As education marketing and student recruitment professionals working around the globe are all too aware, the British Council is increasingly acting as a commercial competitor – rather than as a regulator / accreditor / supporter – in a manner that is bad for our business. The ‘entrepreneurial’ actions of the British Council are actually harmful to the professionalism and effectiveness of student recruitment to the UK, and are injurious to the proud British principle of entrepreneurial enterprise free from government interference.
There is always, of course, a role for government bodies in the regulation and support of the private sector. Accreditation gives the consumer confidence in the product – for example the inspection of English language courses and schools by the British Council and English UK helps ensure the UK has the highest standards of language teaching in the world. Career Development Programmes help maintain professional standards in a diverse language teaching sector.
The size and importance of the Higher Education and language training market have never been bigger, with the international students said to be worth over £15 billion to the UK economy alone. Internationally education and training is a fully developed industry with thousands of providers serviced by hundreds of thousands of suppliers (of students, i.e. study abroad agencies). UK schools and universities are global competitors for the business of providing education and training to the world’s young and young at heart.
Support not competition
What is required in such a market is a lively and competitive private sector of agencies, marketers, consultants, advertisers, counselors and industry experts. At government level, what is required is support, not interference or competition.
For British companies or companies based in the UK, a British government agency having a commercial interest in the market for international advertising, marketing and recruitment services represents a massive conflict with the principle that the government is supposed to support business, rather than compete as a commercial undertaking in our sector. This conflict is never as apparent as when a UK education company pays for UKTI support in a market, and ends up working with the British Council – ultimately losing business as a result.
For small and medium-sized specialist education marketing companies around the world, the British Council represents unwelcome (foreign) government interference, which often have enough on their plates at a time when business environments are especially challenging.
Level the Playing Fields
While the global sector for these services is competitive and lively, the British Council wherever it operates is trading on the good name of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office to compete unfairly. The British Council benefits from UK government image, government personnel (Ambassadors and Consul Generals) and government offices (Embassies and Consulates) for competitive advantage that private sector companies cannot match. Taxpayers, tax liability, charitable status – let’s not even go there.
Consequently, the British Council creates an uneven playing field in the markets where it gets involved commercially. Worse, where the private sector is already meeting demand for these services, the entrance of the British Council turns the market on its head, causing confusion between existing providers and this seemingly ‘official’ option.
In our competitive international markets, it is not that more competition is unwelcome. Competition based on quality of service and expertise is what drives our industry forward. But with the best will in the world, transient civil servants do not make the best marketers or business consultants in the modern international education sector. The British Council may be “on the ground in six continents and over 100 countries bringing international opportunity to life, every day”…but global coverage is no guarantee of local expertise or know-how. Indeed, it is often quite the opposite. British Council or other civil servants have very little to teach those who are specialists in international education marketing.
When it comes to in-market exhibitions, many UK institutions cling to the hope that the British Council’s taxpayer-funded brand will attract more students to the UK education exhibitions. They often fail to realise that their own brand has far more marketing potential and is a much more important investment than spending marketing funds on promoting the British Council’s name and commercial products (teaching, testing) in international markets.
Furthermore, the existence of another layer of bureaucracy between UK education providers and global markets often blunts the message rather than helping it hit home. For example, when many UK and US universities were randomly cut from a list of approved institutions for government-sponsored students from Azerbaijan, the US universities were quickly re-instated after an intervention from the US Ambassador in Baku, while UK universities pinned their hopes on the office of the British Council. Needless to say, the removed universities remain removed, and are still none the wiser at the time of writing.
In a committee that met at the House of Lords on Monday 21st October, Ambassadors to the UK from Brazil, Germany, Norway and Japan gave their views on the role of ‘soft power’. Their answers will not have pleased the British Council, which is increasingly claiming a ‘soft power’ role to justify its commercial activities. While the British Council claims arts promotion, education marketing, language teaching and testing as part of the global war for influence – a battle in funky jumpers instead of flak jackets – the international ambassadors were more skeptical about ‘soft power’ as a defined policy instrument.
Here’s a summary of what they said: (full transcript available)
Dr Rudolf Adam, Chargé d’Affaires, Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany:
“Government’s role is to set standards and norms, not just technical but also legal. We believe in leaving business & industry to those that know it best and have a stake in the benefits, or who risk the costs”.
Mr. Roberto Jaguaribe, Ambassador of Brazil
“Government should not try to control aspects of soft power. For example, if the White House were to control aspects of Hollywood, it would lose its appeal. Private enterprise generates positive perceptions that can be beneficial. The degree to which a government respects democracy and human rights can help generate influence and create role models”.
Mr. Keichi Hayashi, Ambassador of Japan
“Our primary focus as a foreign mission is on our country’s economic interests: promoting trade, providing a model of pacifist foreign policy. We do not have an agency for ‘soft power’. Our image and ‘good will’ benefit from the promotion of our economic interests, through the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the Ministry of Trade”.
Mr Kim Traavik, Ambassador of Norway
“A key component of ‘soft power’ is credibility. National policies must be credible, and soft power will be a natural end-result. By following policies of conflict resolution, for example, by acting as a force for peace, soft power is a coincidental result of our policies. We do not have an official policy on soft power – the character of our society defines our policies and results in our national image”.
The conclusion that we draw from having followed the activities of the British Council in the past 3 years; from having attempted to cooperate with the British Council only to be taken advantage of; from having suffered from their aggressive commercial practices carried out under the name of the FCO; from having lobbied the government about level playing fields and government agencies; and from following the arguments about ‘soft power’ that are ongoing – our conclusion is that the British Council operates in a manner that is bad for British business, and that is bad for British education exports.
By acting against both British commercial interests, and foreign companies around the world, the British Council is actually bad for the image of the UK as a free country where the rights of businesses to be free from government interference are respected.
It is, therefore, not even a useful ‘instrument of soft power’…or a particularly good reflection of the character of our society.
This is an opinion piece, based on our experience. We’d love to know what you think… Please click below to contribute an anonymous vote. Further comments are welcome, and you don’t have to leave your name.
Note: An FCO Review Team is looking at the British Council as part of a triennial review that will publish in early 2014. UK Education Tour returns to Baku this Saturday with a strong cohort of British universities.