550 million income.

With an eye on the FCO budget review for 2015/16, the Council is lobbying to be shielded from any cuts to its government grant. To decrease the government funding, argues Martin Davidson, would diminish the vital role of the British Council as an instrument of ‘soft power’, and will mean that it is ‘simply another commercial organisation’.

However, in case the government reduces spending on soft power, the commercial arm of the British Council has been busy. 70% of the Council’s income is generated through commercial operations – ‘teaching and contracts’ as well as IELTS tests and Education UK consulting and exhibitions. Indeed, the Council aims to be ever more ‘entrepreneurial’ in the use of its assets, personnel, and privileged position as a government-funded agency competing for business on the global stage. The greatly entrepreneurial British Council projects its income from teaching, consulting, testing and marketing in 2014-15 to be £814m, which it can re-invest in itself at it sees fit, while the £155m projected government grant will be ring-fenced for ‘soft’ projects in the developing world.

Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

The role of soft power and promotion of the arts and culture are indeed worthy, and can contribute to an improved image of the UK abroad (the policies and actions of other UK government departments have done some damage, after all), but they don’t contribute much towards the British Council’s financial growth plans. Its more aggressive commercial role has been on the radar of the international education industry for some time. Language training companies have been complaining for years that the Council’s status and privileged position as a government agency represents unfair competition for training contracts around the world. Speak to any language school involved in tenders for teaching contracts around the world and you will get the same weary reaction from the owners / Directors resigned to losing out to the British government quango time after time.

In the FAC’s Fifth Report, ‘FCO performance and finances 2011-12’, there is recognition of the danger that the Council’s more entrepreneurial approach to financing ‘might lead it into making decisions inconsistent with its long-term interests, or with those of the UK’. For example, the BC may start to prioritise moneymaking projects over cultural events that generate little income. In short, the Council could become an international language school rather than a promoter of the UK’s reputation, culture and influence.

Commercialising the British Council Brand

The British Council ‘makes no secret’ of its desire to increase income from language training contracts, online English courses and education exhibitions, says the FAC report; it acknowledges the risk that the Council will commercialise its ‘good name and its relatively privileged access to power, to the detriment of its competitors’.

In a statement to the FAC, Martin Davidson accepted that he had perceived a “generalised air of concern”, but replied that “the specifics of any criticism were often lacking”.

As a young UK company working hard to promote UK education through online marketing, specialized seminars and in-market exhibitions, we have a very specific example for you, Martin:

Education Exhibitions in Azerbaijan

We established the UK Education Tour in 2010 as a platform for UK education recruitment in Turkey, Iraq and Azerbaijan. In 20 years of operation in Baku, the British Council has never held a UK education exhibition or provided services other than the highly profitable language training and testing.

After significant market research and investment established the need for such an exhibition, with support from export services quango UKTI, the UK Education Tour was held in Baku in November 2012 with a dozen UK universities.

We made no profit from this pioneering event. In the spirit of cooperation and flying the flag, the British Council was given a free stand to promote its local services…which it used to research the event and tap-up the UK universities for a possible future event along the same commercial lines (the dates for their rival event were confirmed last week).

The British Council in Baku has no experience of UK HE exhibitions, the staff are not experts in international education, and in any usual business environment would stand little chance of persuading the target clients. Levant Education has proven itself on the ground, and established the space for a UK education exhibition among various competing international education fairs. We receive no government subsidy…we pay our tax in the UK.

We are dedicated to improving student flow to the UK, and followed up our Baku event with a London workshop and UK tour with the Azeri Ministry of Education and the State Oil Fund (SOCAR) in March this year, designed to build on the relationships and cooperation established in November.

So it will be GREAT when UK universities are persuaded by UK Education Tour’s concrete achievements, professionalism and marketing expertise that took the risk to establish such an event in the first place, last year. Meanwhile, instead of promoting British identity, arts & culture in Azerbaijan, the British Council will spend the next 6 months competing with yet another British company that deserves support, not rivalry, from the British government. It will also create a situation where 2 UK education exhibitions will run with a couple of weeks of each other, creating confusion and halving the impact. Great!

UK Education Tour returns to Baku on October 26th 2013 in Baku, and will again be working with UK universities, the Azeri Ministry of Education, SOCAR and SOFAZ. The competing event run by the British Council in Baku is scheduled to take place the following weekend, with a wider remit of universities, schools and summer camps. 

Further Reading

FCO performance and finances 2011-12 – Foreign Affairs Committee, 8  The British Council: The 2010 Spending Review and the British Council –

The British Council, Friend or Foe? The Guardian, Oct 08 2012.

About the British Council in Azerbiajan

The Commercialisation of the British Council

What would Richard Branson say?

Calling Time on the British Council

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