In April 2012 Levant Education conducted a fact finding trip to Baku, during which it consulted with the British Council and UKTI as well as local authorities and contacts. The British Council staff confirmed that, although they were only a small team concerned mainly with teaching English, they would like to work with us. UKTI provided an expensive, but effective, OMIS (market entry) service.
After this research trip, we decided to go ahead with organising the first UK-only education exhibition, and successfully organised the event on November 24th 2012 with a dozen UK universities.
Although small, we believed the British Council to be a potential ally in the market, and so we provided a free stand at our Baku exhibition. When it came to the event, the manager of the British Council in Baku assigned junior staff to their stand, and entered the event, without introducing herself to us, the organisers, with one commercial goal in mind – to recruit the universities for a rival British Council-run UK education fair in 2013. The Council had never previously organised such a fair in Azerbaijan, and clearly used our event for market research and canvassing potential clients. Their Education UK fair has now been announced for November 2013.
We have no problem with fair competition in the markets where we operate – there is plenty of it! We assessed the market conditions with the help of the UKTI OMIS service, and we saw the potential for our UK-focussed events. However a UK company working to improve UK exports in the field of education should not have to compete with HMG’s taxpayer-funded quangos. We certainly should not have our business threatened by shameless commercial espionage from a body that we expected to support, not set up rival competition with, our events. Our fiercest commercial competitors would blush at such behaviour.
The British Council’s charter allows for promoting “a wider knowledge of the English language” and “the advancement of education”. These are subject, however, to the over-arching condition that the Council shall advance “any purpose which is exclusively charitable”. It would be stretching the meaning of “advancement of education” to its commercial limits for the Council to use it to engage in commercial education exhibitions in Azerbaijan; and anyway this is a service we are already supplying.
(Providing expensive English courses, and English testing, in direct competition with the expert private sector in the UK and abroad, is also a very commercial interpretation of promoting “a wider knowledge of English”. Surely free /cheap English courses would reach a ‘wider’ audience? All in all, these ‘charitable purposes’ are predicted by the Council to earn them close to £1000 million in 2014/15).
The actions of the Council’s employees in Baku (abusing our trust and spirit of mutuality) contravene their own published ‘core values’, which include ‘integrity’, ‘mutuality’ and ‘professionalism’. We believe they also contravene the letter of their own charitable charter, as well as the spirit of ethical business practices, and the principal of private enterprise free of government interference/competition. The British Council has, in the past, established a good name for promoting British arts, culture and identity. These days however it is clearly using this good name, and powerful brand name, to great commercial effect at the expense of British business (language course / English test providers / marketing service providers like Levant Education). Our excellent record and feedback would usually be rewarded with repeat business in Baku. The British Council has seen this business, and wants to take it, using only its brand name and privileged political position as selling points.
To our faithful clients, we welcome your continued support for our specialised events that we have developed with your input and feedback. We will continue to work with the Azeri Ministry of Education, as well as SOCAR and SOFAZ, as these are the bodies that sponsor most of the students. We hope that you will agree that the British Council, once a valuable body for cultural relations, has once again overstepped the limits of its ‘charitable’ remit, by creating unfair competition in setting up a rival to our existing and successful event in Baku, and using unethical means as well as its privileged political brand to approach our UK university clients. We have written to the British Council and are considering all legal options, whether the Council cancels their event or not.
The Commercialisation of the British Council
What would Richard Branson say?